Chaos and Awe: Painting for the 21st Century, a sweeping survey of contemporary art from around the world, celebrates paint’s capacity to weave together images of physical reality, memories, emotions, and the virtual world. The artists in the exhibition dramatically describe the destabilizing effects of such 21st-century forces as globalism, mass migration, radical ideologies, and complex technologies.
The feelings these artists express, which range from despair at humanity’s darker side to exhilaration at ever-expanding possibilities, are associated with the sublime, a concept that has traditionally referred to being awestruck by the unfathomable power of God and nature. While this can involve sensations of terror and helplessness, it can also relate to wonder, as discussed by the 19th-century artist and critic John Ruskin:
Anything which elevates the mind is sublime, and elevation of mind is produced by the contemplation of greatness of any kind. ... Sublimity is, therefore, only another word for the effect of greatness upon the feelings; greatness, whether of matter, space, power, virtue, or beauty: and there is perhaps no desirable quality of a work of art, which, in its perfection, is not, in some way or degree, sublime.
Chaos and Awe shows painting to be an apt medium for conveying a contemporary notion of the sublime, with works in the exhibition providing visual analogies for the great depth and mystery of the human mind and its extension into the world.