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Tag Archives: neo-baroque

Submerged @ Gallery Smith

The underwater views of a lily pond are fantastic, new world’s waiting to be discovered like alien planets. They are Catherine Nelson’s Submerged at Gallery Smith in North Melbourne.

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Catherine Nelson, Unstill Life #02, 2016 (courtesy of Gallery Smith)

In the neo-baroque spirals of her underwater flower arrangements fish replace the insects and lizards that inhabit the baroque bouquets of Dutch still life paintings. The spectacle of dramatic point of view, often looking up to the surface of the water, exist to astonish the viewer.

Of course they aren’t real but then neither were the baroque paintings of flowers. Catherine Nelson’s artfully digitally manipulates photographs, assembled from cutting and pasting many photographs, the way that you might assemble a flower arrangement cutting and placing the flowers. Nelson has extensive experience working in visual effects photography for films including 300, Moulin Rouge and Harry Potter.

Time is compressed in Nelson’s underwater worlds: everything is budding, flowering and decaying simultaneously.

The baroque never died, its demise was contrived for the purposes of progress in art history. Now the baroque has returned with Nelson’s photographs and there are many examples of other Australian neo-baroque artists including Juan Davila, Vincent Fantauzzo, William Eicholtz, Bill Henson, eX de Medici, Sam Leech, and Sophia Hewson.

For more on the Neo-Baroque as an international trend read Angela Ndalianis Neo-Baroque Aesthetics and Contemporary Entertainment (MIT Press 2004) and Gregg Lambert The Return of the Baroque in Modern Culture (Continuum, 2004, London).

There are similarities between the 17th and 18th centuries and the contemporary times. Both are from a time without a clear direction that knew that massive worldwide change is inevitable and immanent. This gives the baroque sense of movement and transformation. And both the artists of the baroque and the contemporary did not have a word that defined their period; the word ‘baroque’ was only applied later by art historians. (I hope that later art historians will find a better word than ‘contemporary’.)

Gallery Smith is in an art deco brick building on a quiet street in North Melbourne with the main gallery spaces on the ground floor and a project space on the first floor. Louise Gresswell’s exhibition, Imprint in the project space is a series of loose, informal, abstract mixed-media paintings, not large enough to be impressive, not ugly enough to be interesting.

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Explosion in a Rococo Allusion

Lisa Young’s vision is of the baroque/rococo world exploding, like the painting of unstable architectural fantasies by Monsù Desiderio (1593-c.1644). There is a hyper-rococo exuberance about her lines; they look like the doodles that have suddenly become masterpieces. At a distance the image doesn’t make any sense, just a dynamic movement of lines and close up you are consumed by the details. The fantastically detailed lines are like the overblown apocalyptic detail of comic book explosions, except that Young knows when not to draw everything. In Young’s images the detail is more evocative than illustrative. Amid all the wonderful intense lines it is the absence of detail that makes these images, the parts that have been left out. It is like reflections in rippling water at the point of disintegration.

Sarah Scout presents Lisa Young “Big World”, a small exhibition of digital prints. Sarah Scout is an upstairs gallery on Crossley Street (in the same building that in the 1850s the landscape painter, Eugene von Guerard, lived and worked). Lisa Young started her art career in Adelaide but is now based in Melbourne.

Young created the digital prints by combining traced images of so much baroque and rococo (or late-baroque) ornamental detail. The digital prints have been hand colored – the hand coloring is kind of minimal, again just fragments, the white on white paper, or small patches of pale color.

The Rococo is an ornate grotto decorated with shells (and “Grotto” is a title of the one of Young’s images). Another one of Young’s titles refers to the French Rococo painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard.

Transformation is at the heart of the baroque vision, it is a world that is unsettled and in motion – a world not unlike our own. It is vision of over the top splendor and amplified emotions. If I wanted to expand to write about other baroque influences in current art exhibitions I wouldn’t have to look any further than the Bill Henson exhibition at Tolarno Gallery. Henson’s neo-baroque vision is more somber than Young’s rococo exhuberence but the feeling of unsettling mysterious change is the same. Henson captures this in the look in the eyes of the woman turn away from Rembrandt’s painting “The return of the Prodigal Son”; and in another photograph with Rembrandt’s “Danaë” floating like a nimbus above the people in the museum and again the face of a woman looking away. Henson’s photographs are less ornamental and decorative than Lisa Young’s digital prints but the awareness and mystery of transformative experience haunts them with neo-baroque sensibilities.


Sophie Hewson @ Lindberg

Lindberg Contemporary Art was dark, black-labels, the black walls with the only light spotlighting the neo-baroque paintings of Sophie Hewson’s exhibition “Solstice – City of the Godless.” It takes a few minutes for my eyes to adjust to the gloom.

The first painting that I am looking at is a large literary painting: “Goodnight Atala.”  Atala is an early Romantic novella by François-René de Chateaubriand, in the novel Atala falls in love with Chactas, her half-brother, but cannot marry him as she has taken a vow of chastity. In despair she takes poison and dies. There were many paintings of Atala done in the 19th Century by Luis Monroy, Girodet and Rodolpho Amoedo. However, this is perhaps the first painting of Atala done for over 100 years.

Another painting of another pair of tragic lovers “Hero and Leander”, Again this is part of early19th century Romantic literature with the poem, “Hero and Leander” by Leigh Hunt in 1819.

There is eroticism to Sophie Hewson’s paintings; the erotic of curve, the twist, the transformation the revelation and, its counterpart, the hidden. It is the mysterious eroticism of white underwear that is featured in many of her paintings. It is an eroticism mixed with the instinctual knowledge of death and darkness. The putrescent flesh of a dead pig or a damp woman humping an inflatable dolphin; Sophia Hewson paints them with the same loving devotion. Her brush caresses and creates this flesh. Her paintings are then covered in thick resin, sealing in the images like insects trapped in amber. The resin fills, flooding the ornately decorated black frames.

Sophie Hewson’s paintings are similar to those of Sam Leech with their resin, dark backgrounds and evocative neo-baroque sensibility. Many contemporary Melbourne artists have a neo-baroque sensibility. The baroque could be seen as a re-examination of the meaning of a metaphor, as a shifting image. Before the 17th century the meaning of the metaphor was defined by established social conventions, the world was the metaphor of the Christian god. But amidst religious schism and other social changes metaphors become a puzzle, a cipher with double meanings, perhaps even an unsolvable mystery.

It is an impressive first solo exhibition for Sophie Hewson and I am looking forward to seeing more.

Along with renewed the artistic interest in the baroque there has also been academic interest. There is Angela Ndalianis, Associate Professor and Head of the Cinema Studies Program at the University of Melbourne, New Baroque Aesthetics and Contemporary Entertainment and Gregg Lambert’s The Return of the Baroque in Modern Culture.


Paintings of Folds

Terrie Fraser, Intimate Attachments, Upstairs Flinders

I found Terrie Fraser’s exhibition particularly interesting because of the extreme variety of my reaction to her 18 paintings. Some I loved, others I hated and others I was indifferent about. This is not because of the differing quality of painting because there are no drastic differences in technique and the quality remains consistent. Nor is it because of the different subject matter in the paintings because all of the 18 paintings depict cloth. I loved, hated and was indifferent to Fraser’s paintings because of the meaning of the paintings.

“An Unlikely Attachment” was one of the paintings that I loved. The power and formal austerity of this painting comes from the combination of illusionism and hard edge abstraction.

Other of Fraser’s paintings that I like included a series of small paintings copying tightly cropped details of fabric in paintings by Leonardo, Caravaggio, Fetti and Rembrandt (although the Rembrandt study did not seem to work, it was still worth attempting).

I hated 3 of the paintings where the Fraser had sculpted the folds of the white fabric to resemble figures. They had a twee sentimentality about them often found in the art of spiritually driven fantasy artists.

All of the paintings have a neo-baroque quality from the dramatic, quotation of fabric from old master paintings to the metamorphosis of the fabric. And they all had the power to generate a very definite emotional response from me.

Art about fabric is a minor genre of still life, but not uncommon; earlier this year I saw a group exhibition, Ephemeral Folds, at Pigment Gallery and I paint them myself (see My Art).


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