Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but as anyone who’s been looking at contemporary art for at least the past 20 years knows, a sensation considered essential to art for centuries is oddly absent in the “ideas are more important than objects” onslaught of minimalism, conceptualism and postmodernism—visual pleasure.
“Beauty Reigns: A Baroque Sensibility in Recent Painting,” a 60th anniversary exhibit on view through August 17 at the McNay Art Museum, brings together 13 emerging and mid-career abstract painters from across the country who don’t mind if viewers actually enjoy looking at their work without enduring excessive cerebral gymnastics.
Teetering between high art and superlative craft, often coming from cross-cultural backgrounds and usually employing some form of collage or layering, the artists in “Beauty Reigns” tend to use brilliant colors, stylized motifs and repetitive patterns to create works that are easily accessible, sensual and resplendent.
“I wanted people to experience art that was optimistic and uplifting,” says René Paul Barilleaux, McNay chief curator and curator of art after 1945. “This is baroque art with a small ‘b,’ so its not imitating work of the Baroque period in the 17th and early 18th centuries, but it is theatrical and beautiful, maybe even over-the-top and a little obsessive. This is an exhibit designed to give viewers visual pleasure, though all of these artists have different ideas about what beauty is.”
Artist Nancy Lorenz, a New Jersey native who spent five years in Japan and now works in New York, says she’s thrilled to be part of an exhibit where beauty is the organizing principle.
“The concept of beauty in contemporary art is controversial,” Lorenz says. “Critics and artists both tend to think of it as old fashioned, superficial and bourgeois. But I’m influenced by the years I spent studying in Japan where the arts are refined, tasteful and elegant, and there’s no distinction between high art and transcendent craft. When I first moved to New York, I had a job restoring and working on Asian antiques, which were just exquisite, and it inspired me to use some of the techniques in my own work.”
Reflections on water, cloud forms and falling rain inform Lorenz’s paintings on panels. Often building up liquid forms with gesso, glue and calcium carbonate, she applies gold and silver leaf to give a shimmering quality to her surfaces that resemble melted metal. She also inlays her surfaces with mother of pearl. Her luxurious materials are rarely found in contemporary art, although they have a long history in Western and Eastern traditions. She also creates Japanese-style folding screens using the same materials, but her sprawling lines and exuberant gestures can resemble a Jackson Pollock splatter painting.
“Truthfully, I’m not a big fan of calling my work ‘baroque’ because it makes people think of tacky Italian reproductions,” Lorenz says. “But I think a lot of artists are using elements of Baroque art as a reaction to the puritanical restraint within American art that tends to turn pleasure into guilt.”
Renegade Texas-born art critic Dave Hickey first brought widespread attention to the issue of contemporary art’s missing ingredient in his 1993 book The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty, which critics attacked as “retrograde.” Hickey argued beauty is the surest method for judging art, attempting to undermine the contemporary view that beauty may be merely what the ruling economic and social elite says it is.
“Beauty is what the spectator thinks is beautiful,” Hickey told a San Antonio audience at the turn of the millennium. “To me, beauty is something that we have a strong physical reaction to—we respond to it before we think about it. But just because something is beautiful doesn’t mean that it’s good or meaningful. I think the spectator usually finds beauty in art that embodies his or her own values. It has resonance to us; it’s instinctual.”
Citing Hickey and comparing the controversy to the “painting is dead” battles of the 1970s and 1980s, New York critic Lilly Wei in her essay “Here’s Looking at You” in the “Beauty Reigns” catalog explains that as the 20th century waned, beauty was denounced and banished from the discourse of contemporary art. Once synonymous with art, beauty came to seem “bland, boring, of a certain age and no longer desirable.” Beauty became the word no serious Masters of Fine Arts graduate dared speak.
“The 1970s and pluralism espoused an increasingly activist and socially engaged art, exploring gender, race, new technologies and political and economic issues,” Wei writes. “Beauty was suspect, allied with the mechanisms of mass production and consumption, of capitalism and control, integral to the society of spectacle. Eventually, the disdain for beauty culminated in the anti-aesthetics and cultural relativism of postmodernism.”
However, Wei notes the contemporary art world has a short memory and an even shorter attention span and with its increasing fragmentation and the demands of an expanding art market, beauty has been partially rehabilitated. Beauty, like it or not, sells. She compares the baroque manifestations of the artists in “Beauty Reigns” to several well-known artists who are generally disliked by critics but have been rewarded extravagantly by art collectors—notably Frank Stella, Jeff Koons, Julian Schnabel and Damien Hirst.
“[‘Beauty Reigns’] promises first and foremost a sumptuous giddiness of imagery with paintings that look so juicy that if we squeezed them, color might drip out,” Wei writes. “Their baroque tendencies are a tribute to abundance, to the distinctive styles of 13 artists, inspired by many different sources, intents and narratives. These artists are also connected by a sense of beauty that is not about impossible perfection but finds its bliss in the idiosyncratic, in the charisma and egalitarianism of pop imagery, and a broader-based, less buttoned-up, less categorical picture of reality in which design, architecture and the decorative arts make a significant contribution.”
Barilleaux says he began thinking about the concepts behind “Beauty Reigns” more than four years ago. He made long lists of artists and had his interns compile binders of background information on each artist. He accumulated a large pool of names and then gradually winnowed his choices to a baker’s dozen.
“You see something and then you start making connections to other things you see,” Barilleaux says. “These artists aren’t necessarily related, and they generally don’t know each other. But I could sense something in the air, something bubbling up from studios around the country. I wanted artists of different ages, backgrounds and geographic distribution. Unlike a lot of curators who have an idea and then look for artists who fit the idea, I let the art speak to me.”
Born in Shiraz, Iran, artist Kamrooz Aram earned his MFA from New York’s Columbia University and has a studio in Brooklyn. His work straddles Eastern and Western traditions, but he makes a distinction between decorative and ornamental art.
“As a student, I studied Persian rugs and realized that their decorative patterns are full of meaning,” Aram says. “For me, ornamental art lacks meaning. The rules for Persian carpets actually have a lot in common with modern painting, so I think we need to renegotiate our definitions of decorative and ornamental. Physically in my paintings, I am renegotiating these ideas by erasing and destroying patterns in a subtractive process.”
His paintings often begin with a grid based on Persian rug designs with floral patterns. He first outlines the patterns in oil crayons and then builds up the color, which he reduces by wiping and sanding so that ghostly images appear uniting past, present and future. These works also can be read as a metaphor for modern Iranian history, erased and re-written by coups and revolutions. But Aram experiments with each new series, building on Persian traditions, yet changing and transforming them with a modern sensibility.
“Beauty Reigns” features two Texas artists, both from El Paso. Paul Henry Ramirez moved to New York in the early 1990s and worked as a window dresser, following in the footsteps of artists such as Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg. He has 20 paintings in “Beauty Reigns,” but he is extending their eccentric shapes and quirky designs by painting on the walls so viewers will have an immersive experience.
Fausto Fernandez, the youngest artist in the show, grew up in Ciudad Juárez, but received a BFA from the University of Texas—El Paso. He lived in Arizona for 10 years where his work typically involved complex collages of mechanical drawings, sewing instructions and other technical illustrations.
Now living in Los Angeles, his work has grown denser and more organic.
“I grew up in a middle-class family in Mexico, but it was a time when you could walk across the border pretty freely, which isn’t possible now,” Fernandez says. “The art I see in Los Angeles is a lot different than what I saw in Arizona, so my work has changed. I am really creating hidden messages and metaphors about relationships. It wasn’t until I started studying graphic design that I felt like I was free to express myself in an abstract way. I think my paintings are things I need to say, but don’t want to talk about.”
Jiha Moon is a native of Daegu, South Korea, but moved to the United States when she was 26, eventually earning her MFA from the University of Iowa. Now based in Atlanta, she mixes images derived from everyday life and popular culture on fan-shaped canvases, blending elements of Chinese landscape paintings, popular graphic design, American abstraction and Japanese prints.
“Beauty is a reason why I make my work,” Moon says. “I want people to experience ‘beauty’ in a new way. I find the beauty in many things connects and overlaps—nature, people, cultures—and how they work together is beautiful.”
Susan Chrysler White, who taught Moon at the University of Iowa, constructs fantastic, three-dimensional, hanging plant forms using painted pieces of glass and Plexiglas. Brazilian artist Beatriz Milhazes’ paintings almost seem to vibrate with overlapping organic forms, geometric shapes and decorative patterning in vivid colors. The luminous paintings by Brooklyn’s Annette Davidek bloom with details from nature such as flowers, branches and microscopic organisms.
Influenced by skateboard culture, Virginia native Ryan McGinness merges stylized human figures with abstract motifs, logos and symbols. From Venezuela, Jose Alvarez (D.O.P.A.) incorporates porcupine quills, feathers, mica, sequins and crystals into his mind-blowing psychedelic compositions. Rex Ray of San Francisco builds up his intricate collage panels from painted and printed papers that he meticulously hand cuts.
Responding to art history, Rosalyn Schwartz of Illinois re-interprets paintings by artist such as French Rococo painter Francois Boucher and Spanish romantic Francisco Goya. Influenced by the Pattern and Decoration movement of the 1970s, Philadelphia native Charles Burwell alludes to textile and wallpaper designs in his bold, tightly structured paintings.
Curator Barilleaux acknowledges that those who buy into the idea that anything beautiful can’t be serious may be tempted to dismiss many of the works in “Beauty Reigns” as wallpaper. However, he adds, “that may just show how limited we are by what we think wallpaper should be.”
Beauty Reigns: A Baroque Sensibility in Recent Paintings
10am-4pm Wed, 10am-9pm Thu,
10am-4pm Fri, 10am-5pm Sat,
noon-5pm Sun, 10am-4pm Tue
McNay Art Museum
6000 N New Braunfels
Through Aug 17