On the right when you enter the exhibit George Deem: The Art of Art History at the Boston Athenaeum, there is a very large map of the coast of a foreign land. Looking closer, you see that this is not an ordinary hand-drawn or printed map done in ink, and it is not on paper or parchment as it appears to be at first glance. Instead, it’s mixed media – oil, acrylic, watercolor, and ink – on canvas. The painting hanging beside it is recognizably based on a work by Johannes Vermeer, and in the painting, on the wall to the right of the obligatory window, is the very same map! Deem painted the 60 X 84 inch map in 1982, and then incorporated it into many of his Vermeer-related works. Deem’s hallmark was to reimagine other artists’ work; the effect is something like that of a retold fairytale.
The same map reappears several times in paintings around the room. Several of the elements of Vermeer’s paintings, including a chair and a black-and-white tiled floor, are also repeated. The paintings deconstruct the originals. Many of them zoom in to show only a corner of the room, and in all but one case, they leave the human subject out.
In my far-from-expert opinion, all you need to know to appreciate and enjoy Vermeer is that the real subject of his paintings is light. Light is also a major player in Deem’s versions. It some, it seems the light is the only thing in the room. Vermeer’s work, and Deem’s reimaginings, have a timeless beauty; while you may get more out of them if you understand their background, they don’t need any context.
However, the exhibit lives up to its title, The Art of Art History, and also showcases Deem’s paintings inspired by later artists, from Gilbert Stuart to George Bellows. Of these, I enjoyed the John Singer Sargent and Winslow Homer inspired work the most, perhaps because I know the original artists best. I once had a teacher who loved to say, “the more you know in life, the more jokes you get,” and while Deem’s interpretations are not jokes, it holds true here. The interpretive text was good and helped me understand more of what I was seeing, but I just couldn’t get into Deem’s construction of a series of George Caleb Bingham paintings laid out as a ceiling mural but hung upright on a wall. Still, Deem was very talented and the exhibit is well-presented, and I’m sure that different Deem pieces would move different visitors. I found the pieces inspired by Vermeer incredible.
George Deem: The Art of Art History is on display through September 1, 2012.