The Huntington offers blooming gardens, cream teas, Blue Boy and Pinkie. Walking into the foyer of the stately Art Gallery, a beaux arts mansion once home to collectors Henry and Arabella Huntington, is a step back in time with rooms delightfully furnished with 18th and 19th century furniture, English silver, French porcelains and some exquisite paintings made before the modern era. On the second floor, in a gallery with windows overlooking the grounds, there is a bold new development: paintings and sculptures by contemporary artists Lesley Vance and Ricky Swallow on view through March 11.
The artists happen to be married – she is from Wisconsin, he from Australia-- and in addition to sharing studio space, they share an apparent interest in the formal aspects of traditional art as they may be reinterpreted for the present. Vance’s paintings are modest in scale and her swirls of brush work play against shapes and patterns of solid color in a way that recalls earlier experiments in abstraction. Yet, she works from arrangements of still life objects that she photographs. As she paints, the picture morphs away from representation to play with illusions of two and three dimensionality and reflection. Her palette is muted, free from the artificial hues of acrylic paint or the digital realm.
Similarly, Swallow’s sculptures are no larger than a table lamp apart from the one about five feet tall and positioned in a hallway. He deconstructs everyday objects like cups, vases, even a small guitar, and remakes them in cardboard that is cast in bronze and patinated in various soft colors. His work looks as though David Smith and Pablo Picasso had turned to the contents of the kitchen cupboards and the utility closets for inspiration. Like Vance, they evince the pull of familiarity but there is the twist of making it work for today without being anachronistic.
Though all of their work was made in the past few years, the show seems a fitting continuation of the art of previous centuries arranged throughout the house. About one-third of the work was created specifically for this exhibition and the domestic scale is ideal for a gallery that was once living space. Huntington Curator Catherine Hess arranged the show with Christopher Bedford and as she notes in the catalogue, “all art was at one time contemporary.” Curiously, the experience of seeing the contemporary painting and sculpture refreshes the experience of seeing the grand manner portraits, the Chinese Chippendale chairs. This works well in an adjacent gallery where a single small painting and sculpture are in the corner as a surprise. The small catalog with essays by Hess, Bedford and Suzanne Hudson is a nice complement. Hopefully, this will be viewed as so satisfactory an experience that the Huntington house can accommodate more such exhibitions. For more information, go to www.Huntington.org.