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A matter of abstraction

More than a few swipes of the brush

More than a few swipes of the brush

August 29, 2002|by KEVIN CLAPP

kevinc@herald-mail.com

First exposed to the world of abstract art in the early '80s, young Calvin Edward Ramsburg was not impressed.

"I thought anybody can do abstracts. Monkeys can do this crap," the artist recalls. "Then I tried to do it and I couldn't do it. I absolutely failed, and I wasn't used to being able to not do something in the arts, so it got under my skin."

Until that time he had been content to draw spaceships or wildlife. All of a sudden, the mish-mash of vibrant swirls, derided by many as mindless scribbles, captivated him.

Next month, The Delaplaine Visual Arts Education Center hopes viewers have a similar response to the work of Ramsburg, Peter Whitting and Margaret Kennedy in Three Generations of Abstract Painters.

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The concept is simple. Ramsburg (34), Whitting (57) and Kennedy (72) are three friends who came to abstract art in wildly divergent times during the last century.

While arranging their dizzying arrays of color along Delaplaine gallery walls, the trio holds court on their love of the abstract and those artists who shaped their work.

The session hints at what it might be like to watch Ted Williams, Reggie Jackson and Tony Gwynn discuss the finer points of hitting a curve ball, or Brando, De Niro and Crowe deliberate acting.

It's a dynamic, rapid discourse, three like minds chattering on about common influences that have, thanks in part to the generation gap, informed their work in unique ways.

"It's high-quality work," says Delaplaine program coordinator Diane Sibbison. "They are very skilled painters and we're very excited about this show, and what I would like people to take away is our excitement about the range of artistic expression in Frederick County."

Living in New York in the 1950s, Kennedy immersed herself in the work of Picasso and composer Bla Bartok, swimming in their free-form images and sounds.

Half a world away, Whitting came to abstract art as a teenager growing up in Australia, heavily influenced by Kandinsky and learning about the masters through books before later studying in England and New York.

Influenced by early '80s culture and the political leadership of Ronald Reagan, Ramsburg often studied the masters, then driving to Washington galleries to see them up close.

"We thought that was just interesting, that you could have three people spanning 40 years of a generation who have the same influences," Whitting says. "There's a commonality there yet we do express those influences very differently."

Like any work of art, their paintings are not slapdash efforts cobbled together by haphazardly splashing a dozen shades of reds or blues on a canvas.

Significant time and care goes into any single work, typified by an offhand comment by Kennedy as she looks at one of her finished works.

"I shouldn't have been so lazy. I should have carried that orange around the edge," she says.

"That's OK," Ramsburg comforts. "We'll forgive you."

The scene illustrates what Ramsburg learned in high school, the notion that while abstracts look as if anyone can create them, more is required of an abstract painter than a few lazy swipes of a brush.

It took time to realize that instead of having a tangible subject, say, a flower vase, his subject is the color and rhythm of the line he is painting.

When she teaches, Kennedy often assigns scribbling as an exercise. Even if the random doodles are meant only as a warm-up exercise, she finds adults reluctant to give in to the creative impulse.

"It's a kind of a scribble and extrude and there's tremendous freedom in it; just go to a canvas and begin making marks," she says. "It requires a total letting go of your personal ego awareness and I think therein lies the discipline of abstract painting: To allow an intuitive place to take charge."

The freedom, the three say, is intoxicating. And like any good work it invites the imagination to run wild.

Looking at Ramsburg's work, Whitting says he is often struck by how energetic and vibrant they are. He feels immersed in the life of a given landscape. Not necessarily a literal tree or flower as much as the energy flowing below the surface of the tangible image.

He has painted landscapes and literal images before, yet the abstract world remains most liberating for Whitting.

"I've always had the feeling if I wanted to look at a landscape I could walk outside or roll down my window," he says. "For me to respond to things, trying to do with essences, to be able to design and think about how to construct an abstract image, I find it to be very intellectually challenging."

Each of the three brings their own style to the table in this show. Turned off by Ramsburg's work, viewers may applaud the other work, or vice versa.

Or it may be a single canvas that catches the eye. Their hope is that the work unlocks a place in the imagination where dreams roam free, perhaps triggered by the diverse images in the show.

"I think that is the essence of a good work of art. It allows the viewer to either enter into the work or take something from the work." Whitting says, pointing to one of Ramsburg's large works that mesh warm and cool colors.

"This, to me, gives me the feeling of elation and that might not be what Ed's getting at, but I'm allowed to get involved with the piece and have a life with it."

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