The following essay is reprinted January 26, 2005 with permission of the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or would like to acquire a copy of the exhibition catalogue for Pretty Sweet: The Sentimental Image in Contemporary Art, please contact the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park directly through either this phone number or web address:
A Swell of Sentiment
by Alexandra Novina
Something unusual happened at New York's Guggenheim Museum on November 3, 2001. The traveling retrospective Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People opened to the public. (1) What was the Guggenheim Museum, founded as a museum of non-objective art doing exhibiting sentimental representational paintings by Norman Rockwell, the spokesman for the American Dream? Of all exhibitions to choose from, why would the Guggenheim decide to show Rockwell's nostalgic images of idealized everyday American life? Many other museums and galleries had refused to book this retrospective, and even the Chicago Tribune felt obliged to run dual reviews of the exhibition, pro and con, during its run at the Chicago Historical Society. (2) Was it because Norman Rockwell is still considered a controversial artist that the Guggenheim decided to show his works? If so, was this the only reason? More likely, a significant motivation behind the Guggenheim's decision may have been determined by a remarkable current phenomenon in contemporary art: a longing for the sentimental image. In the art world, both nationally and internationally, this surge of sentiment is evident in the countless numbers of artists using sentimental iconography in their work, in the variety of recent exhibitions exploring aspects of sentimentality, and in the renewed interest in materiality, technique, detail, and 'traditional' media, such as painting, drawing, and textile arts. The current sentimental trend can also be witnessed in the broader cultural landscape: in pop psychology, popular culture, fashion and design, and literature.
In the Modernist age, longing for the sentimental image has most often been a secret, private pursuit. After Modernism stamped out the sentimental image as anti-intellectual, irrational, inordinate, and bourgeois, acknowledging (not to mention being moved or inspired by) sentimental art has been "a closet indulgence, much like that box of bon-bons behind the bourbon, or one's pre-marital love letters; or the Beardsley, Bouguereau, Fragonard, Hogarth, Renoir, Rodin, or whoever else 'is not an artist' by current favor." (3) Only in recent years have the sentimentalists begun to emerge from hiding en masse, and a significant number of artists are now reintroducing a broad and complex vocabulary of sentimental visual imagery. Although blue chip artists whose work employs sentimental imagery such as Jeff Koons, Kara Walker, John Currin, Kiki Smith, Fred Wilson, Paul McCarthy, Liliana Porter, David Humphrey, Faith Ringgold and Mike Kelley have been celebrated on the international stage for a number of years, the sentimental image is only now being recognized and discussed seriously in contemporary art circles as a vital aesthetic phenomenon.
The artists participating in Pretty Sweet approach sentimental imagery from several vantage points; they sincerely and unabashedly embrace it, explore their ambivalence towards it, or use it as a vehicle for ironic political and/or cultural commentary. It is this last political/cultural approach that reintroduced sentiment into the art world in the 1970s, in the form of Feminist and Postmodernist art. In the 1970s when feminism was on the rise, art audiences were seeking, "relief from the arcane austerities and inaccessibility of Postminimalism and Conceptualism and the lack of personal, emotional content in art." (4) Since the 1970s, feminist artists have continued to appropriate and transform imagery and materials traditionally associated with women, femininity, and domesticity with irony and humor and have continued to find new ways to reveal and repudiate inequity and sexism. But even feminist artists, whose work was known to be angry and aggressive, have more recently begun to make more sentimental, personal artwork. For example, Louise Bourgeois, known for delving into her childhood memories to create raw and audacious sculptures depicting male and female sexual organs, has recently made an intimate, delicate, and poignant fabric book, Ode à l'Oubli (Ode to Forgetfulness) from clothes accumulated over a lifetime. The book incorporates sentimental techniques such as embroidery, and Bourgeois, whose mother and father had a business restoring tapestries, said of the textile books: "They are about the idea of restoration, reconciliation, of holding things together in the face of fear and disintegrationI want to re-experience the past, I try to reconstruct it....Sudden recollections that are awakened by the senses tell you more than emotions that are too vague or too overwhelming or too intractable." (5)
In recent years, an abundance of museum and gallery exhibitions have explored various aspects of the sentimental image. Some of these shows have focused on specific objects such as dolls, stuffed animals, toys, cartoons, and decorative arts such as embroidery, sewing, and quilting. Other exhibitions have explored the broader topics of childhood, innocence, girls and femininity, the concept of what we consider 'precious', romantic love, the power of memory, nostalgia, family, the utopian ideal of the American suburb, and the sentimental in American and Japanese popular culture. (6) In 1996, an exhibition at White Columns gallery in New York titled The Strange Power of Cheap Sentiment (or à Bientot to Irony) directly addressed the disappearance of an ironic distance from sentimental imagery and the sincerity with which some artists were beginning to work with this iconography. The gallery's press release observed that, "There was a time when artists would use sentimental images as an indictment of the dominant culture's tastes and iconography, to prove that they were smarter than their iconography, smarter than the culture that produced them....A strange thing happened. The ironic distance disappeared....These artists have learned to feel again, and bravely speak myriad truths about their emotions, risking embarrassment and exposure." (7)
The Whitney Biennial, which attempts to summarize commercial activity and anticipate trends in contemporary American art, revealed a marked interest in, "youth culture (and) craft-intensive, Pop-ish work" in its 2002 survey, and a 2004 exhibition that was, "....upbeat and ingratiating, almost polite, on the surface at least, with a utopian streak and a youth-heavy emphasis on gloss and craft....the prevalent tone is more wistful than hard-edged or satiric." (8) The attention artists are currently paying toward materiality and highly decorative handmade objects draws on both Baroque and Rococo forms, but instead of being academic exercises on these art historical styles, they are translated into intensely personal artworks expressing a variety of tender emotions, some sweet and some raw. In his review of the 2004 Whitney Biennial, The New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman described some elements essential to the current sentimental phenomenon: "It suggests a longing for something big, genuine and heartfelt. It is refined but not original. You might say that much youthful art in the biennial conveys a failure to locate the object of its desire. It is steeped in conflicted nostalgia. Utopia is an art world buzzword these days. It applies to a range of works in the show. But utopia among the younger set does not mean 1960's-style "shake up the world, burn down the house, start from scratch" radicalism; it implies something unattainable, except perhaps in a hand-me-down form, and therefore smaller in scope and inherently poignant." (9)
Hand-in-hand with Utopian imagery comes the return of Beauty
in the classical sense of the word. There has been a renewed interest in
traditional styles of drawing and painting, both figurative and illustrative,
which have suffered endless cycles of being declared alive, then dead, only
to be resurrected once again. A recent example of the newfound attraction
to the "high culture" painting tradition of Europe was an exhibition
at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: John Currin Selects. Curated
by the painter, this show included approximately forty works by old masters
including the Rococo giants François Boucher and Jean-Honoré
Fragonard. Currin, whose own works are influenced by the sentimental styles
of these masters of figurative painting, sought to 'make the case' for painting
which he considers undervalued in modern times. (10) This sentimental emphasis on materiality and handmade objects
may be a response to the computer age of instantaneous and fleeting digital
images, virtual reality, and visual overload. In a time when an artist can
create and output a digital work in a matter of minutes, many of the artists
using sentimental iconography are slowing the pace to create highly detailed
works that require time-honored skills and painstaking attention, such as
silverpoint, embroidery, felting, and intricate assemblage. They are culling
the past for both technique and subject matter in an attempt at permanence
and calm. As in the Biennial, many artists in Pretty Sweet are working
with the sentimental notion of 'paradise lost' or never realized, and there
is a feeling of memorial, commemoration, and nostalgia in many of their
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