A Time Before We Were Born: Visions of Arcadia in Contemporary Painting
Taking its title from a 1983 Talking Heads song “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody),” this exhibition looks at how painters have drawn on existing mythologies, as well as inventing their own, to create visions of lost (or maybe promised) paradises, visual songs of innocence and experience that transcend periods and cultures, speaking to a deeply imbedded human need for images of hope and harmony. One way of thinking of the history of modern art is as an oscillation between the urban and the pastoral, between a confrontation with the realities of the industrialized life of cities and the lost paradise of the natural world, and of an imagined realm in which humans lived in harmony with nature and with one another. This pastoral vision can be traced in works such as Gauguin’s Tahitian paintings and Matisse’s Luxe Calme et Volupté, works in which the anxieties and terror of the modern world have been banished. Extending the definition of “landscape” to include ambiguous spaces that erase the boundaries between interior and exterior, A Time Before We Were Bornalso recognizes that versions of the pastoral are often haunted by darker intimations, and sometimes by a sense of wild abandon. These are not classical visions of a perfectly ordered nature.
A Time Before We Were Born includes a number of epic-scale paintings, several of which have not been publicly exhibited for many years, as well as more intimate works. The exhibition spans multiple generations and decades, beginning with a look back to the cohort of painters who in the 1950s married the energy of Abstract Expressionism with a rediscovery of figuration and mythological and literary allusions. Representing this tradition are paintings by Paul Georges and Jan Müller, both of whom studied with Hans Hoffmann.
In the 1970s, Roy de Forest, a proponent of California Funk art, depicted his own brand of an earthly paradise, while Fay Lansner developed a liberated figurative style drawing on the legacy of Matisse. Contributing to a renewed interest in figurative painting from the 1980s on, artists such as Archie Rand and Donna Moylan infused their narrative paintings with multi-layered references to art history and world religion. Often Arcadian paintings can carry in them an implied critique of injustice, as one sees in the work of Po Kim and Rafael Ferrer. More recently, artists such as Susan Bee, Katherine Bradford and Judith Linhares have employed highly personal styles to populate imagined worlds with allegorical figures and motifs, while JooYoung Choi draws on comics and animation to propose mythic narratives of innocence and fantasy. With playful visual wit, Chris Johanson draws equally on the languages of abstraction and figuration in paintings where nature and culture find an uneasy truce, while in Purvis Young’s urgent painting, mythic insects and Zulu horsemen contend for the viewer’s attention.
The exhibition is curated by Raphael Rubinstein, who is a poet, critic and Professor of Critical Studies at the University of Houston School of Art. Among Rubinstein’s previous curatorial projects are “Reinventing Abstraction: New York Painting in the 1980s” at Cheim and Read Gallery and “The Silo” at Garth Greenan Gallery. In 2017, he collaborated with Heather Bause Rubinstein in a public-art installation in Houston based on his book The Miraculous.