The Artist as Curator: Luxe, Calme et Volupté

..Review by Debra Wolf, Atlanta Journal Constitution:
"Order and beauty form the organizing principle in an engaging new exhibition at Marcia Wood Gallery....Using Baudelaire and Matisse as a springboard for contemporary expression, Mattera's premise is both clever and effective. Fastidious process (order) is essential to aesthetic outcome (beauty). Mattera's selections are smart and pleasing in a show that combines control and creativity, visual and tactile harmony, and individual refrains of luxe, calme et volupte....Verdict: Intelligent and pleasurable."


I love everything about curating: conceiving a theme, making studio visits, selecting the work, challenging my left brain to write an essay about how everything fits together. And then working with the installer to make everything fit together. I'm not wild about the paperwork--and let me say right here that I have renewed appreciation for the administrative slalom a dealer needs to negotiate each month. But seeing an idea manifest on the walls of a gallery is thrilling.

This post is about my experience curating a show, Luxe, Calme et Volupté, for the Marcia Wood Gallery, Atlanta. The show is up June 7 through August 25th.

Installation view for the Front Gallery looking toward entry: Tim McFarlane, All That Could Be; Rainer Gross, Espinal Twins; Robert Sagerman, 11,257. On floor: Venske & Spanle, Smurf

Installation view of the North Gallery from entry. From left: Julie Gross painting, Two One Punch; Chris Ashley installation, Jukebox 1-28; Maureen Mullarkey collages. On floor: a Venske & Spanle Smurf

North gallery looking toward Marcia's office (with Frances Barth's red/gr over desk). From left: Julie Gross, Two One Punch and Scooter; Julie Karabenick, Composition 65 and Composition 64; Chris Ashley, Jukebox 1-28 with digital presentation of 365 HTML Drawings. On Floor: Venske & Spanle Smurf

Marcia Wood, my good friend and longtime dealer in Atlanta, gave me her blessing--and her gallery --to pursue my idea, which at its core is a meditation on visual pleasure. After a decade of pornified bimbettes, video loops of window washers and the recently repickled shark (it's a big, interesting art world out there), I was craving a taste of the sublime. So I started making a list. Of course my idea of beauty is different from yours, that's the beauty of it, but I did want to refer to formal ideas of harmony—order, pattern, shape, texture and color--put together in ways that evoke feelings of pleasure, maybe feelings of the spiritual as well.

The words of my friend Stephen Rosenberg, a principal of Rosenberg + Kaufman Fine Art in New York, buzzed in my head as I considered this artist or that work: "The problem with artists who curate is that they always put too much in." He wasn't telling me this specifically, but when I heard it, it stuck. So I pared. Then added. Pared then added. Marcia's gallery is big--there are three separate gallery spaces with a total of about 2,500 square feet--so my list didn't have to be sliced to the quick, but with Stephen's words resonating, I was mindful of not overstuffing the idea.

Front Gallery looking toward Terrace Gallery. From left: Robert Sagerman, 11,257; Frances Barth, Heat Glance; Tim McFarlane, All That Could Be. In distance: paintings by Timothy McDowell and Heather Hutchison

My preference is for abstraction. In curating this show, I followed my own response to the harmony of elements, and to the transcendent nature of light—its intensity, translucence, luminosity and iridescence. I selected paintings, along with collages and sculptures, from artists whose work makes me become conscious of my own breath, which is to say that I connect with it so physically that the act of seeing, feeling and breathing are one. It’s a cliché to say "time stops," so let me just report that there does seem to be a temporal slowing down as I stand before a work that engages me fully. Or maybe it’s simply that I have stopped long enough to let the chemistry of the experience wash through me, to let it change me ever so slightly from the person I was before I experienced the particular piece of beauty.

I ended up selecting 15 artists, 13 individual artists and an artmaking duo, and what emerged was Luxe, Calme et Volupté--luxury, tranquility and pleasure, after the refrain in Baudelaire's "L'Invitation au Voyage." For the most part these are artists with whom I have shown, or with whom there is a gallery affiliation, or simply artists who found their way onto my visual radar in one exhibition or another and whose work I’ve followed avidly since. In every instance their work resonates for me personally as well as with this theme.

The artists in the show are David Ambrose, Chris Ashley, Frances Barth, Julie Gross, Rainer Gross, Heather Hutchison, Julie Karabenick, Timothy McDowell, Tim McFarlane, Maureen Mullarkey, Rose Olson, Robert Sagerman, Donna Sharrett, and Venske & Spanle.

My essay for the exhibition can be found at the end of this post.

Terrace Gallery. From left: Rose Olson, Soft as Memory, Seven Reds, Orange Electric, Pulse, New Green, Balancing Earth and Water, and Diffusion Rising; Timothy McDowell, Nectar; Heather Hutchison, When This Dust Falls; Donna Sharrett, Ramble On, Your Song and Turn the Page

Terrace Gallery looking toward North Gallery. From left: Donna Sharrett; Heather Hutchison, Divided (warm); David Ambrose, Elevated Rose With Braided Chain and Southeastern Elevation; Rose Olson

Some acknowledgments: An artist cannot curate a good gallery show without the blessing, wisdom, support and expertise of the dealer. (Thanks, Marcia.) An online catalog doesn't materialize without the expertise, patience and fabulous design sense of the gallery associate (Thanks, Errol Crane). And the artwork doesn't happen without immensely talented artists willing to trust a curator's concept and let her take their work for two and a half months. Julie Karabenick sent her newest painting, even though she's preparing for a solo show of her own in September. Rainer Gross let me put dibs on a piece that he'd just finished. Robert Sagerman and Julie Gross made paintings especially for the show. I saw a maquette and a gouache sketch, respectively, so that trust goes both ways. And I'm thrilled with the paintings they made.

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Essay: Luxe, Calme et Volupté: A Meditation on Visual Pleasure

Earlier this year, after a day of studio visits and an evening of gallery openings in Chelsea, I took a short taxi ride up Eighth Avenue with Marcia Wood and the editor of a New York-based art magazine. The back-seat conversation was, of course, about art. Marcia mentioned that I was curating a summer show for her gallery, and because we were nearing our destination, I described it simply as “a meditation on visual pleasure.” 

“Ah, beauty,” responded the editor. “Isn’t it nice that we can talk about it again?” 

Choosing Beauty

Indeed, it’s hard not to gush. There’s a renewed desire in contemporary art for the elements that comprise formal ideas of beauty—harmony of order, pattern, shape, texture and color—put together in ways that evoke feelings of pleasure, maybe feelings of the spiritual as well. This may be an old-fashioned notion, but it’s back. Beauty is the new beauty.

The work in Luxe, Calme et Volupté is unabashedly beautiful. Appropriately for a show in this season, it is a summer idyll, a visual bonheur. Each of the 15 artists here—13 individual artists and an artmaking duo—have created works which, while formally rigorous, are sensually complex, richly simple or simply luscious. Consider the sumptuousness of David Ambrose’s textured paintings on paper, opulent on their surface and, deeper, in the wholeness of devotion they convey; the serene horizontals, rising and repeating, of Rose Olson’s luminous paintings, metaphorical oceans or skies distilled to their essence; or the polished marble sculptures of Venske & Spanle, cool and white, as innocently personable as they are slyly provocative.

Borrowing from Baudelaire

“Luxe, calme et volupté”—luxury, tranquility and pleasure—is the refrain in Charles Baudelaire’s 1857 poem,  "L'Invitation au Voyage."  In a celebration of life’s splendor, the poet invites his beloved to travel with him to an imagined place where the light is golden and the air perfumed, the language is soft and secret, a place of order and beauty where all desires are met, a world of luxury, tranquility and pleasure. It seemed the perfect title for this show.

I am not the first person to borrow from Baudelaire. Matisse’s 1904-05  Luxe, Calme et Volupté, in Fauvist colors and post-Pointillist brushstrokes, depicts a different idyll, an afternoon of bathing and sunning at the water’s edge in Saint-Tropez.  Monsieur Matisse’s paean to pleasure is intimate and seductive.

Matisse, Luxe, Calme et Volupt

Much to my surprise, Luxe, Calme et Volupté, the exhibition, has much in common with Luxe, Calme et Volupté, the painting. Both share a radiance of palette, a fullness of forms and a lushness of surface. Then, too, there is the repetition of elements that generates a larger whole. Matisse created his composition from the staccato swipe of a paint-laden brush, repeated again and again.  In this exhibition, the repetitions are in circles, in squares, in pins amassed and ordered, in paper pierced repeatedly, in pixels arranged, in paper layered and collaged and, yes, in the swipe of a paint-laden brush, repeated again and again.

Looking at Luxe, Calme et Volupté 
One of the pleasures of being an artist is engaging with art on a level that goes beyond mere looking. One of the pleasures of being a curator is bringing art into the fold of a theme that amplifies and supports the individual work, which in turn deepens and broadens the theme so that it expands beyond a curator’s vision.


While all of the work in this exhibition resonates on all three notes of the theme, I have singled out artist and work in an area where the note sounds most fully.

David Ambrose invests the simplest of materials, watercolor and paper, with unexpected richness. Drawing from ornamental designs in stonework and lace, and from such sources as the resplendent rose windows found in cathedrals throughout Europe, Ambrose pierces his paper in a  filigree of pattern before putting paint to it. As in the large-scale Southeastern Elevation, the result is a densely worked surface, a harmonic brocade of color and texture with intertwined threads of historic, spiritual and personal reference.

David Ambrose, Southeastern Elevation, 2006, watercolor on perforated paper, 59 x 44 inches

Drawing from history, but on an intimate scale, Maureen Mullarkey creates collages from the pages of old books and diaries. Each layered composition, sometimes composed with legible words or almost decipherable phrases, is a small reservoir of cultural memory. “Gutenberg Elegies,” she calls them. We may not recognize the specific circumstances they represent, but we understand them. Without wanting to ascribe more than the artist intended, I would venture that the strong horizontals in Mullarkey’s work, such as On the Sound,  give them a topographic character as well. Never mind that many of these works are barely larger than the size of your hand, they suggest abundant fields or rolling hills to be traversed and explored with the mind, much as the original volumes might have.

The large, often monumental paintings of Rainer Gross typically come two by two.  Gross is the creator of a unique process in which two separate surfaces—one layered with dried pigment, the other with icing-thick oil paint—are pressed together and, after a time, pulled apart. The paintings that result, such as Hutton Twins (the artist pulls the names at random from the Manhattan phone book), are more-or-less mirror twins, both original, for neither could exist without the other. While the process is intriguing, it is the fulsome color—heavily pigmented, saturated, with velvety flakes that bring the surface almost into relief—that intoxicates.

Rainer Gross, Hutton Twins, 2006, oil and acrylic on canvas, 24 x 20 inches each

Tim McFarlane’s luxe is in his layers. Each of his paintings is a dense net of lattices that fall loosely over one another. In All That Could Be, a large rectangle of luscious tangles that could heat a room by hue alone, the eye works hard to peer around and through the layers. Speaking formally about his work, McFarlane says he’s exploring “aspects of aggregation and negation through color, line, mark-making and brushwork.” Speaking informally, I would say that the endless pleasure I have experienced in this work comes from allowing myself to become, and to remain, visually enmeshed.

Tim McFarlane, All That Could Be, 2006, oil on canvas, 60 x 84 inches

“Order and beauty” is the other half of Baudelaire’s refrain. And in the work of Chris Ashley, Frances Barth, Heather Hutchison, Rose Olson and Donna Sharratt those elements prevail.

In truth, Donna Sharratt ‘s work is as luxe as it is calme, each object a mandala of pearls and flower petals and other delicate objects set into a wax-covered wooden box.  But the overriding element in her work is order. “Mirroring the Buddhist mandala form, the circular shape enveloped by the square …characterizes the infinite within the finite,” says the artist. “The geometric schemes of Gothic cathedral windows and the numeric configurations of prayer beads inform the mathematical arrangements of the work.” Your Song, a memorial piece to her musician brother who died too soon,  exemplifies Sharrett’s engagement with repetition, ritual and remembrance.

Donna Sharrett, Your Song, 2003-05, mixed media with pearls, pressed flower petals, thread, 18 x 18 x 1.25 inches 

Julie Karabenick‘s paintings mine the infinte richness of a single rectilinear form.  There is nothing meditative about the work—indeed, Karabenick consciously subverts the symmetry of her geometric endeavor—but each composition holds itself in easy equipoise. With its limited palette and uninflected color, Karabenick’s Composition 64 strikes me as a centered conversation, one that is spirited, inquisitive, but always returns to the main topic. Because her painting is process intensive and precise—“resolutely geometric” the artist describes it—the work goes slowly, but each successive painting in the series, with its new combination of asymmetry and complexity, expands the expression of Karabenick’s resoluteness.

Julie Karabenick, Composition 64, 2006, acrylic on panel, 30 x 30 inches 

The horizontal is a predominant element in Frances Barth’s paintings, which might be described as abstract landscapes with narrative timeline, a theme she began investigating early in her career and which she has continued to pursue. In this exhibition we show two works painted roughly a decade apart. The 1995 Red-Gr, simultaneously flat and deeply spatial, is vast enough to visually fall into—all the better to contemplate its contradictory dimensionality. In Barth’s newest work, such as the boldly horizontal Heat Glance, which she describes as “both object and panorama, “ you contemplate its light and space as if peering through a slot. It’s a tantalizing slice of imagined landscape and—this is a good thing—it leaves you wanting more.

Frances Barth, Heat Glance, 2006, acrylic on canvas, 10 x 96 inches

Minus the e, the French word for luxury becomes the Latin lux, which means both luxury and light. Linguistically I’m stretching, but conceptually you can see where I’m going when I say that the work of the next three artists is all about illumination.  Heather Hutchison has been working with translucence for two decades. She is one of the few artists who paints with beeswax on plexiglass. Working with a shadow box that holds a top surface and the space within,  Hutchison is free to explore translucent on transparent and the ways light passes through the surface or is reflected from it. You see this clearly in Divided Warm, where gradations of translucence converse intimately with one another. The artist refers to her work as “post-Minimal,” which I take to mean that it embodies what Minimal is, a reductive presence, as well as what it is not, a surface that revels in its materiality.

Heather Hutchison, Divided (warm), 2006, acrylic on plexiglass with wood frame

For Rose Olson refractive pigments painted stripe on stripe, layer upon layer, create veils of iridescent color that change as the light hits them this way and that. Walk one way, you see one color; move slightly, and you see another. Olson calls this mutability “a quiet dialog of shifting color, shifting space.” Her substrate and ground are one and the same, maple plywood, which is visible, sometimes faintly, sometimes more so. In Diffusion Rising, as in the rest of her elegant oeuvre, Olson’s color shimmers over the surface as light as a breeze. Hexagram 20 of the I Ching is as good a description as any of her work: “Kuan/Contemplation. The wind above, the earth below."

Rose Olson, Diffusion Rising, 2006, acrylic on birch, 24 x 15 x 4 inches; with angle view

Chris Ashley’s HTML drawings are nothing without light, for they exist in their primary incarnation as ordered pixels on a screen. Ashley’s daily practice is to create a drawing a day on his blog using nothing but computer code, which then appears on the screen as a luminous geometric composition. This is Etch-a-Sketch for the 21st Century, though Ashley is clearly thinking outside the box: “I want to make images that encourage associations to nature, the body, place, thought, sound, language, social relations and history.” For this exhibition, Ashley has printed out a month’s worth of drawings—February 2007’s, called Jukebox 1-28—and arranged them in calendar format, while a year’s worth of HTML drawings flashes on a nearby screen.

Chris Ashley, Jukebox (detail 9 of 28), unique digital prints, 11 x 8.5 inches

Volupte translates as pleasure, which includes sensory as well as sensual arousal: smell, touch and libido.

Timothy McDowell’s world is a fantasy of nature: part still life and part garden, with succulent fruit and bursting blossoms afloat in an inviting if undefined landscape. From its earth-toned palette to its languorous imagery, everything about McDowell’s painting appeals to the senses. Witness the golden Nectar, its images fairly dripping with ripeness. The scent of honey that hovers is not in your imagination. McDowell suspends his earth pigments in sweet-smelling beeswax, which is applied when it is molten. In selecting his medium and materials, the artist has wittingly or not created an olfactory idyll in the studio. “I have grown dependent on the faint smell of honey, earth and wood while I work,” he says.

Timothy McDowell, Nectar, 2006, oil and wax on panel

A master at color and composition, Julie Gross pushes contrary elements into a tense dynamic of throb and pulse.  Are her circles actually moving or does it just seem so? Consider Two One Punch. While Gross’s color is flat, the zaftig forms—all squeezy and flowing— seem to want to erupt out of two dimensions and into a third. And each, it seems, wants to get there first. Gross describes the movement as “a kind of dance.”  Yes, a bump and grind. These are not just circles. They are juicy orbs whose formal harmony is ripe with a suggestion of sensory pleasure. 

Julie Gross, Two One Punch, 2003, oil on canvas, 32 x 32 inches

If Gross’s forms seem poised to burst into three dimensions,  Julia Venske and Gregor Spanle’s carved marble sculptures have actually done so. With their oozy undulations, each Gumphot or Smurf appears to continue to metamorphose before you. Consciously playful, each with a distinct “personality,”  Venske & Spanle’s work is nevertheless sensuous—each piece a smooth, cool body that you can’t help but stroke and touch.

Venske & Spanle, Smurf 38, 2003, marble, 10 x 18 x 18 inches

Robert Sagerman’s nearly sculptural abstractions balance stringency and sensuousness in equal measure. To the viewer’s eye they tip firmly to the side of unbridled sensuousness: abstract fields of lavishly applied paint that radiate, whether from the intensity of the color, such as 11,257, or from the visual vibration of hues in proximity and relation to one another. Sagerman, who is pursuing a doctorate in medieval Jewish meditational practices, has a different agenda, however. "My work activity in its purest form centers ultimately…around the counting of each stroke for each color that comprises each painting," he says. "For me, the numbers themselves are the most direct expression of my work." Thus the balance tips again; for the artist, who is repeating and tracking his strokes, the painting is a meditation.

Sagerman’s exquisite duality reminds us that visual pleasure can resonate on many levels, whether physical, mental or spiritual—or all at once. We need only to open the door to the experience. I hope you will find that Luxe, Calme et Volupte offers you such a portal.