UVA Art Museum’s new run covers ground

The UVA Art Museum unveiled four new shows earlier this month that cover a breathtaking expanse of ground and make for an enjoyable afternoon of fine art. Curated by Paul Barolsky, Commonwealth Professor of Italian Renaissance Art and Literature, “Master Printmakers: The Italian Renaissance and its Modern Legacy” features engravings, woodcuts, and etchings by artists who made prints from the work of Renaissance masters like Raphael, Tintoretto, and Titian. 

Tom Burckhardt’s “Pareidolia” combines interesting color choices with juxtapositions of shape and pattern to accomplish what he calls “a slowed down look.”

As the show points out, these printmakers were not only artists in their own right, but also, “graphic historians who keep alive the inventions [and artistic vision] of major artists of earlier periods.” It’s a pretty esoteric show, with many of the prints dating from the 16th century; others are later, including a Clara Walther after Titian’s "Man with the Blue Sleeve.” I know the original painting well, and Walther’s monochromatic, graphic rendering of the heavy, intricately stitched silk of the sleeve is truly marvelous.

“The Inferno” by a Florentine engraver after “The Master of The Triumph of Death” presents one of those visions of hell, which allowed the artist to go wild imagining all the outlandish things devilish imps could do to torture the unfortunates who end up in their clutches. There are three versions after Titian’s “The Death of St. Peter, Martyr” one from the 16th, one from the 18th and one from the 19th century.

It’s interesting to compare these and see the shift in style from a rather doctrinaire accounting of the scene to a distinctly darker and more romantic aesthetic. “The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence” by Cornelis Cort after Titian, a bold nocturnal scene full of smoke, clouds, fire, and movement is a tour de force of the printmaker’s technique. My one quibble with the show is its title: Aside from Walther, who qualifies only in terms of date, I couldn’t detect anything having to do with a “modern legacy.” “100 Years of Photography,” assembled by Matthew Affron (the museum’s curator of modern art and its academic curator) features a century of photography beginning with the daguerreotypes and tintypes of its infancy in the 1850s. The show features portraiture, urban scenes, landscape, social documentary, and art photography by artists like Nadar, Stieglitz, Frederick Henry Evans, and Edward Steichen, among others.* I find these early artifacts of long ago realities haunting, and was drawn especially to Gertrude Staton Käsebier’s “Happy Days” from 1903, which presents an idyllic scene of children, kept from being sentimental through its strong composition and un-posed quality.  

“Curator’s Choice: People, Places, and Things” put together by Jennifer Farrell, the museum’s curator of exhibitions, focuses, as its title implies, on works rooted in reality. I am generally not a fan of thematic shows, because the theme tends to take over the objects. Here, for instance, artworks are hung according to category—people, places, things —as opposed to how they look next to one another. Nevertheless, the show is an appropriate one for UVA, given that its collection is heavily weighted in representational art and the theme provides a clever way for the museum to employ it. 

Photography is well represented here. There are two Sally Manns, a Virginia landscape and the iconic “Jessie Bites,” which showcase Mann’s mastery of her medium and subject, and the terrific large-format, “Marina’s Room” by Tina Barney, that modern-day Goya, who packs her lush images of the well-heeled with so much psychological and sociological information. New to me, is Paul Thek. His paint and pastel “3 Prunes” was a standout, even overshadowing the Picasso (to which it owes its existence) nearby. There is a charming oil interior by Alex Katz that conveys perfectly a gritty New York tenement, a delightful Larry Rivers mixed media collage called “Dutch Masters,” and an exceedingly sympathetic portrait of Robert Gwathmey by Moses Soyer rendered with dynamic brush work and lovely shades of blue, green and beige. A remarkable Franz Kline drawing of a man has a delicacy that seems so at odds with the great scrawling gestures of his later work. **

The fourth new exhibition is perhaps the most intimate. “Tom Burckhardt: Paintings” features, in addition to paintings, a simply wonderful easel sculpture complete with paints, brushes, and canvas made entirely out of cardboard. It is a tantalizing taste of what is to come: Burckhardt is the 2011-12 UVA Arts Board’s artist in residence and is working with students on an artistic interpretation of the natural history museum that once existed in UVA’s Brooks Hall, using more cardboard. Burckhardt likes working in non-precious materials, which have an informality he finds appealing. He also likes unexpected pairings and for his paintings uses traditional oil paint on unconventional cast plastic supports. 

Burckhardt’s work may be small, but there’s a lot going on. His paintings are both abstract and representational. They resemble collages thanks to their textural surfaces and the layered effect of the compositions. Burckhardt makes interesting color choices and arresting juxtapositions of shapes and patterns. There is whimsy in the work (he embellishes his paintings with trompe l’oeil tacks on the edges of the “canvases”), but it’s tempered, for the most part, by a handmade roughness and many underlying interesting ideas. I loved “Bad Mustard” (Burckhardt’s titles are great), but he’s a little too fond of “pareidolia” (the phenomenon where a person sees a recognizable image within an inanimate object). In several compositions the shapes seem to organize themselves into faces, which I found both unsettling and gimmicky. 

You don’t quite know where you stand with Burckhardt’s work. It looks contemporary, but has a palette, texture, and form that evokes the past. This ambiguity is intentional; Burckhardt uses technique and his various visual gambits to achieve what he calls a “slowed down look. I want to gently pull the rug out from under the viewer,” catching him unawares and thus engendering a deeper engagement with the work.

At UVA Art Museum: “Master Printmakers: The Italian Renaissance and Its Modern Legacy” and “Curator’s Choice: People, Places, and Things” both through May 20, “100 Years of Photography” through May 13 and “Tom Burckhardt: Paintings” through June 3.

*Clarification: The photography exhibition will cycle through the works of different artists. An earlier version of this story mentioned that the current who would include works from Henri Cartier-Bresson and Eugene Atget, but their work is not currently on display.

**Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed an opinion about non-representational art to the exhibit’s wall display.

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