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Pretty Sweet: The Sentimental Image in Contemporary Art

January 15 - April 15, 2005



(above: Doug Bell, Pretty Sweet Stack: Clock Tick, 2005, mixed-media assemblage, approximately 10 x 7 x 7 feet, Lent by the Artist, Courtesy Hall Space, Boston, MA)


Pretty Sweet is a group thematic exhibition that features over 100 artworks in all media by 33 New England artists. The show is transforming almost the entirety of the Museum into a refuge for the expression of the sweeter, softer, more tender emotions. Many artists in Pretty Sweet are united by their interest in popular imagery that evokes happiness, love, nostalgia, delight, innocence, comfort, the cute, the quaint, and the beautiful. Other artists adopt a campy, ironic approach to hearts and flowers, and still others attack this type of imagery in socio-political works that deal with domestic abuse, racial and gender oppression, violence, consumerism, and pornography. Taken together, the artworks in Pretty Sweet reflect the many different ways in which contemporary artists use sentimental imagery. (right: Maxine Yalovitz-Blankenship, Bully, from "A One-Act Play in Pantomime," 2003, 44 x 30 inches (series); acrylic, sand, embroidery thread on paper)

The visual evocation of the sweeter emotions in contemporary art involves an iconography that includes hearts, flowers, candy, birds, domestic arts and interiors, babies and children, family and antique photographs, Victoriana, kitsch, toys, jewelry, and a wide variety of decorative motifs. Formally, palettes tend toward pastel, day-glow, or sepia, textures and surfaces are soft, scale is intimate, and materials can include hand- and hobby-craft items, needlework, and found objects and photographs that imply sentimental value.

Contemporary artists approach the sentimental for three primary reasons: to celebrate the positive emotional spectrum, to evoke memory and nostalgia, and to ironically attack sentimentality as an inauthentic and damaging simplification of the human condition. Running throughout these categories is a deep ambivalence about the sentimental image, which parallels American society's love-hate relationship with this material. On the one hand, the sentimental has been ruthlessly cast out of serious intellectual discourse since the early nineteenth century (most vehemently by Modernism), but on the other, the most successful artist working today is Thomas Kinkade, a painter of treacly landscapes whose art empire is traded on the New York Stock Exchange. The embrace of sentimental imagery may well be the most radical and avant-garde stance possible for a contemporary artist to take.

Pretty Sweet includes painting, sculpture, drawing, photography, video, new and mixed-media works, and several site-specific installations created expressly for this exhibition. DeCordova's galleries will be a riot of pastel colors, soft textures, day-glow craft materials, and found objects redolent with "sentimental value." And the sweet imagery addressed by the artists includes birds, babies, kitsch, Disney, antique photos, romance novel covers, sad-eyed puppies with floppy flowered hats, coloring books, stuffed animals, toiles de Jouy, Bouguereau paintings, embroidery, a fairy house for grown-ups, the Big Bad Wolf, Barbie, angels, and grandmas. (left: Robert Arnold, The Morphology of Desire, 1999, DVE-R/PAL video, continuous loop, DeCordova Museum Permanent Collection)

Pretty Sweet is organized by Curator Nick Capasso and Curatorial Fellow Alexandra Novina, and includes work by Leika Akiyama, Ilona Anderson, Robert Arnold, Doug Bell, Kathleen Bitetti, Dana C. Chandler (Akin Duro), Cynthia Consentino, Christin Couture, Maryjean Viano Crowe, Katherine Desjardins, Ben Freeman, Amy Goodwin, Michela Griffo, Judy Haberl, Lorie Hamermesh, Colleen Kiely, Catherine McCarthy, Blake Ogden, Roberta Paul, Amy Podmore, David Prifti, Claudia Ravaschiere, Kay Ruane, Neil Salley, Gail Spaien, Annee Spileos Scott and David C. Scott, Edith Vonnegut, Candace Walters and Brenda Atwood Pinardi, Ann Wessmann, Lucy White, and Maxine Yalovitz-Blankenship.

Pretty Sweet: The Sentimental Image in Contemporary Art is accompanied by a full-color catalogue, and is funded in part by Mary Levin Koch and Citizens Bank Foundation.



(above: Kay Ruane, Cow, 2004, graphite on vellum, 17 x 11 inches, Lent by the Artist, Courtesy Miller Block Gallery, Boston, MA)


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