Going for Baroque Art lessons: A tradition-busting exhibit at the Walters shows how the past influences the present by juxtaposing contemporary works with art from the Baroque period

September 24, 1995|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

Museums usually show art in birds-of-a-feather fashion. You see Renaissance art with other Renaissance art, not with ancient or modern art. You see European art with other European art, not with Asian art. You see paintings with other paintings, not with por- celains and jewelry.

Those traditions get blasted wide open today when "Going for Baroque" debuts at the Walters Art Gallery. It's a show that mixes contemporary and Baroque art in strange and daring ways.

A 28-foot-long, 10-foot-high painting created by American artist Frank Stella in 1994 hangs next to a 3-by-5-inch German relief sculpture of the late 17th century.

An installation by contemporary artist Paul Lincoln, which includes drawings, sculptures, film footage and honey in glass vials, resides in the middle of the Walters' gallery of 18th-century Sevres porcelains.

A Florentine 17th-century painting showing a dead saint attended by a row of angels is hung next to a series of David Reed's small abstract paintings of nothing but brush strokes.

You might think these juxtapositions were meant to show how different today's art is from the art of three centuries ago. But they're meant to show the opposite: that many of today's artists take their inspiration from the artists of the Baroque, an age that had much in common with our own.

"Going for Baroque" is the fruit of an adventurous collaboration between two very different institutions: the Contemporary, Baltimore's out-on-the-edge museum without walls that puts on shows in other people's spaces; and the Walters, Baltimore's repository of the art of civilizations that stretch back thousands of years.

Together, the show's organizers say, they are presenting "Going for Baroque" to demonstrate that art of our time has roots and that art of the past is still relevant.

"The canon of works of art from the past continues to provide current artists with raw material," says Lisa Corrin, the Contemporary's curator-educator and planner of the show.

And the art of the past can make us realize our concerns are not new, says Joaneath Spicer, the Walters' curator of Renaissance and Baroque art. "As an individual I may think that nobody ever had the problems that I have. But if I can find that my life fits into the skein of experience -- that can help us to resolve our problems. And in the continuum of human emotional experience, art even more than literature is a constant universal language."

Why the Baroque? Because it was a time of complexity and upheaval that reflects our own in numerous ways.

"It was a time of crisis of faith," says Corrin. The Catholic church was reforming itself in response to the Protestant Reformation.

"It was the first period of the middle class," adds Spicer. "It was the beginning of the period of interest in psychology -- how you express the inner state through the outer state by showing the poignancy of a human body."

It was also a period of increasing cross-cultural awareness, and a time when artists, faced with the confusions of their own age, turned to the past for inspiration.

The more you know about the Baroque period, the more logical it seems that its art should be of interest to present-day artists.

To show the range of that interest, "Going for Baroque" contains the works of 18 contemporary artists in the context of 17th- and 18th-century art from the Walters' collection.

Three of these artists worked in residence at the Walters for several weeks earlier this year, creating works based directly on the Walters' works. Their approaches were quite different.

Dotty Attie used details from paintings by Pontormo, Lorenzo Lotto and other artists to create a series of small-scale works with texts that examine the relationship between William and Henry Walters, the father-son team who amassed the Walters collection. The portrait of a little boy, a parent holding a child's hand and other images are used to tell a story that deals not only with the Walterses, but in a more general sense with continuity and change in family relationships.

Karl Connolly created two paintings: "Fisherman," based on Jusepe de Ribera's "St. Paul the Hermit" (1630); and "Ouroborus," based on Luca Giordano's "Ecce Homo" (early 1650s). In their figures, colors and compositions, Connolly's paintings show their debt to the earlier works. The three figures on the sea in "Ouroborus," for instance, are based on the three figures around the table in the foreground of "Ecce Homo."

But there are differences, of course. The faith in God that underlies the earlier works is replaced in Connolly's by figures placed in situations that create unease in the viewer -- three men on a rough sea in a tiny tub, a nude man picking up a dead fish. "There's a sense of absurdity in what they're doing," says Corrin. "It's an allegory of the human condition."

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