Photo Essays

How Georgia O’Keeffe’s Themes and Style Have Flowered in Contemporary Art

An exhibition invites you to make your own connections between O’Keeffe and 20 contemporary artists.

Gallery view, North Carolina Museum of Art, foreground: sculpture by Molly Larkey (2017), steel linen and paint (photo by James C. Williams, 2018)

RALEIGH, NC — An exhibition on Georgia O’Keeffe at the North Carolina Museum of Art turns viewers into curators as you are invited to make comparisons and explore how this influential artist has impressed future generations. If you saw 2017’s soulful show organized by the Brooklyn Museum that featured O’Keeffe’s handmade garments and personal items alongside her paintings, think of the Raleigh show, titled The Beyond: Georgia O’Keeffe and Contemporary Artas a continuum. In the Brooklyn Museum exhibitionO’Keeffe felt eerily present, whereas here, the modernist’s works provide a construct to understand the 20 diverse artists exhibiting with her.

“Cities and Deserts,” gallery installation, North Carolina Museum of Art, O’Keeffe with Sharona Eliassaf (photo by James C. Williams, 2018)

Rooms are curated by O’Keeffe’s themes — “Flowers,” “Finding the Figure,” “The Intangible Thing,” “Still Life,” “Cities and Deserts,” and “The Beyond” — but don’t expect on-the-nose comparisons. Sometimes, you gain immediate insight into a common visual language. Other times, pairings might initially leave you scratching your head, but give yourself time to scratch the surface instead. It might take several passes around the gallery before you discover connections that are all the more rewarding when you uncover them.

Matthew Ronay, “Billow” (2018), basswood, dye, gouache, flocking, plastic, steel, and shellac-based primer (photo by James C. Williams, 2018)

The museum explains that the artists were “selected for their individual approaches to O’Keeffe’s powerful themes” as well as “the interplay between realism and abstraction.” Focus is sacrificed for variety here, and whether all of these artists’ influence can be traced directly to O’Keeffe is debatable (more than one artist’s approach reminded me more of Paul Gauguin). But when the works clearly relate to O’Keeffe, they are well worth seeking out.

Georgia O’Keeffe, “Woman with Apron” (1918), watercolor and graphite on paper (photo by Amy Funderburk, 2018)
Tschabalala Self, “Confession” (2018), fabric, painted canvas, acrylic, Flashe, and oil on canvas (photo by James C. Williams, 2018)

Due to the fragile nature of her early watercolors, “Woman with Apron” is the only figurative work by O’Keeffe on display. Her loose, rounded shapes of color are echoed in Matthew Ronay’s playful sculpture and the mixed media works of Tschabalala Self. The exposed genitalia of Self’s figures bring to mind the stereotype about O’Keeffe’s flowers — a comparison that O’Keeffe always denied.

One of the strongest pairings is O’Keeffe’s “Abstraction Blue,” a composition bisected by a line of light, beside Pearl C. Hsiung’s dynamic painting construction of abstracted trees flanking a vertical sunset. This repetition of a central line, the cool color palette, and the shared abstraction of nature firmly unify these two works.

Gallery view, North Carolina Musum of Art; left to right: Georgia O’Keeffe, “Abstraction Blue” (1927), oil on canvas; and “Abstraction” (modeled 1946, cast circa 1979-80,) white-lacquered bronze; with Pearl C. Hsiung, “Untitled” (detail), 2017-18, paint on medium density fiberboard (photo by James C. Williams, 2018)

To create his mesmerizing chromogenic prints, Kim Keever released pigment into an aquarium. He achieves rolling, organic shapes similar to those in O’Keeffe’s landscapes and two of his photographs specifically recall her “White Iris.”

“Light Atlas” is an ambitious project by Cynthia Daignault: the painter stopped methodically every 25 miles during a road trip across the US. The resulting 360 charming little paintings are arranged in a massive grid. It is not only her desert landscapes but Daignault’s fresh, effortless painting style and an emphasis on direct observation that relate well to O’Keeffe’s approach.

Kim Keever, “Abstract 30682b” (2017), C print, 28 × 34 in. (image courtesy Waterhouse & Dodd Gallery, New York, photo courtesy the artist)
Georgia O’Keeffe, “White Iris” (1930), oil on canvas (photo by James C. Williams, 2018)

And “Omni,” a stunning four-panel wax pieceby Dylan Gebbia-Richards, is installed around the corner from “The Beyond,” one of O’Keeffe’s final works finished without assistance. Both artists explore the ideas of microcosm, macrocosm, and color striations — a subtly brilliant pairing.

The show is best experienced if you approach it through the lens of a curator. While a definite connection to O’Keeffe remains tenuous for a few artists in the show, others give you an opportunity to more deeply explore her style by making your own creative interpretations.

Georgia O’Keeffe, “The Beyond” (1972), oil on panel, 30x 40 in. (Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Gift of the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation (2006.05.460) © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, photo courtesy the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum)
Dylan Gebbia-Richards, “Omni” detail (photo by James C. Williams, 2018)
Georgia O’Keeffe, “Small Purple Hills” (1934), oil on panel, 16 × 19 3/4 in. (© Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas, 2006.11, photo by Amon Carter Museum of American Art)
Cynthia Daignault, “Light Atlas” desert landscapes (detail) (photo by James C. Williams)
Georgia O’Keeffe, “Flying Backbone” (1944), oil on canvas, 11 x 25 1/4 in. (Alfred Stieglitz Collection, Co owned by Fisk University, Nashville, Tennessee, and Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, photo courtesy Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art / Edward C. Robison III)
Anna Valdez, “Deer Skull with Blue Vase” (2017), oil on canvas 42 × 40 in. (image courtesy the artist and Hashimoto Contemporary, San Francisco, photo by Hashimoto Contemporary)

The Beyond: Georgia O’Keeffe and Contemporary Art continues at the North Carolina Museum of Art (2110 Blue Ridge Rd, Raleigh, NC) through January 20. The North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, NC will be open extended hours on Saturday, January 19. The Beyond then travels to the New Britain Museum of American Art, New Britain, CT, from February 22 through June 2, 2019. The exhibition was curated by independent curator Chad Alligood and Crystal Bridges Curator of Contemporary Art Lauren Haynes.

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