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Arts & Culture

13 Painters Go for Baroque in the McNay’s Vivid "Beauty Reigns”

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Jose Alvarez (D.O.P.A.), 'We Came From the Stars'

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 it’s 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.”

10 Resplendent Works of Art on Display in "Beauty Reigns"

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.

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