Hidden meanings

“Ornamental lushness, seductive surface techniques…”

Consider us intrigued by the next exhibition at the Hudson River Museum.

A showcase of 20-plus contemporary artists whose work is inspired by an earlier aesthetic, “The Neo-Victorians: Contemporary Artists Revive Gilded-Age Glamour” will open Feb. 10 in Yonkers.

But don’t expect a straightforward journey into the past. The show is billed as “an exhibition of contemporary art that employs Victorian aesthetics as a lens to explore modern concerns.”

This sweeping, multimedia journey into contemporary thought on gender roles and beauty is organized by the Hudson River Museum and guest curated by HRM’s former deputy director Bartholomew F. Bland, who’s now the executive director of the Lehman College Art Gallery, City University of New York.


Chet Morrison. “Man and His Bird,” 2005. Epson enhanced matte paper. Courtesy of the artist. Image courtesy Hudson River Museum.

As advance materials share, there’s been a resurgence of interest in the last decade in “ornamental lushness, with works of art that conceal pointed social commentary beneath seductive surface techniques. More than 20 contemporary artists whose work is inspired by the aesthetics of the 19th century have shaped, molded and transformed these ideas to reflect today’s concerns, commenting on gender roles and societal tensions under the guise of the overt beauty. The Neo-Victorians will encourage audiences both familiar and unfamiliar with the Gilded Age to look at the growing group of contemporary artists imbued with a ‘Victorian aesthetic,’ and to recognize how visual influences of the past continue to shape art in the present day.”

The subject matter is well-suited to the museum, as its collection includes American art from the 19th century through the present and its site encompasses Glenview, a Gilded Age home on the National Register of Historic Places.

Visitors to “The Neo-Victorians” will no doubt be amazed by the variety of approaches to the subject matter, with the artists working in large-scale installations, textiles, cut-paper sculptures, video, photography and more.

Artists in the exhibition include Troy Abbott, Jennifer Angus, Joan Bankemper, Nancy Blum, Ebony Bolt, Laurent Chehere, Alison Collins, Camille Eskell, Lisa A. Frank, Kirsten Hassenfeld, Dan Hillier, Marilyn Holsing, Patrick Jacobs, Pat Lasch, Catherine Latson, Zachari Logan, Davy and Kristin McGuire, Chet Morrison, Donna Sharrett, Deborah Simon, Nick Simpson and Darren Waterston.

Though there is no definitive “Neo-Victorian” movement, the featured artists reject the idea of mass production in favor of elaborate construction, detailed design and an appeal to the senses.

Among the show’s highlights are expected to be “Spiral, 2017,” a “peephole” installation by Jacobs that features an enchanted landscape that will be built into the gallery walls; a multimedia, cut-paper diorama by Holsing, “The Pursuit of Love,” that will incorporate video and sound; and Latson’s “Birch Corset, 2016,” a celebration of fluidity that pushes the flexibility of wood to the extreme. The show will also include an elaborate, site-specific installation by Angus throughout the Great Hall of Glenview. The preserved insects affixed in geometrical patterns will reference not only the Victorian interest in specimen collecting but also the intense desire to create order through formal classification.

Bland, the curator, has organized the exhibition into broad thematic groupings: Artist as Naturalist, exploring the ways that artists mine the natural world for inspiration; Artist as Purveyor of the Fantastical, which references a Victorian obsession with bizarre subject matter and follows the “steampunk” tradition of merging science fiction and fantastic technology; and Artist as Explorer of Domesticity, which satirizes the “cult of domesticity,” the idea of feminine middle-class women at the center of the home.

These themes, Bland has commented in advance of the show, are relevant today.

“The issues of contested domesticity and the concurrent feminism that runs just under the surface of many of these highly decorated pieces are urgent ones that remain just as hotly contested as they were more than a century ago. The broad societal interest in technology has led to a counter-movement that emphasizes individual, bespoke creativity in an increasingly mass-producing, mass-consuming society. Likewise, the embrace, exploration and appreciation of the natural world’s beauty is an eternal source of inspiration for artists.”

“The Neo-Victorians: Contemporary Artists Revive Gilded-Age Glamour,” with related programming, runs Feb. 10 through May 13 at the Hudson River Museum, 511 Warburton Ave., Yonkers. For more, visit hrm.org.

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