New Smart exhibition shows detailed evolution of portraiture, landscape painting Corollary displays printmaker Félix Buhot’s work

A work by artist Mark Rothko featured at the Smart Museum of Art located, 5550 S. Greenwood Ave., held the opening of its Spring exhibits last Monday evening. – Spencer Bibbs

Staff Writer

A three-part series at the Smart Museum of Art, 5550 S. Greenwood Ave., called Expanding Narratives aims to re-conceptualize the museum’s permanent collection and show how new works can change its effects. The deeply-detailed exhibition delves into many facets of contemporary art.

The first installment, called The Figure and the Ground, opened and April and examines how Western portraits and landscapes mutated from Neoclassicism through abstraction to contemporary takes on global and personal politics.

“This whole show is a way to really deeply think about our collection, where we’re going with our collecting strategy and how we can expand the stories we’re trying to tell,” said Smart’s new modern and contemporary art curator Jennifer Carty, new to the job from the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University. Smart Director Alison Gass, who began work in 2017, co-curated the exhibition, which runs through the end of the year.

Carty said the show is “thinking about a very art historical story, the figure and the ground, and how that illusionistic space is the story of Modernism,” calling it the story of painting in the last 100 years. The curators placed special emphasis on including works by women and people of color. An ongoing project with the exhibition is the addition of labels written by U. of C. faculty in response to the presented works.

The exhibition is in six sections: The Figure, the Ground, Allover Abstraction, Material Abstraction, Identity Politics and the Performative Body and Light and Monochrome. The Figure begins by placing a realistic if allegorical 18th century study of Socrates pulling a pupil away from a voluptuous and willing girl, an allegory for pleasure, towards what Carty calls “the collapse and fragmentation of the figure.”

Abstract painter Jack Whitten, who has received a rush of interest and popularity because of his recent death, is present in this section. His 1968 painting “Zen Master,” from his early career, is the stationed security guard’s favorite piece. “I love the faces looking out,” the guard said, grinning.

Carty said The Ground section, focusing on landscape painting, shows “how art has totally upended and eradicated any real representation to play with abstraction.” A timely pair of hallucinatory landscapes prints by Trevor Paglin are, in fact, images taken with defense industry artificial intelligence programs.

Allover Abstraction features a requisite Mark Rothko piece from Smart’s collection alongside female artists’ works, including one by Lee Krasner, which illustrate that abstract expressionism’s paint flicks and muscular use of color need not be interpreted through the brooding lens of masculinity. The Material Abstraction section features Southern artist McArthur Binnion’s work of paper strips from address books pasted at right angles and colored with oil crayons into squares, which strikes a parallel with African textiles.

Identity Politics and the Performative Body showcases an emotive self-portrait by photographer Cindy Sherman and a painting of floating, haloed black youths by Kehinde Wiley, now famous for his bold, leafy Smithsonian portrait of President Barack Obama. Representing “a total collapse of the figure,” Light and Monochrome’s literal highlights are a pair of light art installations by Dan Flavin and Jeppe Hein and, “Data Transformation,” a beguiling video piece by Jim Campbell of transfixed 2017 Chicago Women’s March footage.

“To be able to tell the story of Western art history and think about the collapse of the figure is so enormous. It was kind of the idea to do sections, but it’s so fluid,” said Carty. “We purposely installed the show in such an open way so that you see these across-gallery connections that maybe you would never imagine, being side-by-side.”

The Figure and the Ground’s companion exhibition is Theme and Variations, open through July 22, which consists of a series of prints by the late-19th century Frenchman Félix Buhot. Known for his skill in expressing atmospheric conditions, Buhot’s stark, dichromatic and richly detailed depictions of street scenes function well as correctives to Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec’s lusty visions of the Belle Époque. Anne Leonard, Smart’s European art curator, encourages visitors to look for “experimental and prodigiously imaginative” Buhot’s creative process: the prints on display go from the initial sketch to the final version.