'The Gravity of Beauty' exhibit at KSU ponders duality of joy and grief through the lens of beauty

One print from the portfolio, A Swarm, A Flock, A Host: A Compendium of Creatures, AP2, 2012 by artist Darren Waterston. (Courtesy of Darren Waterston/Zuckerman Museum)

The “Gravity of Beauty” exhibition at Kennesaw State’s Zuckerman Museum of Art features a multimedia collection of works by world-renowned artists. The show explores the power of beauty to lead us through grief and loss, and its collection on view through Dec. 10 displays paintings, video installations, sculpture and textile art that together take the viewer through an emotional journey in color and movement. Cynthia Thompson, the exhibition’s curator, joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes via Zoom to talk more about the artworks and their uniting themes.

Interview highlights:

Weaving emergent narratives through works across mediums:

“Quite possibly a lot of the works were meant to be a joyous celebration of life and beauty, but placed in context with the works that I’ve selected, I’m hoping that it forces viewers to pause and think about other things,” Thompson said. “For instance, some of the paintings or sculpture work in the exhibition contain flowers, and in some senses they, to me, resemble a funerary wreath. As much as one might think of a bouquet as something that’s celebratory, it also holds another meaning as well, and can be connected to sadness.”

“I viewed this exhibition as connected to the show that I curated last fall, which was titled ‘This Mortal Coil’ and that exhibition dealt mainly with grief and anguish, loss and mortality, but also presented beautiful images which then led to this exhibition,” Thompson explained. “That exhibition really explored the darker side of processing … the collective grief and loss that we’ve experienced due to COVID, due to racial injustice and violence, due to climate change and all of these horrible things, including the pandemic. And now, I think that there’s this sense where I need to be surrounded by beauty … This year in particular, I just felt the need to bring beauty to the gallery and to campus for Kennesaw State University.'”

On a featured piece by Atlanta artist Jon Eric Riis: 

“This piece is one of a series of works he did focusing on Icarus and we all know [from] Greek mythology, the story of Icarus, and how he flew too close to the sun and his wings made of wax melted, and he plummeted into the sea and perished. So that is also a very beautiful narrative and story, but also a very sad one. And the way in which he creates this work and sculpts the figure two-dimensionally through the textile works, and the beading of each feather to me carries with it a sense of devotion. The amount of labor and handwork that went into the piece and the intricacies is so relevant when you stand in front of this work in awe.”

Thompson added, “Can labor also serve as a remedy to grief and take you, remove you from a certain situation? You know, keeping your hands busy, keeping your mind focused on something else. And he’s known for these very large scale works that just have a tremendous amount of work that go into them, and that’s something that I’m in awe of every time I stand in front of his work every morning at the gallery.”

Other notable pieces exploring movement, gravity, and beauty:

“One of the key works in the exhibition is a print by Darren Waterston, and it features a silhouette of a fawn that is connected to the silhouette of a tree, and it just hovers in the center of the image. And the background, which to me is suggestive of, it could be a sky or it could be a reflection on water, runs from deep blue at the top to very light blue at the bottom and the silhouette form is suspended. And for me, I question whether, just like Icarus, is this form, is this fawn plummeting to the earth or plummeting downward or is it being lifted up to the heavens?”

“As a curator, I see the duality in all of the works. Jessica Steinkamp has a beautiful video called ‘Floriet,’ where there’s this very small, lovely bouquet of flowers that then basically disintegrates, is blown into this perfusion of pieces and disrupted by some sort of wind or breeze, where you don’t know that’s where that’s coming from. And then yet it rewinds and reforms again. So there’s this idea again, of push and pull, of materializing and then dematerializing, which I think speaks to suffering and loss and our struggles with grief,” Thompson reflected. 

“The Gravity of Beauty” exhibition is on view at the Zuckerman Museum of Fine Art at Kennesaw State University through Dec. 10. More information is available at arts.kennesaw.edu/zuckerman/exhibitions/current.php