All art is, in some way, about art itself. You can enjoy the Ackland Art Museum's Genius and Grace because you like dramatic classical scenes or because it displays the pinnacle of representation before photography and abstraction arrived in the 1800s. You can see the Nasher Museum of Art's Area 919 show because a friend's work is on the walls or because it shows how contemporary artists are still sorting out the Modernist transformation that 18th-century artists preceded.
GENIUS AND GRACE: FRANÇOIS BOUCHER AND THE GENERATION OF 1700 culls 80 drawings from the best collection of early French art in the United States, the Horvitz Collection in Boston, including works by François Boucher, Jean-Antoine Watteau and Jean-Baptiste Oudry. It also presents the title artist, whose work composes a quarter of the show, as the great draftsman of his era, analogous to Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo in the Renaissance. If you are a fan of the old masters, this show is a rococo delight.
Don't shy away from using the magnifying glasses the Ackland provides to scrutinize Boucher's hand in a masterwork like his chalk drawing "Recumbent Female Nude." The draftsman's objective at Boucher's point in art history was to best represent a three-dimensional figure on a two-dimensional surface, and you would be hard-pressed to find a better example than this.
In 18th-century France, drawings weren't just studies for paintings. There was a market for this level of technical and compositional brilliance. Edmé Bouchardon's work with red chalk in his "Pagan Festival" is on par with Boucher's best. Two pastel portraits by Charles-Antoine Coypel could have hung among oil paintings in a patron's home.
Genius and Grace also includes plenty of sketches and studies, some with penciled grids for perspective or details of hands worked out in an upper corner. Although the mannequin-like figures in Boucher's "Large Family Before a Farmstead with Animals" lack facial features, they show the process behind his proportioning. This staged process was taught at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in Paris, where most of the "Generation of 1700" trained.
Artists with commissions sometimes showed drawings at an early stage to get their patron's feedback before executing the final work. Look closely at the left side of Jean Restout's ink and chalk scene "Pygmalion and Galatea," and you'll see where the artist glued down a paper flap that he could lift up to show a patron a different compositional option.
Photography haunts the show. Nicéphore Niépce would take what are generally regarded as the first photographs in the early 1820s, a date no artist in Genius and Grace would live to see. But the book illustrations, graphic design projects, historical documentation and reproductions throughout the show would all be made easier by the camera, which would soon take over the task of representation from drawing.
Several works also foreshadow abstraction, the other visual revolution of the 19th century. At first glance, Carle Vanloo's "Mademoiselle Clairon as Medea Fleeing from Jason" is a terrific theatrical scene. But when you focus solely on his crosshatched white-gouache highlights, which were the last marks he put on the work, the image becomes almost bizarre.
If sketching involves layering realistic detail atop an abstract geometric foundation, then Vanloo's crosshatches are something new. Fast-forward a quarter-millennium to the Nasher's AREA 919: ARTISTS IN THE TRIANGLE and you see how profoundly the 18th century's ideals of craft have been destroyed, discarded and democratized—and yet also deeply internalized. Rather than using craft to represent the world, contemporary artists more often assemble cultural products (and their debris) to comment upon it.
But the real purpose of Area 919 is to acknowledge the substance of the Triangle art community. The Nasher's curatorial team has been making the studio rounds, selecting works by 13 artists in our area code. Sharing a pavilion with the museum's permanent collection, the smallish show is not meant to be comprehensive. Rather, it should be thought of as a cross-section of the best area galleries, the North Carolina Museum of Art's North Carolina Gallery, the Ackland's annual MFA exhibit and the recent North Carolina Arts Council fellowship winners' show at CAM Raleigh.
Several works in Area 919 have recently been on display in such spaces. Casey Cook's large cardboard sculptures were at Chapel Hill's LIGHT Art + Design in November. Bill Thelen's watercolor and pencil drawings build upon his fall show at Durham's SPECTRE Arts. Stacey L. Kirby's The Power of the Ballot finished a popular run as part of a large installation in CAM's basement gallery last October.
Lavar Munroe's mixed-media work from his series The Footprints Go This Way and Then They Return is a revelation. These fantastic, terrifying drawings of prison shanks are so intensely collaged, overwritten and annotated that it's hard to focus on the images or read their scrawled text. Over skillful pencil drawings that Boucher might have admired, Munroe adds adhesive bandages, gold stickers, torn and quilted fabric, thread, ribbon, magic marker, spray paint—you name it. Lines protrude from the image to notes and questions, which themselves have a constellation of responses and elaborations.
The exhibit's highlight is the corner shared by André Leon Gray's installation "What Does Revolution Sound Like?" and Hong-An Truong's video "Explosions in the Sky (Điên Biên Phu’ 1954)." A master of iconographic mash-up, Gray augments a wicker chair reminiscent of a famous photograph of Black Panther leader Huey Newton with red boxing gloves that recall Muhammad Ali. On the wall behind the chair, Gray painted a huge portrait in tar of Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L'Ouverture. It's a condensed, angry pummeling of institutional racism.
Truong's short video hits colonial conquest just as hard, using nighttime footage of combat between the French and Viet Minh forces in 1954. Detonations briefly blast the sky white. The imagery repeats and accelerates to an epileptic frenzy before slowing drastically at the end. Truong's structure provokes conscience—as the explosive flickers become aesthetically pleasing blooms, you catch yourself admiring them. It's interesting to watch it first without the soundtrack to see how your reaction changes when you put on the headphones provided.
Gray and Truong cast a political light on other works in the front room. "Melanoplus Swarm," Jeff Whetsone's billboard-sized photograph of a grasshopper swarm, conveys the anxiety of being placed in the environment it depicts. Your advantage as a higher mammal is overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of insects. There's terror in this biological politics: Eventually, numbers always win.
"Exploded Hipster," a remake of a wall installation that Lincoln Hancock and the artist collective Yuxtapongo created at CAM for the Hopscotch Music Festival in 2012, presents a different swarm. The wall is overwhelmed with concert-goer clothing—T-shirts, tights, shoes. It looks like a tornado hit a thrift store, but the arrangement conveys more joy than disorder, expressing the community potential of the shared concert experience.
Stacy Lynn Waddell's work (see the INDY's profile) would have fit well in the front room, particularly her gold-leaf work "Moby-Dick," which simply presents the title of the Melville novel in the same font that's used on United States paper money. Near Gray's work, it would have made an interesting colonial counterpoint. Instead, the Nasher placed it within the same sight line as some icon paintings with gold leaf in their permanent collection.
Jeff Bell, Harrison Haynes, George Jenne and Damian Stamer also have works in Area 919, which leaves you wanting more from each artist. Waddell, Gray and Whetstone already need entire rooms in museums like the Nasher, rather than just corners and walls. Who knows—maybe, centuries from now, they'll even be collected into a "Generation of 919" show.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Drawn together"