“New Neo” explores the postmodern connection to the past. Everything Old is “Neo” Again
— Style Weekly Magazine
The quintessential motto of the ancient Greeks was “Man is the measure of all things.” Greek gods were conceived in human form, their temples and sculpture measured in relation to human scale, and their literature, science and philosophy all emphasized the individual.
The profundity and significance of Greco-Roman thought to Western civilization cannot be overstated. Our reverence for their legacy can be summed up in the term “classic.” While “classic” in the strictest sense refers to any Greek or Roman work of the highest quality, today, it is used to describe anything that is a model of excellence — a golf classic or classical music, for example.
While classic Greek aesthetics and thought are tightly woven throughout Western history, there were specific periods when it was strongly embraced and emulated. The 14th-16th century Italian Renaissance was a rebirth of classic thought placed within a Christian framework. The neoclassical movement in art and architecture in Europe of the 18th and early 19th centuries was a revival of classical form and ideals as interpreted by the likes of the architect Thomas Jefferson and sculptor Antonio Canova.
A resurgence of classicism has emerged again in the early 21st century, but perhaps with a more cynical twist. The fruits of postmodernism have shown us a more critical way of understanding the past, epitomized by the concept that everything has already been done. All artists and writers are plagiarists in a sense because originality is no longer cherished. The art historian, Donald Kuspit, in describing postmodernism notes, “Nothing is new, only neo.”
“New Neo: Nine Artists Altering the Classics,” the current show at the Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen, curated by Style art critic Deborah McLeod, is a classic example of a postmodernist reinterpretation of the Greco-Roman legacy. While Plato claimed there were eternal forms that were pure and ideal, these nine artists explore, even challenge such a theory in the multivalent alterations that make up their art. Or as McLeod states, “We now occupy a time where a single ideal regarding perfection cannot be upheld because it often conflicts with other ideals.”
While all nine artists manipulate classical imagery, they seem to fall into three categories. Most artists in the show appropriate Greek or Roman art and architecture. Joe Seipel borrows an Athenian frieze sculpture from the Parthenon and transforms it into a self-referential study with a portrait of himself inserted on a Greek god’s body. Seipel calls it “Me, Myself, and I,” and he employs classical imagery and philosophy in a personal, psychoanalytical context.
Marlene Jack also employs sculpture to distinctly relate her personal struggle. Small terra-cotta models of Greek temples and Corinthian columns are capped with an imperfect female human form. The white figurine with missing side and arm poised atop a classic column comments on the failure of projected perfection within the realm of human life, disease and death. Or maybe it is just a witty interpretation of the amputated form of many Greek sculptures like the Venus de Milo.
Ruth Bolduan, Diego Sanchez and Amie Oliver borrow Greco-Roman art and architecture in two-dimensional form. Sanchez places the Coliseum and Pantheon in a dripping, vibrant abstract expressionistic grid, conveying a struggle between intellectual fervor and emotional, painterly subjectivity.
A second alteration of classical form is demonstrated in Erjun Zhao’s paintings. She does not reference Greco-Roman classicism but rather the rebirth of that thought during the Renaissance. The often ethnocentric Western tradition is challenged by her compositions in which an Asian woman replaces Botticelli’s Venus. As the wind god, Zephr, blows her to shore and a mortal woman rushes to cloak her, the postmodern Venus is not a perfect blonde, white female, but an Asian woman with a bold and direct gaze.
The artist who most clearly expresses the experience of being both Chinese and American is Richmonder Erjun Zhao. Five of her eight oil paintings contain passages from famous Western masterpieces of art history— Botticelli’s “La Primavera” and Velázquez’s “Las Meninas,” for example — but these images are juxtaposed with a portrait of the artist or another Asian woman. The tension between East and West, Chinese and American, is palpable. The woman literally pushes herself into the Western world, urging the viewer to regard her as not an object, but as an individual in the greater scheme of the cultural divide.
-Jenny Ramirez Writer, Art Critic