Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum
Virtues, Vices, Vanities: Paintings by Jean Roberts Guequierre
November 18, 2001 through January 6, 2002
Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum presents Virtues, Vices, Vanities: Paintings by Jean Roberts Guequierre, November 18, 2001 through January 6, 2002, with a public reception Sunday, November 18 from 1 to 4 p.m. Evoking pre-Renaissance European art, the exhibition is a visual feast of Medieval-style figures populating jewel-toned oils while presenting moral issues such as temperance, prudence, faith, fortitude, and justice.
The public is invited to the Remarks and Gallery Talk, a brief lecture by Nathan Guequierre followed by a gallery tour with the artist, on Wednesday, November 28 at 7 p.m. Nathan Guequierre, the artist's husband and an internationally published author, is art critic for the Shepherd Express and contributor to the New Art Examiner. The gallery will be open at 6:30 p.m.
Organized by James DeYoung, head conservator at the Milwaukee Art Museum, Virtues, Vices, Vanities features two dozen oil paintings from several series of work: "Seven Deadly Sins," "Seven Cardinal Virtues," "Games," "Nature Girls," and "Things I Mistook for Love." Often humorous, Guequierre's paintings present people embodying universal roles, the metaphors used to understand life. "There is a brief moment in each child's life where stories heard meld with the observed adult world. For that brief moment, there is a balance between innocence and wisdom," said guest curator James DeYoung, "The paintings of Jean Roberts Guequierre, with their child-like clarity, capture that balance."
Inspired by the Flemish Primitives, Giotto, and illuminations from the medieval Book of Hours, Jean Roberts Guequierre explores games, sins and virtues. "In some ways, I am trying to recapture technical and compositional elements of this art-gestures, flatness, translucency, mutable settings, a narrative voice simultaneously intimate and removed" said Guequierre, "My narratives tend to be more ambiguous, however, than those of old paintings, largely because I don't work with a codified system of symbols."
Guequierre uses painting techniques similar to old masters Van Eyck and VanderWeyden, building multiple layers of translucent oil washes on canvas and board primed with colored grounds. Light pores through the glazes and is reflected off the primer, creating luminous images. The engaged figures -- often borrowed directly or tacitly from earlier paintings -- enact narratives unbounded by neither time nor place. A display devoted to her oil painting process shows artworks in various stages, from preliminary sketches to under painting and glazing.
A skilled draftsperson educated at Kalamazoo College in Michigan, Guequierre has received several prestigious awards including two Milwaukee County Emerging Artist fellowships. She has exhibited in the Midwest, including solo exhibitions at the Madison Wisconsin Academy Gallery, the Hermetic Gallery and Woodland Pattern Book Center in Milwaukee and group exhibitions at the Milwaukee Art Museum and John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan.
Following is the catalogue Introduction by James DeYoung and an essay by the husband of the Artist, Nathan Guequierre, re-printed with permission of the Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum:
by James DeYoung
There is a brief moment in each child's life where stories heard meld with the observed adult world. For that brief
moment, there is a balance between innocence and wisdom. The paintings of Jean Roberts Guequierre, with their
child-like clarity, capture that balance.
Upon first viewing her paintings, one is tempted merely to connect the narrative imagery to the titles. One initially
perceives clearly articulated figures, rendered in exquisite detail. They are intent in their endeavors, dutifully acting out
their roles. But as the viewer becomes sated on the apparent tidiness of color, composition and storytelling, an
uneasiness sets in. Within each of Guequierre1s works is a personal dialogue at which the viewer can only surmise;
indeed, the artist deliberately creates an undercurrent of ambiguity to counter-balance the patina of simple illustration.
The key to perceiving the true scope of each work, however, is to realize that Guequierre1s narratives are not ends in
themselves, but can be a point of departure into new worlds of meaning. The figures, while seemingly engaged with
each other, are too involved with themselves to truly connect. What the viewer really sees is each figure staring
reflectively into the middle distance or positioned to reveal themselves to the viewer (or possibly a mirror) rather than
to the figures with whom they are supposedly interacting.
Because of this self?consciousness of the figures, a transformation of subject takes place, and the paintings become
more universal statements on the human condition ? that process of maturation through self-awareness and the
examination of personality-defining experiences.
Virtue, Vice, Vanity
by Nathan Guequierre
The Virtues of Old Paintings
Of course, there are many reasons people visit art museums to look at old paintings: old paintings are havens of
beauty, locations where the beautiful has been distilled and purified, set in high relief against the mundane and
destitute visual environment that often surrounds us; old paintings appeal to religious sentiment; old paintings appeal
to a sense of orderliness, the countless virgins, saints, crucifixions, depositions endlessly varying a small handful of
subjects; perhaps people hope to make a visceral connection to the distant past, to see distorted reflections of
themselves in the crowd scenes, in the figures residing in intimate interiors, or, like Rembrandt, in the soldiers casting
lots for Jesus1s clothes at the foot of the cross. Or perhaps the opposite is true, and museum visitors hope to lose
themselves in a past completely unrelated to the here and now.
Of course, there are many reasons to look at old paintings, both for what they show and the ways they show it. Take,
for example, the mysterious world inhabited by the Flemish Primitives ? painters like Jan Van Eyck, Rogier
VanderWeyden and Hans Memling, who worked in Brugge at the turn of the 15th century ? which so obviously are the
jumping-off point for the paintings of Jean Roberts Guequierre. The world they depict seems so different from our
own, with its deep colors, its fantasy backgrounds and stiff figures. There is no photographic 3realism2 in paintings
from the age before photography. There is no reliance on the tricks of perspective in paintings from the age when that
science was imperfectly understood. And there is an attendant catalog of visual effects resulting from these 3lacks2 that
seem naive now ? Jesus ascending reveals only feet and ankles dangling from the top of pictorial space ? but their real
effect is to give the paintings of five or six centuries ago a sense of intellectual exertion: these artists were struggling to
find ways to depict a world. They were making up the rules as they played the game.
The Vice of Believing What You See
The problem, of course, is that these paintings are so attractive that one is tempted to believe they somehow
represent the world as people actually experienced it in the past. Things were simpler then: no one doubted the
existence of God, ambition was held in check by a rigid system of mores, miraculous events were commonplace, death
None of that, of course, is true. The result of believing in that world, a world so alien from the current one that it
actually looked different, is to trivialize its contemplation, this made-up place remote from our own concerns. The
mistake arises from insisting that paintings with realistically rendered figures, architecture, settings are in fact realistic
paintings. It is a tribute to the skill of the Van Eycks, Memlings and VanderWeydens of history that countless viewers,
now, can believe in the erstwhile reality of the worlds they created on gessoed board. Their surfaces are so
preternaturally smooth, their brushstrokes so minute, the hand of the artist so distant, the compositions so airtight that
they don1t allow the breathing of a word of doubt as to their perfection, as to their truth. And that is why, at first
glance, their stories seem so foreign to us, even though they are so aesthetically compelling.
It is that particular sense of pictorial perfection that Guequierre uses to her advantage. We expect hermetic,
self-referring content from paintings like these, full of allusions and codified visual references. If that1s a brick tower,
it must be St. Barbara. But easy answers are what Guequierre doesn1t provide, only their outward appearance.
The Vanity of Assuming the Present is Different from the Past
But even though the painters of the era preceding the Renaissance didn1t know the joy of cellphones and DVD
players, of transcontinental air travel and 401Ks, it is mere hubris that causes us to imagine their lives were any
3simpler2 than our own. Any more naive, more full of certainty, less important for being unmodern. That their
consciences were clearer or their goals less lofty. In truth, the world the Flemish Primitives depict is the same fictional
one depicted in any Modern painting, in any photograph taken at any time during the last century and a half, in any
newscast that slipped into your home this week.
And because it1s fiction, that means that you can overlay your own stories on top of that world, on top of any of those
pictures. That1s the crux of the Jean Roberts Guequierre1s refusal to let rest the idiosyncratic images, compositions,
gestures, surfaces of pre-Renaissance painting. Those artists were making up the rules as they went along, finding a way
to depict not their lives, but the stories they needed to tell, narrating the grandest themes of human experience on the
smallest, most personal scales.
To make up the rules as the game is played is an attribute normally ascribed to Modernism. But Guequierre1s
paintings are well past Modern. Rather than seeking to distort experience through reduction, Guequierre indulges in
the glory of maximums: maximum imagery, maximum depth, maximum ambiguity, maximum latitude to wander
about inside the paintings. The worlds she creates seem unfamiliar, but don1t assume that there1s no room for you in
This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 6/3/11
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