Examining the fascination with detail, decoration

Timothy Horn's ''Mutton Dressed as Lamb.'' Timothy Horn's ''Mutton Dressed as Lamb.'' (Todd Hosfelt Gallery, N.Y.)
By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / December 17, 2008
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BEVERLY - "Since every age and every people have had their own form of beauty, we inevitably have ours," wrote Baudelaire. "In Pursuit of Beauty" at Montserrat College of Art Gallery delves into a recent fascination with elaborate surface detail and decoration - a word used dismissively by many art-world intellects during much of the 20th century.

The flourishes of Baroque and Rococo design and Victorian textiles celebrated opulence. Artists who deploy them today have more subversive ends in mind. Timothy Horn walks a line between attraction and repulsion (a theme common in contemporary art) in "Mutton Dressed as Lamb," an amber rubber sculpture cast in the form of a Chippendale-style mirror. It's fleshy and translucent, festooned with sconces. There's no reflection, but we know it's a mirror, and a monstrous one at that.

Julie Chang, the child of Chinese immigrants, grew up in Southern California in a home decorated with Baroque and Rococo patterns. Her installation "Design for a Well-Lived Life" features wallpaper scrolls with bright patterns taken from Chinese textiles, European wallpaper patterns, and contemporary graphic design. These rich, sometimes jarring accumulations of pattern are part of the artist's visual DNA.

The melting pot of cultural identities stirred up by immigration and particularly colonialism in the 19th and 20th centuries has been a recent flash point in contemporary art. Here, Chilean artist Tomás Rivas appropriates neoclassical patterns that decorate the halls of power in Santiago and symbolize European colonial architecture. He carves them into construction drywall, which peels and crumbles, making designs associated with antiquity brilliantly ephemeral.

The Boston artist who calls herself Pixnit marries graffiti with signifiers of empire, using spray paint and stencils in her installation "Parlous" to echo blue, floral-patterned wallpaper used in Queen Victoria's bedroom. The gulf of this juxtaposition is too wide. I'd rather see street art playing against the art and design of 21st-century corporate boardrooms.

There's a sense of cultural excavation in Elizabeth Wallace's delicately layered works. In "Stasis," she references Victorian wallpapers and doilies, as well as urban aerial views of sites of conflict. All these revolve around a table, a hopeful symbol of coming together and sharing a meal.

These and other artists use ornamentation as a magnifying glass through which to examine society and self, and there's nothing new or radical about that. It's just another tool in the contemporary artist's kit.

Color their world

There are artists who make art simply for beauty's sake, not as a means of provocation or cultural commentary. Katharina Chapuis, who has a show at Alpha Gallery, and Joanne Mattera, who has encaustics (paintings made with pigmented wax) up at Arden Gallery, work in this realm. Both make objects that surprise with nuance, pieces that please the eye simply, after much complicated work.

Chapuis builds out from the edges of her canvas with plaster, then layers glazes of oil paint over the surface. She paints merely color and light. Varying tones play over the eye. The amber-ringed yellow of "Untitled #SQ-Y6" rushes to embrace you, but the sweet peach of "Untitled #LS-PW8" warms more serenely.

Some of these hint at the dramatic skies of Hudson River School paintings; others, such as a suite of small works in which the edges undulate smoothly, feel much more 21st century. The beauty of each, though, is that it makes space for the viewer to be quiet - something everyone needs now and then.

Mattera literally wrote the book on encaustic, "The Art of Encaustic Painting." Her new "Vicolo" series at Arden features dense layers of sprightly toned pigment. Each is opaque, but Mattera makes dozens of horizontal gullies in each, deftly revealing puddles of bright color in the interstices. They read like blinds through which mysterious, swimming landscapes glow.

These pieces highlight the artist's delicate, almost surgical touch, as she decides how deep to dig, to which level of color. The joyful tones - periwinkle, buttercup, lollipop red - play together, waking up the weary-eyed. The horizontal veins widen and narrow like rivulets, rushing and imprecise.

A lot of contemporary art hinges on meaning - and we can find it in the works of Chapuis and Mattera, who engage in painterly issues about surface. Sometimes, though it's a relief to stop thinking and just gaze on something beautiful.

IN PURSUIT OF BEAUTY At: Montserrat College of Art Gallery, 23 Essex St., Beverly, through Jan. 24. 978-867-9604,

KATHARINA CHAPUIS: NEW PAINTINGS At: Alpha Gallery, 38 Newbury St., through Jan. 7. 617-536-4465,

JOANNE MATTERA: CONTEMPLATING THE HORIZONTAL At: Arden Gallery, 129 Newbury St., through Dec. 29. 617-247-0610,

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