Grand seductions

By GREG COOK  |  December 16, 2008

I'm drawn in by the pattern of lances and ladders in a 1460s depiction of the seven-month siege of Naples in 1441. At the left there's a camp of military tents. At the center is a chaos of archers, cannons, soldiers on horses, and men climbing ladders with shields held up to protect themselves from the rocks that Naples's defenders are hurling down. At the right, Naples's defeated ruler kneels in homage to his enemy before sailing into exile.

But individual moments often appeal more than entire compositions: Death rides atop a gold wagon that rolls over green corpses; an eagle swipes the hat of a would-be king; ornery unicorns prod forward Cupid, naked, blindfolded, with his arms bound and wings clipped. In a painting (by Florentine Biagio D'Antonio and his workshop) believed to depict General Marcus Furius Camillus returning to Rome after conquering the Etruscan city of Veii, you might notice what the catalogue describes as a "bucking horse being bitten on its genitals" by a dog. (A friend who is more expert about such things than I am insists the dog is just sniffing, because the canine's mouth is closed and everyone knows dogs sniff genitals and nip at horses' ankles.) You can imagine people staring at these scenes year after year and being seduced again and again by the wealth of details.

A different kind of seduction — the seduction of lush, sexy, decorative pattern — is the subject of "In Pursuit of Beauty" at Montserrat College of Art. Curator Leonie Bradbury brings together five international artists whose work is part of a trend that embraces (with feminist undertones) beauty and rejects Modernist hating on decoration. (Other local artists, like Mary O'Malley and Resa Blatman, are coalescing around this style as well.)

Julie Chang of San Francisco makes rolls of wallpaper with catchy patterns based on flowers, self-portraits, her dad's face, and "thank you/have a nice day" logos on Chinatown take-out bags, all recalling Art Nouveau, traditional Chinese textile design, and '60s psychedelia. Timothy Horn, who studied at MassArt but now lives in New Mexico, presents a melting amber rubber "mirror" and sconce titled Mutton Dressed As Lamb that could be from a haunted house. Tomás Rivas of Chile etches scrolls, flora, and geometric lines inspired by classical designs into sheets of drywall. Elizabeth Wallace of Boston layers maps and decorative flourishes in Spirograph-like patterns. Graffiti artist Pixnit of Boston stencils pictures of a row of chairs (each with its own upholstery pattern), wallpaper, and a framed picture across the gallery walls. (She also tagged the exterior of the school's buildings.)

I prefer the meatiness of, say, Horn's technique (I'd like to see an encompassing parlor room of this stuff) to Pixnit's superflatness, whose seeming hollow quality is by turns her work's power and its flaw. But Pixnit is onto something with her vivid layering of patterns. The exhibit is sparsely hung — this stuff calls for an exuberant, overflowing, promiscuous muchness.

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