About four years ago, I began to detect several threads that loosely connected the works of a number of artists—particularly painters—artists whose works seemed unrelated or were not following a particular theoretical or conceptual model. In June, the McNay Art Museum opened “Beauty Reigns: A Baroque Sensibility in Recent Painting,” which presents the work of 13 artists who I identified as sharing particular traits. To help demystify the process of producing a contemporary art exhibition of this sort, here is an overview of my curatorial process. If the reader hasn’t seen the result, “Beauty Reigns“ continues at the McNay through August 17.
Since I regularly visit museums and galleries when I’m traveling, often in out-of-the-way locations, as well as international art fairs and a good number of artist studios, I customarily see a wide range of objects. Thinking about the connections that surface between the works of these various artists, I identified a number of shared characteristics, evident in whole or part: high-key color, layering of surface imagery, use of overall and repeated patterns, stylized motifs, fragmented representation, and a tension between melancholy and the sublime. So the question arose in my mind: Do these characteristics manifest something in the zeitgeist, or am I imposing my own interests and sensibility on these artists and their art?
The research I then conducted, looking at the work of several dozen individuals, ultimately led to a group of thirteen that I decided to “package” as an exhibition and book. This selection was based on numerous criteria, including, but not limited to, the following: painting serves as the basis for the artist’s body of work, although some artists also make prints, video, sculpture, and installations; an artist’s overall output manifests these characteristics, not solely one or two pieces he or she created; the artist can be classified as emerging or mid-career, no “modern masters” allowed; artists work in a wide range of geographic locations; and artists might represent a global approach, coming from a range of backgrounds and traditions.
Initially titled “Neo-Baroque Painting,” the exhibition’s title was retooled to “Beauty Reigns: A Baroque Sensibility in Recent Painting.” During my research phase, as I discussed the project with artists and colleagues using the original title, the conversation nearly always got hung up by the capital “B” in “Baroque.” I realized that my concept centered on baroque with a lowercase “b,” the adjective that’s defined as “extravagant, complex or bizarre.” While these descriptive terms might be used to describe art and music from the historical Baroque, they also apply to contemporary art that bears similar characteristics. Shifting the title’s focus from baroque to beauty redirected attention to the visual and poetic, and away from historical comparisons. The title “Beauty Reigns” also presents a wonderful metaphor when the words are spoken aloud rather than read in print.
In the end, I hoped to produce an exhibition that was seductive, stimulating, even theatrical: eye candy with thought and depth. The viewer would have an immersive experience in the galleries, be enveloped by the art and perhaps overwhelmed in some instances. Additionally, the book that was produced to accompany the exhibition, while not a catalogue in the classic sense, was conceived and designed to reflect the same qualities as the installation itself. The restrained white book jacket belies the sumptuous visual buffet offered between the volume’s covers, echoed in the design of the exhibition’s title wall, and hinted at by the book’s brilliant pink-orange page edges and the title wall’s similarly pink upper half.
Beyond the work of the thirteen artists included in the current exhibition, I can also turn these same underlying concepts and their visual counterparts with an eye to San Antonio. The city’s rich visual traditions evolving from cultural origins such as those brought from Mexico evidence many of the same characteristics that I use to describe this contemporary work: an explosion of color, layers of imagery, patterning, and stylization.
Beyond that, if you consider the work of regionally based artists who are connected to a larger, more global view, there are several working in San Antonio who immediately come to mind. Elizabeth Carrington moves between the arenas of fine art and fine design. Like the work of Ryan McGinness and Rex Ray, both represented in “Beauty Reigns,” Carrington’s art also presents a “democratic” approach in that all three create beautifully designed objects that are more widely accessible than their unique, two-dimensional productions.
Waddy Armstrong makes paintings and prints that, while more restrained than most work in the exhibition, incorporate stylized imagery derived from nature. Connections surface between Armstrong’s paintings and those of exhibiting artist, Annette Davidek. Leigh Anne Lester produces striking two- and three-dimensional works based in genetics and genetic modification. Their strong graphic qualities and intricate details link to many artists with work in “Beauty Reigns,” as does Lester’s use of images from nature.
Like any creative project of this type, the product of curatorial inquiry is limited by resources, space, time, and energy. For every artist with work on exhibit, there are many others whose work could be presented, reinforcing the wide reach of this particular approach to abstract image-making. In the end, I concluded that I did not impose my vision on this art, but rather I was able to capture a bit of something ubiquitous in our visual landscape.