Bass Museum plays old masters against new mavericks
What do a mop and a Catholic bishop's snazzy pulpit-wear have in common? Plenty at the Bass Museum of Art, where a pair of starkly contrasting exhibits continues the museum's refreshing push to place contemporary art in a dialogue with the old.
Mop, leaning against a wall near the museum entrance, was created by local artist Frances Trombly from hand-spun silver wool and cotton attached to a wooden handle.
At first blush, Trombly's unusual sculpture appears to have been forgotten by a member of the cleaning crew, but instead it's part of "Come Together," an attention-grabbing show featuring the work of Trombly and her husband, Leyden Rodriguez-Casanova, whose sculptures and installations are inspired by mundane objects found lying about an artist's studio or the average home.
Trombly's painstakingly crafted canvases and painter's drop cloths hoodwink the viewer and appear mass-produced. Not unlike the ornate church vestments on display in an upstairs gallery, created by the Sisters of the Ursuline Convent for a prelate to wear during a High Pontifical Mass, Trombly's works have also been meticulously hand-stitched, embroidered, and crocheted.
Dalmatic and Stoles From the Roseornat Vestments — circa-1700 silk and metal embroidery on silk lamé and linen — is on view as part of "An Invitation to LOOK/Selections From the Permanent Collection of the Bass Museum of Art," featuring more than 40 works that have been removed from mothball-filled closets, given a fresh dusting, and presented in engaging and fresh ways.
"Basically all old art was once contemporary," muses Silvia Karman Cubiñá, the museum's executive director and chief curator.
For "LOOK," Cubiñá had each of seven gallery spaces painted in lemon yellows, royal blues, forest greens, pomegranate reds, and other rich tones to make groupings of landscapes, portraits, still lifes, and sumptuous Renaissance-era altarpieces pop off the walls.
She has also employed dramatic lighting that isolates individual works, making viewers feel like actors waiting for a cue offstage.
Standing in front of the Bass collection's crown jewel, the soaring Coronation of the Virgin (circa 1492), the curator looks at the holy vestments dangling from the ceiling near the Botticelli masterpiece behind her and waves a hand.
"You see those embroidered gowns? I have thought of bringing up Frances's Mop and placing it next to them for a visit during the course of the exhibit," Cubiñá says. "Some people might want to kill me, but both works share a tradition. I like placing contemporary works alongside traditional works because it keeps art alive."
The curator also had details of works blown up into huge vinyl panels for "LOOK." She placed them next to the original paintings so viewers could better see the brush strokes, crosshatchings, and other techniques the artists employed. The wall text that complements the exhibit is informative while eschewing theoretical jargon.
One of the interesting things about the Botticelli altarpiece towering over Cubiñá is that he painted it along with Domenico Ghirlandaio, a rarity during the Renaissance, when artists typically avoided collaborating on works. A scholar on the subject suggests Lorenzo de Medici asked the two artists to work together, so they complied, fearing the powerful Florentine patron's wrath.
In the majestic painting, a choir of angels chants as Mary is crowned queen of Heaven by God the Father, while several saints and a donor, his eyes turned toward the viewer, witness the scene from below. The opus combines Botticelli's grace with Ghirlandaio's realism.
In a charming room painted bright yellow, the curator has isolated a group of still lifes, including a couple of lip-smacking gems by Edmund Pick-Morino: one of a pale-pink capon, the other a fleshy, marbled ham rendered with strong, energetic brush strokes and swirls of paint, as if the artist was eager to finish his work and make a meal of his subject matter.
"One of the reasons we wanted to paint the walls bright when putting these works together was to reinvest the pieces with more vigor," Cubiñá says. "You know a lot of this stuff really doesn't go together, so it becomes about recontextualizing them and using dramatic lighting to energize these shows."
A strong argument for her case is made in a gallery, painted royal blue, housing decorative objects fit for a king, including an elaborate mechanical bonbon server crafted in the 19th Century from silver gilt, enamel, and semiprecious stones. In the shape of a Ferris wheel, the dispenser doled out chocolate treats to blue-bloods as it spun 'round and 'round.
On a wall across from the regal trinket, a painting by Gyula Benczur depicts the moment Europe's most famous royal family had its reign forcefully ended by a mob.
The Hungarian's Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette With Family at Versailles (1872) re-creates the moment in 1789 when rebels busted down the palace doors and began the monarch's dreaded march to the guillotine.
Benczur freights the canvas with psychological drama — a courtier wails and covers her face while the king's family cowers around him as he gravely looks on.
The crystal chandelier and palpable tension in the picture mirror Leyden Rodriguez-Casanova's head-spinning installation on the first floor.
Rodriguez-Casanova, who works with home decorating items and materials that at times seem freshly plucked from the aisles of a neighborhood Home Depot, has created an installation in the Bass's Cabinet featuring a section of ceiling, vertical blinds, and a chandelier skewed at an angle that gives the impression one's normally stable domestic environment has unexpectedly tumbled.
For her part, Cubiñá has gone as far as helping visitors figure out Rembrandt.
One of the master's small etchings, approximately the size of an index card and titled The Adoration of the Shepherds: A Night Piece (1652), has been blown up to garage-door proportions. You'll have to squint to discern the details in the original, but the minutiae in the megamagnified version will leave you wide-eyed.
As Cubiñá walks through the museum to greet middle-school students, tourists, and artists during a busy weekday, it's obvious the exhibit has struck a chord.
She stops to redirect a beam of light on a 17th-century English portrait 50 yards away and then pauses.
"Sometimes I get ideas for showing the works in different ways in the morning when I'm on the treadmill or maybe at a track meet when my teenage son is racing. You never know when inspiration will happen," says the smiling curator, who rescued a mummy from obscurity last summer.
Her intriguing approach to showcasing the Bass, not to mention stellar works that are wildly different, more than merits a visit.
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