Sometimes disappointment deepens, encompasses such a wide scope that it overmatches our prior expectations, overwhelms our abilities, and threatens to shade into a more general disillusion that would stop us cold. Thus, one ethical task of critical thinking might be to steer us through our disappointment; to prevent it from turning into a permanent disillusionment; to make of our disappointment a plausible beginning, rather than a certain ending.
Thomas L. Dumm, “Resignation”
Damaged Romanticism revolves around a seemingly simple premise: powerful, positive artwork can spring from profound disappointment. If tempered, loss can be transformed from a descent into despair into a journey of optimism and creative renewal. The concept is underscored by the clash of current events—political and cultural change, natural disasters, financial uncertainty, and war—with historical influences, especially the European romantic movement, which infused the arts and literature of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The resulting exhibition imagines a “damaged romanticism,” where the historical movement’s exoticism and fantasy have been reshaped by the clarity of pragmatic realism.
Featuring painting, sculpture, installation, photography, and video by fifteen artists from around the world, the exhibition showcases the confrontation between classic, highly idyllic, romanticism and contemporary pragmatism. It conveys the complexity of everyday reality by giving form to multifaceted, even contradictory sentiments, placing rebellion, disillusionment, and defiance side by side.
The featured works are stubbornly optimistic and illustrate what we might call an “aftermath aesthetic,” a visual representation of the determination to defeat the deluge, heartbreak, or devastation of life. Built upon the belief that rebirth grows out of experiences of things gone wrong, the exhibition suggests that the future can be better than the present. Embodying a survivor’s sensibility, damaged romanticism leaves no illusions about the difficulty of struggle or the chance for success. Instead, the diverse group of artists presented here explores multilayered responses to the world, identifying damaged romanticism as a powerful mirror of modern emotion.
Born Stourbridge, England, 1970; lives in Brighton, England
During the mid-1990s, Richard Billingham gained international acclaim for a series of painfully candid photographs capturing his family at home in a poor council flat outside Birmingham. Observing viewers’ reactions to these early works, Billingham commented, “I quickly came to realize that most people only saw the surface of the images,” adding “I don’t think most people saw the beauty underneath or how well the pictures were composed.”
In his recent series Black Country, on view here, the artist focuses on composition—how the lines, forms, and shadows fit inside the picture’s four edges—rather than subject matter. “I wanted to take some photographs that stripped away any hint of sensational subject matter but would remain very good photographs.” He notes that he
chose his hometown as the series’ focus because “I wanted to take some photographs that stripped away any hint of sensational subject matter, and it was the most boring subject I could think of.”
Berlinde De Bruyckere
Born Ghent, Belgium, 1964; lives in Ghent
Throughout her career, Berlinde De Bruyckere has created sculpture and installations that occupy the interstices between abstraction and representation. Her art is steeped in anxiety, and her images are filled with contradictory impulses. Figurative but not portrayals, emotive but not emotional, her sculptures posit existence as a struggle between memory and immediacy, safety and danger, love and rejection. Although pared down and severe, they embody a warm, human softness that is rendered in achingly tender or surprisingly sensual ways.
Born St. Catharines, Canada, 1955; lives in Toronto
Edward Burtynsky’s images address the intense upheaval caused by industrial globalization, merging the sublimely uplifting with the savagely demeaned. In his classically composed photographs, the Romantic notion of transcendent landscape is altered by human striving. Beauty abounds, but it is the ruined beauty of a terminally ill world where industry’s colorful, toxic splendor replaces the soaring majesty of mountains and streams.
Born Paris, 1953; lives in Paris
Sophie Calle blurs the boundaries between art and life, public and private, truth and fiction. Her multipart project of 2003, Exquisite Pain—part performance and part imagemaking—examines the emotional impact of romantic rejection and the healing power of creative exorcism. Inspired by the painful experience of loss, this narrative suite of photographs and texts addresses issues of romantic rejection, memory, self-pity, and, ultimately, recovery.
In the project’s first section, “before unhappiness,” Calle employed snapshots, letters, and other memorabilia to mark her progression toward romantic rupture. On view here is a selection from the second section, “after unhappiness,” consisting of a collection of stitched texts and photographs that convey her friends’ tragic accounts, which they made to help the artist place her own experience in perspective.
Born Oklahoma City, 1953; lives in New York
In her monumental and unconventional sculptures, Petah Coyne fearlessly takes on the human condition. Her complex, layered works made from non-traditional materials harness the language of opposites to probe concepts of life and death, growth and decay, order and chaos. Coyne balances horror and humor, light and darkness. In her work, memory plays a key role, reflecting the tension between life and life’s traces. The artist’s emphatically physical presences propose fragile but steely metaphors for highly personal emotions. The profound sense of bereavement found throughout her work is tempered by the possibility that balance can be gained in the wake of loss.
Born Ostuni, Italy, 1970; lives in New York
Angelo Filomeno’s painterly silk canvases combine a biting, bleak worldview with wild splendor, depicting death and destruction with sparkling rhinestones and rich metallic threads— a tactile overload that seduces us into a world where dark emotions produce ecstasy. Equal parts art history and fantasy, Filomeno’s art suggests a place and time where beauty mitigates death’s inevitability. Honed in the worlds of fashion and performance, his highly theatrical work finds its roots in ancient art, allegorical symbolism, and fairy tales of spinning straw into gold.
Born Copenhagen, 1974; lives in Copenhagen and New York
A struggle for human connection inspires the short films of Jesper Just. In their actions and personalities, his mostly male characters challenge cultural stereotypes of men as assertive, insensitive, and overbearing. Just pushes traditional Hollywood formulas to their limits, employing metaphor and emotion to overpower plot narratives in favor of the drama and turmoil of everyday life. Expressing their inner passions through popular song lyrics, his characters transport viewers from the specific to the universal.
Born Stuttgart, 1973; lives in Cologne and Los Angeles
Florian Maier-Aichen’s monumental photographs offer an apocalyptic vision of the natural world. Digitally altering the color and composition of a landscape viewed from an almost impossibly distant vantage point, he removes any sense of human connection. Maier-Aichen’s photographs depict a world permanently transformed by technology, where emotionally loaded experiences simply don’t matter, and the truth of the world is too complex to be contained by a single system.
Born Houston, 1951; lives in Nacogdoches, Texas
Mary McCleary’s stories are rooted in many sources, including the Bible, literature, and modern history. Her lush, vibrant mixed-media collages, jam-packed with a cornucopia of materials, evoke a world where seemingly impossible events appear normal. Most of McCleary’s pictures—which range from large, realistic landscapes, to portraits, street-scenes, interiors, and still lifes—depict ordinary people and settings that seem familiar at first glance. But for all their basis in fact, upon closer observation, the works’ surfaces soon reveal themselves to be unusual, even otherworldly. Underscoring this effect are the scrolls wrapped around the paintings’ edges, which offer cautionary tales about the prospect of redemption.
Born Nairobi, 1972; lives in New York
Wangechi Mutu’s collages, made in the high-keyed colors of body parts snipped from glossy fashion and lifestyle magazines, are both elegant and wicked. Her post-apocalyptic creatures both entice and repel. Deconstructing traditional ideals about women, race, and beauty, she imagines a new model—a self who struggles to find peace in the face of conflicts between personal desires and society’s demands. Wearing their physical pain with pride, her bodies assert otherworldly female strength as a locus of hope and change in a world gone awry.
Born Hässleholm, Sweden, 1966; lives in New York and Stockholm
Anneè Olofsson’s video and photographic series explore the depths of emotion that can spring from human interactions. Employing herself and her relationship with her parents as her prime subjects, Olofsson probes the often painful confrontations that accompany aging, vanity, guilt, and desire. Beneath all her images, and despite their stark and sensual beauty, lies the recognition that solitude is a basic human condition, that life is a lonely journey toward our final demise.
Born Darmstadt, Germany, 1970; lives in Berlin
Julia Oschatz’s work is influenced by traditional Romantic paintings, which often showed humans on a tiny scale, overpowered by a majestic landscape. In her series Paralysed Paradise, she employs Wesen—a small, expressionless mouse-like creature—to symbolize the human quest for self-knowledge and solitude in a sublime world.
Born Bergisch, Germany, 1971; lives in Leipzig
David Schnell paints the present moment from the point of view of the very near future, looking back on contemporary civilization as if it had just ended. In his paintings of thick forests, empty pathways, abandoned grandstands, and derelict wooden structures, contemporary technology collides with idyllic trips to the countryside. At once wistful and unsentimental, Schnell’s subtly unsettling images are filtered through the lens of modern life and cast a forlorn glance at a future that promises only uncertainty. In the world Schnell describes, pleasure is fleeting and inevitably conjures up pain, terror, and dread.
Born Fort Knox, Kentucky, 1978; lives in Los Angeles
Born San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Mexico, 1979; lives in Los Angeles
Los Angeles artists Ryan Taber and Cheyenne Weaver recall Romanticism’s love affair with operatic drama. In the sculptural installation on view here—which incorporates a model of Chinchona (quinine) bark with Richard Wagner’s Bayreuth Festpielhaus, Dermestid beetles, and leitmotifs from Wagner’s Waking of Brunnhilde, in his Ring cycle—they shrink the opera stage down to the scale of tabletop dollhouses and model-railroad dioramas. Open-ended and free form, the work’s various components leap from inkling to idea to insight, as the big picture gradually slips into focus. Evading the linear story told from beginning to end, their art presents multilayered parts that echo against each other and can be viewed from any direction and in any order.