Seeing the Barnes Foundation collection in Philadelphia several years ago changed the way I look at museum installations, permanent or temporary. I thought of its lessons during a visit to the Gulf Coast Museum of Art to see the special exhibition, "Liquid Metal," along with a refresher on its permanent collection, which alone is worth a visit.
The late Albert Barnes amassed a diverse collection of art, heavy on European works, especially late 19th and early 20th century French painting. He created his famous wall ensembles, mixing them with African sculpture, American Indian ceramics and textiles, early American furniture and decorative metals and just about anything else that captured his eye. Then he arranged everything in seemingly eccentric combinations with no identifying labels, no chronological order and no historical context.
It's meant to peel away preconceptions. Instead of thinking "Oh, that's a Renoir" and loading it with our baggage of impressionist opinions, we are meant to see a painting full of dappled, intense pastels and appreciate its curvaceous appeal in conjunction with the curves of an 18th century iron bracket nearby. Problematic or brilliant, depending on your viewpoint. Always thought-provoking.
My reasons for recalling the Barnes come later; back to "Liquid Metal."
I like the show of three artists' work in metal. If you're partial to jewelry, Carol Jenrette's natural forms will inspire you to break out of the single-strand-pearls school of accessorization. James Liccione's furniture might motivate you to rethink the role of candelabra in your life. And Robert Coon's abstract sculptures — honestly, they're way too big for most homes or yards. But they're fun to look at.
Jenrette's particular gift is in draping metal as if it were fabric, an aesthetic she acquired as a clothing designer. Her brooches are especially striking. Large and dimensional, they have faint references to animals or plants without any exact identification. Pearls Gone Wild is an over-the-top silver and gold ring spouting pearls that spray from its top like arrested fireworks. All you would need when wearing it is the simplest little black dress.
The few pieces of cloisonne she makes (as a diversion from straight metalworking) are just as lovely. My favorite was a brooch with an abstract cloisonne design, gold and silver leaf flecks worked into it and tiny cloisonne "sprinkles."
I loved Liccione's tall candelabra draped in ribbons and twists of metal brushed with colored patinas, rising sometimes to almost 7 feet. The elaborate designs had me trying to follow the lines from the base feet, five or six of them, through the spirals to the candle holders on top. They looked ready to break into a Lumiere dance from Beauty and the Beast.
Like them, Liccione's other furniture is centerpiece work, meant to be the defining feature in a room. The reinvention of a grandfather clock certainly would be. And anyone sitting on one of his chaises would be, too.
Coon's sculptures, sited on an outdoor terrace, are a departure from the other two artists with their simple, abstract curves and angles, their straightforward colors. With Merlin's Compass, painted a frosty purple, a slender, pointed spear juts from a circular form like a giant wand. You expect a thunderbolt to strike.
This, like almost every special exhibition in the world, is themed. Which means it's organized around one idea or several related ones that lead us to conclusions. "Liquid Metal's" idea is that metal is hard and unyielding except when it's heated and artists such as these three can shape it into creative forms.
An obvious point. Easy. It does nothing to enhance our appreciation of each artist. It doesn't contribute to our understanding of art. Why do it?
I don't want to pick on the Gulf Coast Museum. Its curators are providing what the public expects, and this museum, in a lovely but out-of-the-way location, needs approbation and support. It needs likable, populist shows, which this one certainly is.
The link between the three artists is more appropriate than some I have seen at museum exhibitions when the theme and common ground between the individuals are stretched to the point of absurdity to justify the grouping.
Works in the permanent collection at Gulf Coast, which I think are underappreciated, all have in some way, a relation to Florida, though unless the art is a landscape, you won't know what it is. Nor do you need to.
So I thought of the Barnes collection and its insistent nudging to make our own associations.
Disparity, I believe, is okay.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8293.