Present, evoking the past

At Montserrat, artists riff off art movements

Shelley Reed’s “By the Well (after J. Weenix and d’Hondecoeter)’’ at Montserrat’s gallery. Shelley Reed’s “By the Well (after J. Weenix and d’Hondecoeter)’’ at Montserrat’s gallery.
By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / March 23, 2011

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BEVERLY — Around the time Modernism crumpled into postmodernism in the second half of the 20th century, the idea that great artists make completely original works of art gave way to a recycling ethos. Artists began to plunder the art historical canon with heightened self-awareness and irony. The lush and uneasy “A Debt to Pleasure’’ at Montserrat College of Art Gallery delves into a particular vein of this type of work: gorgeous representational painting.

The exhibit, organized by gallery director Leonie Bradbury, emphasizes painting’s heft in the canon, the hallucinatory beauty it can evoke, and the medium’s role as a carrier of history, allegory, and symbolism. All the artists in this show are remarkable technicians, and their ability to evoke, say, 17th-century Dutch painting or 19th-century American folk art provokes both admiration and an unnerving sense of the gulf of time. What has changed? What hasn’t?

For instance, Shelley Reed’s “By the Well (after J. Weenix and d’Hondecoeter)’’ is based on the lush-hued “Flowers on a Fountain With a Peacock’’ (1700-10) by Jan Weenix and Melchior d’Hondecoeter, Dutch painters of hunting scenes and wildlife. At the center, a spread of glistening fruit sits below a fountain adorned with sculptures of two bored tots. Birds and other animals surround the scene. The overflowing still life was a common motif in Dutch painting then, which morally skewered overindulgence even as it visually reveled in it. Such themes are no less apt today. Reed’s black-and-white take on the scene drains it of the handy joys of color, and makes the scene stark and nightmarish.

Anne Siems deploys American folk art styles in paintings of pink-cheeked young women. The figures, slightly flattened and awkward, stand against heavily painted landscapes. Their flesh is solid, but their dresses are eerily translucent and decorated with traditional embroidery patterns, which unfurl into the sky. In “Keeper of Song,’’ two girls stand arm in arm, each with a bird in a gold cage suspended on a chain around her neck. In the Victorian era, a bird in a gilded cage symbolized female sexuality, Bradbury points out in her catalog essay. These girls have been trapped and suspended in time, both ghostly and virginal, now a symbol of youth gone cracked and dusty.

Julie Heffernan’s over-the-top rococo “Self Portrait as Tender Mercenary’’ upends art historical tropes. It’s framed as a historical portrait, with the viewer looking up at a noble standing figure. But the figure is a partially nude woman — traditionally reclining, but here heroic. She’s clad in gems around her waist and a spectacular hairpiece of baubles. Erik Thor Sandberg sets his odd tableaus in landscapes that recall the palette and detail of 14th-century Netherlandish and German paintings. In “Alterations’’ two women in a forest clearing, one in a 1950s-era tank suit and the other wearing only saggy stockings, apply spray paint to a bird and pink balls to a deer’s antlers, an allegorical scene that comments on humanity’s sometimes ridiculous need to update and improve — a restlessness that has driven innovation in art.

In “After,’’ David Ording paints on a grid details of reproductions borrowed from art history textbooks, breaking history down into a prototypical modernist structure. Yet it’s still a visually exquisite catalog that lauds technical prowess and paint’s potential. His smaller works sample Velázquez, who painted blank pages into corners of his canvases as a signature. Ording leaves Velázquez’s heroic and historic scenes behind and gives us just those blank pages, a symbol for genius, but also an open-ended question about what genius is, and what we need it to be.

In their sights: deer On a lighter note, Drive By has mounted “Oh Deer,’’ a giddy little group show spotlighting that charismatic fauna that has in recent years broached the boundaries of suburbia. Deer can symbolize many things: gentleness, potency, the uneasy edge between wild and domestic.

Justin Richel’s “Stag Party’’ comically goes for potency. It’s a gouache take on 18th-century portraiture, in which a doleful, blue-eyed gentleman sports not a wig but a voluminous herd of white stags on his head. A more serene deer appears in “A Love Story in Three Acts,’’ gouache works by Alexia Stamatiou and Matt Dugas, featuring a plump, antlered deer and a spaghetti-limbed circus performer, who fall in love, marry, and have children.

In “Looking,’’ Ann Craven uses a loose brush to paint an alert fawn, with rough brushstrokes circling the animal; it’s as much about paint as it is about wildlife. Erica Greenwald invokes a hunter’s prey in “Deer,’’ a wood panel with a deer’s head painted on it, like a head mounted on a plaque, only Greenwald’s painting seems to arise organically from knots in the wood, and the deer’s antlers drift away with rivulets of wood grain.

Amy Ruppel’s paintings with wax and collage blend decorative patterning with references to nature. Similarly, Kyong Ae Kim’s surreal “Untitled (Cliff)’’ is flat and patterned, with shady silhouettes of deer in the foreground. David Curcio’s mixed-media “Hermann Ungar’’ is an edgy but ultimately sweet portrait of the early-20th-century Czech writer. Part print, part drawing, part embroidery, it’s like a needlework sampler with Ungar’s dark cameo in the center, surrounded by slight, stitched drawings of seated deer, as if cosseting the tortured writer.

Cate McQuaid can be reached at


At: Montserrat College of Art Gallery, 23 Essex St., Beverly, through April 2. 978-921-4242, ext. 3,


At: Drive By, 81 Spring St., Watertown, through April 2. 617-835-8255,