In The Ecstasy of St. Theresa, housed in Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome, a nun writhes sensuously in the spiritual glory of God. As she leans back on a cloud, her robes rumple wildly, almost looking as overcome as she is.
In white marble, St. Theresa sits in an ornate niche crowded by ornamented columns and friezes. On either side of her, audience-like, are other sculptures and paintings of people. They are viewers just like us, in a theater that functions as a church — a space that doesn't just contain art, but is a total experience, making it art in itself.
Created by Gian Lorenzo Bernini between 1647 and 1652, the scandalous St. Theresa is a hallmark of Baroque art. We know the Baroque commonly as an era of excessive embellishment to the point of gaudiness, something so over the top in design and emotion that even elegance is trampled.
Yet the era was more than that, says Jessica Hunter Larsen, of Colorado College's I.D.E.A. Space. It was a time of questioning, irony, hybridity and modernity. In fact, it shares many cultural and social qualities with contemporary life.
Artists who draw on the Baroque to stylize and inform their works investigate these parallels in Strange Beauty: Baroque Sensibilities in Contemporary Art. Hunter Larsen says the title encapsulates the way the lushness of the Baroque is loaded with deeper meaning.
"There's a beauty that can be read in sort of a psychological way," she says. "Two times, two eras, that are questioning: What is the role of the individual? What is the role of the individual in response to a collective? What are the real responsibilities of power? Who gets to wield power?"
Identity and artifice
It's not that Strange Beauty ignores the excessive decoration of the Baroque: Take one sculpture in the show, a toilet painstakingly covered in tiny beads, and bearing a stain. Liza Lou's work, says Hunter Larsen, investigates and flaunts "this idea of ornamentation for ornamentation's sake."
But there's another level of depth that comes through in other pieces, including portraits. Thanks in large part to Diego Velázquez, verisimilitude and the artist's style began to emerge in portraits of the Baroque era, unlike the idealized images of the past, which were often meant simply to convey power.
Kehinde Wiley, who applies a Baroque treatment to young African-American men, has become famous for playing within that larger pool of possible influences. His six pieces within Strange Beauty question the identity of his subjects: With the elegant way they're painted, is he constructing identities for them, Hunter Larsen asks, or reflecting who they are?
That uncertainty connects Wiley to Bernini's sense of theater. And a similar thread runs through the work of Sherrie Wolf and Tsehai Johnson.
Wolf paints with a nearly hyper-realistic quality, reinterpreting paintings by Caravaggio, van Ruisdael and Bierstadt, to name a few, with still-lifes in front of them. In one of her Strange Beauty works, "Bowl of Cherries With Musicians," Wolf painted a piece by Caravaggio that's nearly obscured by a luscious, shining silver bowl overflowing with ripe cherries. We wonder what situation she's portraying in her work. Is the bowl standing in front of an actual scene, or a painting? It's a painting within a painting, but is that what she had in mind?
That meta questioning is a motif throughout Wolf's oeuvre. Wolf is intrigued by the idea of artifice, and how to apply it to her work. It can mean creativity and trickery, she says, and as someone engaged in realistic painting and trompe l'oeil, she enjoys crossing those lines.
"I think of a still life as a stage, which is artificial," she says. "And that's exactly what theater is, creating illusions."
The world at home
Johnson looks at the Baroque more obliquely. Her installation for Strange Beauty, "To Dust She Returns," is a room inhabited only by three-dimensional wallpaper constructed from pieces of porcelain. Each curvy piece makes up a pretty, ornate design punctuated by flowers made from feathers. As the wallpaper goes higher, the pattern begins to break down, turning gray and losing its shape.
Johnson also adds a performer, a woman dressed nicely who softly brushes the pattern with a removable duster that looks like the feather flowers. Her movements are meditative and pleasant, despite the fact that she can't reach the graying, uncontrolled pattern.
"To me, the pattern becomes almost like a theatrical space," Johnson says, "but in that theatrical space, I'm interested in individual behavior."
While "To Dust" does explore the tension between order and disorder, Johnson is most interested in the boundaries between "propriety and private acts" and the "rules and rituals of life" of daily life. This preoccupation with the home life was a hugely popular topic for Dutch Baroque artists like Vermeer.
Johnson's use of porcelain furthers this duality.
"It's both a very formal, proper, valuable thing that says a lot about values and propriety and behavior and you bring it out on fancy occasions, you display it in china cabinets," she says. "But at the same time, it's a very similar surface and material [as the] mundane, anonymous, functional components of our lives, like toilets and sinks and stuff like that.
"And my work has always been about the division between mundane, tedious, everyday labor of life and then, this sense of how we present ourselves and how we present our environment and portray something kind of different from that."
These multiple identities functioning at once, in an environment that can feel like a stage, has direct lineage in the Baroque. Take St. Theresa again, and her animated robes, so beautifully carved by Bernini. They'd look almost ridiculously billowy, if they weren't so visually seductive.
"The excess is to demonstrate to us how powerful and how totally overwhelming and all-consuming God's love is," says Hunter Larsen. "And it also demonstrates Bernini's incredible mastery of that material. And he's just showing off.
"So is it God or is it the artist? It's both."