SAN DIEGO — Look carefully and you can witness an exchange between artists of different worlds, different generations, different eras.
The dialogue has been staged at two local institutions, the Timken Art Gallery in Balboa Park, which houses a collection of European and American art made through the end of the 19th Century, and the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art (SDMCA) in La Jolla. For a period of just more than two months, each museum has sent the other two paintings from its permanent collection to hang among works that relate in style to works from the other's collection.
This kind of "compare and contrast" exercise is one of the art historian's best friends, although it is more often done through illustrations in texts and slides in lectures. It is a way to fine-tune critical sensibilities, to draw distinctions and definitions. The method has its pitfalls, however. It can easily be too facile, bringing works together that share only the most superficial of features. At best, though, the thoughtful juxtaposition of works can act as a catalyst for fresh insights. Each work can illuminate aspects of the other that might be left unseen in another context.
The Timken/SDMCA exchange, through Jan. 2, accomplishes this synergistic feat with grace and modesty. Only four paintings change hands in this phase of the exchange program--two more exchange shows will follow, the next will open in February--but the impact feels much broader, for the show plants the tempting, sweeping notion in the viewer's mind that all art is, on one level, a conversation among artists. This continuous visual dialogue obeys no chronological or geographical boundaries; its mutterings vibrate wherever art is made and shown.
At the Museum of Contemporary Art, echoes of the past resonate loudly in Odd Nerdrum's 1987 painting, "The Sleeping Twins," now hanging next to the Timken's "Christ on the Cross," by Bartolome Esteban Murillo and "Saint Bartholomew," by Rembrandt van Rijn.
All three paintings share a dark, earthy atmosphere, their human subjects emerging from these somber depths with an otherworldly glow. Christ, in the Murillo, appears pale and waxen but ethereal against a vast sky of steel gray clouds. Saint Bartholomew's strong features catch only a raking, golden light in Rembrandt's characteristically dense, dark brown space.
Nerdrum, a contemporary Norwegian artist, paints with the same dramatic intensity as the Spanish and Dutch old masters. He basks his strangely cocooned twin women in a soft, ivory light and lays them down on an ambiguous, earthen bed. Despite the secular nature of his subjects, Nerdrum shares with his aesthetic forebears a penchant for evoking the spiritual in the palpably physical.
At the Timken, "House," a 1984 painting by the former San Diegan Robert Ginder, is now hanging in a gallery of icons. This work, too, aggrandizes and spiritualizes the mundane. As with Nerdrum, it is Ginder's painting technique that bolsters this effort and may even carry it entirely.
Ginder mimics the methods and materials of medieval icon painters in his image of a humble, typical Southern California abode, a single-story white stucco with a Spanish-tile roof, fronted by a lawn and large palm tree. He paints the house on a heavy wooden panel, arched on top and cracked to suggest age. Instead of carrying through with the naturalistic painting style used to depict the house and its surrounds, Ginder represents the sky with a layer of luminous gold leaf similar to that used in the surrounding icons to denote the heavens.
This self-conscious straddling of the past and present, the heavenly and the earthly, startles and amuses but also prompts substantive questions regarding the nature of the American dream and the distinctions between material and spiritual wealth.
Another jarring juxtaposition can be found in the Timken's gallery of American paintings. There, among the sublime landscapes of Albert Bierstadt and Jasper Cropsey, hangs a quietly disturbing work by contemporary New York painter Stephen Hannock, also from the SDMCA's collection. In his "Vortex at Dawn" (1990), Hannock assumes the same reverent, distanced gaze and preoccupation with light as the 19th-Century Luminist painters in his midst, but Hannock's concerns are distinctly of this century.
The spiraling cloud in his otherwise still and serene seascape is not a natural phenomenon but one that deviates, especially in spirit and intent, from the natural order. As the wall label explains, Hannock's subject is the self-destructing Trident II missile. The wondrous explosion peaks in a burst of light at the spiral's center. Its beauty gives no hint of the violence taking place.
While the other paintings in the Timken's American gallery celebrate the marvels of creation--from a simple magnolia blossom to the grandeur of Yosemite Falls--Hannock's pays homage to the spectacle of destruction. It describes without cynicism the capacity of man to create beauty and evil in a single gesture, to evoke awe and revulsion simultaneously.
The meaning of both Hannock's work and those surrounding it is amplified by the anachronism of their display together. The same holds true for the other juxtapositions between new and older works in this first phase of the Timken-SDMCA exchange. The program makes visible the animated challenges and heady homages, echoes, inspirations and revolts that link artists of disparate worlds. In doing so, it restores to the museums' collections an excitement that, these days, is usually left to the blockbuster show.