Art » Art Feature

Beautiful Creatures

St. John at Harrington Brown; Canaletto at the Brooks.



Christopher St. John's passionately painted, endlessly inventive exhibition "Icarus Transformed" at Harrington Brown re-envisions the Greek myth in which a boy fails to heed his father's warning, flies too close to the sun, melts his wax-and-feather wings, falls into the sea, and drowns. Instead of being doomed by hubris, St. John's protagonists — feminine versions of Icarus — defy their limitations, spread their wings/arms/fins/paws, and attempt to soar again and again and again.

Many of St. John's creatures, as in A Strange Angel, survive the fall but have not quite worked out all the kinks. This bald, baby-faced angel with one white and one red wing, bright-pink genitalia, and a huge left arm (sprouting blue fur and industrial-grade fingernails) looks out at us with an ecstatic or perhaps maniacal smile.

In what looks like natural selection at warp speed, St. John's oils on panel and more than 300 drawings mix and match seemingly endless permutations of species that stretch like pulled taffy in Melt the Wax, swell to the point of bursting in Severing Point, and flow like founts of blood in The Filter.

Naked except for lush pubic hair and with heads that look like lampshades joined at the cheek, two Icaruses sing in unison in Paper Dolls Sing Your Praise. Their wings have morphed into multiple and very full teets. Their foreheads sprout horns like a unicorn, another mythic creature noted for its beauty, purity, and faithfulness. Unashamed, uncensored, unabashedly inventive and alive, Paper Dolls, like all St. John's creatures, suggest the most fatal flaw (and surest prescription for defeat), instead of hubris, is failure of the imagination.

Closing reception, Friday, April 30th

At Harrington Brown through May 4th

A wide range of genres depicting both grandeur and everyday pathos in "Venice in the Age of Canaletto," the masterworks exploring often conflicting loyalties — to God, country, family, business, and pleasure — make Memphis Brooks Museum of Art's current exhibition a powerful meditation on what it means to be human in this or any other century.

The inspiration for the exhibition, The Grand Canal from the Campo San Vio by master scene painter Canaletto, creates the impression we are strolling along the campo. With deft strokes and telling details, Canaletto captures the attitude and physiognomy of strong, svelte seamen hoisting their sails, hauling in their nets. A brawny man in tattered clothing, perhaps a former seaman himself, stares out to sea. An invalid makes the most of a beautiful day by resting in the sunlight against a deteriorating palace wall. A master of perspective as well as architectural and figurative detail, Canaletto paints grand domed churches, the Customs House, more palaces along the banks of the canal, and dozens of ships in the far distance.

To further deepen our understanding of 18th-century Venice, a wide range of textiles, furniture, prints, and paintings have been gathered from museums and galleries across the country.

Beneath grand statuary, back-dropped by a serenely majestic body of water, a wealthy young couple dance The Minuet in Tiepolo's oil on canvas on loan from the New Orleans Museum of Art. Crowds of revelers, of all ages and from all stations of life, pair off for pleasures more abandoned than the courtly minuet. Masqueraders at the center of Tiepolo's carnival wear the tall conical hats and beak-nosed masks of Punchinello, a popular comedic character described in the show's catalog as "embodying humanity's cruelty and deceit" and "evoking the sorrows and poignancy of existence."

While all the show's mythological, historical, and religious paintings are masterfully executed, the most moving works, like The Minuet, possess a moral complexity that goes beyond the pursuit of pleasure, beyond the conquest of heaven and earthly principality.

Intended to be displayed as a pair, Sebastiano Ricci's pendant paintings involve choices. In his dramatically staged, richly colored Jephthah and His Daughter, a Israelite general will keep his promise to God — to offer up the first living creature to emerge from his house upon his victorious return — though this means sacrificing his only child. In The Finding of Moses, in order to save a child, a daughter defies her father's decree that all newborn sons of the Hebrews be slain.

At the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art through May 9th

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