"Going for Baroque" is a fascinating idea provocatively realized. It's erratic, some of its art is less than immortal, and at times it verges on being about labels rather than art. But at its best the show is revelatory, and it never fails to hold the viewer's interest.
A collaboration of The Contemporary (which is all about art of today) and the Walters Art Gallery (which is all about art of the past), "Going for Baroque" places the work of 18 contemporary artists in the context of 17th and 18th century Baroque and rococo works in the Walters' collection. The idea is to show how contemporary artists respond to art of the Baroque era, a time of uncertainty and upheaval somewhat like our own.
All of these artists use the past to address their own concerns. Mere copying or emulation for its own sake is not the purpose of any of them, but some come a lot closer than others, and not always to advantage. Adrian Saxe's and Cindy Sherman's ceramics, in imitation of 18th century models, can be read for contemporary meanings, but they're so close to the originals that one tends to take them at face value.
Far more pointed, as well as amusing, is Jean Love's group consisting of a painting and several pieces of furniture placed in the Walters' gallery of 18th century fine and decorative arts. Deliberately ill-proportioned and clumsy, Love's objects suggest the foolishness of spending precious resources on luxury instead of more important things.
Karl Connolly's paintings play off of the Baroque in both form and content. They also constitute one of the most successful contributions to the show, thanks to his extraordinary skills as a painter and the depth of his thought. The figures, the compositions, the colors of his "Fisherman" and "Ouroborus" can be easily related to the nearby 17th century paintings by Ribera and Giordano, on which they are based. Like the earlier works, Connolly's pictures also address the subject of faith. The figures in his works appear to have been abandoned by God, but it's also possible to interpret these paintings to mean that any abandonment has been on our part.
Andres Serrano's works also deal with faith. From the series "The Church," his dramatically cropped photographs of nuns complement Murillo's "The Immaculate Conception" in color and subject matter. But because we can't see the faces of his figures, Serrano suggests an ambiguity and uncertainty quite foreign to Murillo's image.
Ann Fessler's installation on the subject of rape and Bryan Hunt's sculptures based on Bernini sculpture are among the show's most successful accomplishments. Others come off not as well. Paul Etienne Lincoln's installation, "In Tribute to Madame de Pompadour and the Court of Louis XV," placed in the Walters' gallery of Sevres porcelains, means little on its own. Enlightenment must come from the accompanying texts. David Reed's abstract painting studies relate to the two Baroque paintings they accompany on such a theoretical level that it will be hard for most viewers to see the relationships, even with the texts. And some of the Baroque works these artists have chosen to use are not among the most compelling creations of their age.
But the overriding virtue of this show is that it makes you really look at both the contemporary and the Baroque art. Dotty Attie's "Henry and Father" reproduces details from Walters paintings to tell a story about the father-son relationship of collectors William and Henry Walters. But it also forces us to focus on and relate to the paintings that are her sources, rather than just glance at them.
At times this exhibit makes you feel as if you've reached a whole new level of seeing, and in that lies its great strength.
At the Walters
What: "Going for Baroque"
Where: The Walters Art Gallery, 600 N. Charles St.
When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, through Feb. 4
Admission: $4 adults, $3 seniors, free to students and ages 18 and under
Call: (410) 547-9000