'Biology and the baroque' and 'Prisoners of matter' at Bill Lowe gallery​

A non-review essay by Jerry Cullum

I have long expressed my bewilderment (it goes beyond bemusement) at the incapacity of theorists to understand the dialectic between personality type, historical circumstances, and cultural conditioning. Anyone who wants a shorthand look at this dialectic might consider the artistic career of Francis Picabia, who shifted seamlessly from Impressionism to Cubism to Dada to figuration to, bewilderingly to some critics, paintings copying photographs from pornographic magazines, then abstraction. The bewildered critics fail to note the dates during which Picabia produced paintings that reportedly adorned Algerian brothels during the dark Occupation years of 1940 to 1944, and the other extraordinary shifts in style and subject matter likewise reflect the response of an extraordinarily fluid and trickster-minded personality to the major cultural and political shifts of the twentieth century.

I bring all this up at the beginning of an art non-review (I shall, as I increasingly do, reserve ultimate judgment because I am not sure whether I have any) because I deeply regret that we apparently do not have anything resembling a reliable personality test. It would be incredibly useful if we could say openly which personality types from which cultural and historical circumstances would be most likely to respond to a given body of work. The greatest art bridges centuries and circumstances, but even there, there are people who will never enjoy certain types of art no matter how much they come to understand its importance, and who will enjoy other types of art even after they understand why they should not find it enjoyable.

All of this is more or less a necessary preface to any reflection on the extraordinarily titled duo of solo shows that Bill Lowe Gallery has, in the wall text, combined into the title and subtitle “Biology and the Baroque: Prisoners of Matter.” I attended the opening after an afternoon of perusing an online summary of the arguments made in a two-day conference at Rice University about “Gnostic Counter Cultures,” so I was primed to read the art and its ideas in a certain way. The conference dealt with the inheritance and persistence of Gnostic ideas that we are, indeed, prisoners of matter, needing some means of liberation from what Emory University anthropologist Melvin Konner, who may be upset at being cited in the same sentence as Gnosticism, once called “biological constraints on the human spirit.” I use the subtitle of Konner’s early book The Tangled Wing to make the point that it is possible to believe that we have a spirit that is biologically constrained without believing that there is a transcendent dimension into which we can escape from those constraints.

Human creativity is one of the traditional means by which we slip the surly bonds of earth (if I may quote John Magee’s treacly poem) without benefit of divine intervention. Those theorists who sneer at the notion that creative imagination exists are just plain being silly; it is an obvious behavioral fact even if one chooses to believe that it is a response to physical environment or history.

Having said all that, I can finally start talking about the strange pairing of Fabio Modica’s paintings with Claire Begheyn’s assemblages. Two more different commentaries on biology and culture can scarcely be imagined.

Modica’s paintings portray the faces of beautiful women semi-obscured by bluntly applied layers of paint. We are told that Modica regards this as a commentary on our imprisonment in bodily circumstances, but also as a commentary on the physicality of paint itself, and I see no reason to doubt this. However, the metaphor of prisoners of the body also suggests the imprisonment of beautiful women in the traditions of painting and in the male gaze generally, and after three generations of feminism it is difficult to read these paintings any other way. Modica approaches his subject matter from so many startlingly different stylistic angles, however, that the work eludes interpretation.

Begheyn’s baroquely composed patterns of seashells inlaid into rearranged fragments of decorative design are something else altogether. The fact that I find some (not all) of them compelling while one female visitor said, “I just don’t get what’s with the seashells” illustrates my point that not only is there no single valid aesthetics, there is no single point of aesthetic perception from which to draw reliable conclusions. Expectation combined with the relative value we place on symmetry versus asymmetry, texture versus color, and concept versus visceral reaction result in a range of responses that are not quite equally valid (we can refine and deepen the criteria by which we judge and experience artworks), but that are indisputably varied.

I say all this because I find Begheyn’s work utterly arresting and worthy of extended contemplation, but I can picture all the reasons why persons starting from a different point and operating on different assumptions would consider it worthless or even repellent. My problem is illustrated by the fact that I keep wanting to use (and resisting) adjectives that the art world at large regards as cuss words (basically, these would be any words denoting intense emotional involvement prior to intellectual judgment).

Cathy de Monchaux is one of the globally recognized sculptors who has suffered from similar critical responses, and for some structurally parallel reasons; she engages in geometrically ordered eroticism, juxtaposes materials in ways that evoke sensual pleasure and discomfort concurrently, and can be accused, in spite of that, of being merely decorative, albeit in a way so strangely complex that the results linger in the imagination.

Begheyn is working in less complicated emotional terrain, but the range of her imagination is still considerable. She works the emotional associations and contrasting visual appearance of seashells for all they’re worth. Knobby, rough surfaces co-exist with seductively shiny and downright pearlescent ones; mussel shells turn into flowerlike explosions of symmetry; one work evokes the form of Botticelli’s Venus on the half shell (and thank you Joan Baez for that memorable phrase, in “Diamonds and Rust”). Even the works that seem less successful have amazing passages of shapes placed in particularly engaging proximity.

It is all impossibly luscious, and never to be confused with the cheap seashell compositions of craft projects. However, the negative associations of Begheyn’s materials are almost certainly one possible source of viewer distaste. This is stuff you just aren’t supposed to use in serious sculpture.

The fact that these complicated compositions make we respond positively to the forms of decorative objects I normally don’t like at all makes me think otherwise. These works return the, to my taste, unpleasantly prettified productions of culture to their biological origins, making the two meld rather than collide. By themselves, the sculpturally composed elements might devolve all too easily into a high-end shell collection; combined with the culturally inflected base, this superstructure from nature flips our expectations and turns the nature-culture dialogue into something completely different.

“Radically different” is the philosophical-art speak cliché́ to fall back on, and “something completely different” is an inapposite Monty Python allusion. Its use in this utterly serious context is meant to function as a further distancing device; these works draw some of us in and make us uncomfortable about being thus drawn in by aspects of art to which we know we shouldn’t respond so deeply.

“Transgressive” seems too strong a word to apply to such seductively lovely artworks, and Begheyn certainly has no intention of violating the canons of the artworld; rather, she has fairly simple goals in mind that derive from her personal biography.

But artworks inserted into contemporary history will always be judged by criteria not at all in the mind of the maker.