Given the rather stressfully tenuous yet undeniably historic times we are currently living through, the current exhibit at the Parrish Museum in Southampton is rather timely in its themes focusing on the optimistic notion that the problems of the present can be overcome and that issues of modern existence have always been both transitory and transitional.
Titled “Damaged Romanticism: A Mirror of Modern Emotion”, the exhibition highlights the process by which artists transcend personal pain and existential angst, yet in a manner that avoids the emotional extremes of being either myopically sanguine or psychotically disconnected. Instead, the 15 stylistically diverse contemporary artists included present personal interpretations of catastrophe and pain that emphasize the transcendence of suffering through a pragmatic realism and a belief in hope and redemption that is simultaneously personal and broadly socio-cultural.
Taking as its historical antecedent the original Romantic painters who revolted against social and political norms during the Age of Enlightenment, the curator, Terrie Sultan, has focused on artistic approaches that emphasize experiential torment as metaphor. What separates these artists from their romantic predecessors, however, is that rather than leaning towards a rejection of social principles and norms, these artists seem more intent on coming to terms with them through investigating themes such as concepts of spirituality, age, relationships, identity and the changing environmental landscape.
Interestingly, on many levels it is just the kind of thematic exhibition that, only a few years back, incensed conservative and reactionary social critics would have railed against, deriding it as ‘victim art’ and interpreting the personal response to emotional issues as exploitation and humanistically ideological tribalism, rather than as artists expanding their individual experiences to the larger world.
Admittedly, it is somewhat refreshing that this is accomplished absent any measure of sensationalism and where the artwork doesn’t represent monuments to individually perceived moments of victimization. Rather, throughout the exhibit is the sense of a universality of emotional equivalence of experience, and that, far from self-indulgence, the artists are most successful when they allow the art to actually transcend the moment that led to their creation.
This is particularly apparent in Sophie Calle’s narrative suite of texts and photographs dealing with issues of memory, self-pity, and romantic rejection titled “Exquisite Pain”. Expressing measures of emotional devastation in a manner that is journalistically understated and devoid of sensationalism or emotional hype, the works are highly intellectual and conceptual yet it is this very nature of distant simplicity from which their impact derives.
This is also true in considering Edward Burtynsky’s large scale photographic works such “Shipbreaking #2, Chittagong, Bangladesh” in which the rusting hulks of massive freighters become metaphors for an environment driven to the point of toxicity and where the imbalance between mankind and nature falls into sharp relief.
Appearing as decaying monuments to civilization’s self-delusional reverence of technology itself and where humanity is reduced to scavengers in the distance, there is nevertheless a sense of majesty about the forms themselves, becoming at times sculptural behemoths reminiscent of Richard Serra’s “Titled Arc”, rising above the muck of a tidal plane in a strangely alien landscape.
Perhaps even more disconcertingly thought provoking, however, is the video installation by Annee Olofsson in which the artist’s head and shoulders appear on screen, her voice blankly narrating violent scenarios where an unidentified “I” describes horrific ways she has been murdered. Set against gentle tones of a Bach piano concerto, there is a frightening solitude to the work and, in spite of its dramatically understated structure, a powerful sense of psychosomatic and emotional intensity.
Mary McCleary’s hand painted collages, on the other hand, evoke a significantly different ambiance, one that is rife with hallucinogenic whimsy and an amusing air of portent. Picture, for example, an idyllic landscape filled with cavorting animals which, upon investigation is titled “Nazi Pets”, or where the horror of the falling bodies of children and animals in “9.81 Meters Per Second Per Second” is made less frightening by the strangely comforting eye-contact made with the viewer by the foremost figure in the work itself.
The exhibition “Damaged Romanticism: A Mirror of Modern Emotion” continues at the Parrish Museum in Southampton through April 11. A joint exhibition under the same title is also currently on view at the Grey Art Gallery at New York University through April 4.