Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Perhaps the most beautiful art is that which formalism and content complement each other, each enhancing the other’s most positive qualities.
James T. Demetrion

In Pursuit of Beauty brings together five artists who examine both the politics and poetics of the beautiful. They are: Julie Chang (San Francisco, CA), Timothy Horn (Melbourne, Australia), PIXNIT (Boston, MA), Tomás Rivas (Santiago, Chile), and Elizabeth Wallace (Boston, MA). This exhibition is inspired by a resurgence of visually sensual work. Unapologetically decorative, ornate, and concerned with elaborate surface detail, each artist explores beauty in their own way. They are exemplary of a generation of artists who have come into the 21st century art world with a renewed interest in beauty as a tool and a topic of investigation, making it an integral part of their artistic process. These artists utilize rich surface designs to draw the viewer to the work, only to surprise them with seditious content. Their pursuit differs from the classical understanding of beauty as perfectly proportioned and idealized by integrating imperfection rather than excluding it.

The updated, broader definition of beauty indicates a significant shift in the perception of ornate works of art, which for much of the 20th century were equated with ‘lesser’ decorative arts as opposed to ‘intellectual’ fine arts. The depreciation of pattern and ornament as symbols of political power and social status was strongly influenced by the 1908 essay Ornament and Crime by the important Austrian architect Adolf Loos. Loos saw ornament as a symptom of the degeneration of modern man and called for its elimination. Although seemingly a statement of the distant past, Ornament and Crime has held a powerful sway over much of 20th century architecture and design theory and propelled an aesthetic sensibility that considered ornamentation redundant or frivolous.

At first glance, the emphasis on surface design and the repetition of organic forms suggests a connection to the American Pattern and Decoration movement of the 1970s. The 21st century variety, however, is much more baroque, opulent and possesses a sleeker aesthetic than the organic emphasis of artwork of the seventies. The Pattern and Decoration movement was seen as a reaction against the stark formalism of Modernism and its rejection of decoration and ornamentation. This exhibition can be seen as part of an aesthetic response against the visual austerity of Minimalist and Conceptual Art, the thick surfaces of Neo-Expressionist paintings and the provocative, political nature of Identity Art of the 1980s and early 1990s.

In an artistic climate where aesthetics take a secondary role (if one at all) to conceptual or content-driven work, creating intentionally beautiful work is a rebellious act. In 1999, Curators Olga Viso and Neal Benezra stated the following in the preface to their exhibition catalogue Regarding Beauty, which still rings true today:

While ascribing beauty to art may seem natural and appropriate, in recent decades beauty and contemporary art have been considered virtually incongruous. In an art world increasingly focused on global issues and social concerns, artists and critics alike have questioned beauty’s efficiency and relevance for contemporary culture. Suggesting frivolity, the machinations of the art market and a lack of seriousness and social purpose, beauty has indeed come under severe attack. The assault on beauty by the contemporary art world has left a confused and baffled art viewing public uncertain about one of the very cornerstones of western art and culture, namely the pursuit of beauty.1

In Pursuit of Beauty provides a glimpse into a generation of artists who enable the acceptance and influence of a sensual and ornate beauty in the critical art world of the early 21st century.

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