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"A Debt to Pleasure": Allegory and Realism in Contemporary Painting at Montserrat College of Art
Erik Thor Sandberg, Alterations, A Debt to Pleasure, Image Courtesy of Conner Contemporary.

BEVERLY, MA.- Montserrat College of Art Galleries presents the works of Julie Heffernan, David Ording, Shelley Reed, Erik Thor Sandberg, and Anne Siems in a provocative exhibition of contemporary painting, “A Debt to Pleasure,” curated by Gallery Director Leonie Bradbury. Inspired by the visual and symbolic richness of such diverse painting practices as 17th-century Dutch still lifes, Italian Renaissance master paintings and American folk art, the participating artists integrate the sensual and the sinister, the vulgar and the mysterious to question meaning-making in contemporary art. The exhibition is on view through April 2 in the Montserrat Gallery.

An exhibition of technical skill, visual indulgence, and timelessness, “A Debt to Pleasure” presents a series of works that question their place in history. Beyond their flawlessly rendered surfaces, each artist explicitly references stylistic techniques and aesthetics of the past to create a provocative body of work. Allegory and realism are employed to investigate symbolism in painting (past and present), cultural history and the art world’s insistence on originality and obsession with everything new.

By adopting 17th and 18th-century American folk motifs, Seattle-based Anne Siems’ portraits and still lifes emit a haunting awkwardness. With rosy cheeks, haunted gaze and flattened features, Siems’ highly stylized figures inhabit a dreamy colonial landscape. As the world itself seems frozen in time, the transparent figures float in the foreground, forever youthful and mysterious. The delicate patterning found in traditional embroidery is the main element used to define their clothing. A thick application of paint, at times intentionally crackled to create the effect of an aged surface, emphasizes folk painting and faux antiquity. Siems' paintings ‘borrow backwards’ with a refreshing whimsy and off kilter grace, participating in the current revival of ‘old, weird America.’

Boston-based painter Shelley Reed is known for her lavishly painted still lifes of spectacular flora and fauna that echo the extravagance of the 17th-century Dutch Baroque. Monkeys, tigers, deer, and various birds of paradise are set against a background of Romanesque courtyards, puti are surrounded by exotic fruit and wild flowers painted with the utmost eloquence. Yet, what would be so vivid in color is ironically painted in grey scale. Evoking the black and white representations of works in art historical texts, Reed’s works silently reference the explosion of color in 17th-century painting. The animals, petrified in mid-movement, seem captured in a time and place infinitely removed from our own, patiently waiting for the moment Reed’s vision comes to life.

Based in Washington DC, Erik Thor Sandberg’s subjects, primarily female nudes, pose in allegorical gesture amidst nature. These large figurative paintings are rich in detail, the physicality of folds in flesh and surrounding fabric. Flesh and futility run rampant as figures exercise dramatic, mindless acts of folly that, more often than not, result in pain or suffering. Resembling Breughel’s parables and Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, the figures are caught in the moment before or after immeasurable torture or in the midst of acts of sin. There is a dark humor to Erik Sandberg’s archaic sense of mortality and symbolism as we look back at our evolving interpretation of the female figure, its corporal nature, and how we covet our displays of beauty, forever indebted to pleasure.

New York based painter David Ording actively rejects contemporary painting practice by referencing art history directly. Reinventing master works, pulling bits and pieces of original Courbet’s, Rubens’ and Degas’; by cropping their canonical works Ording emphasizes certain ideas, details or stylistic techniques. This appropriation gives new context to the original work, emphasizing the nature of Sergeant’s technique by assimilating a number of his images, or painting only the often overlooked blank page in Velasquez’s The Surrender of Breda. Ording poses a constant historical inquiry, asking the viewer to step back, question how we arrived at the art historical canon we have, and see what has gone overlooked in past master paintings.

“A Debt to Pleasure” finds its opus in New York based painter Julie Heffernan’s “Self Portrait as Tender Mercenary.” In the center of the massive painting, is a life-sized nude figure, clad in flora, a great chandelier sprouting from her head and rising upwards. At the god-like figure’s feet is calamitous wildlife, frolicking amidst a crumbling 18th-century tower. The image is filled with symbolism and exhibits an awareness of hundreds of years of classical painting. Heffernan is not only paying an homage to the intricacies and metaphors of grand history painting, but intentionally reacting against the starkness of Modernist formalism. The artist’s self portrait can be read as a response to the bleakness of today’s conceptual world and a simultaneous reveling in the richness of paintings past.

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