Five hundred years have passed since the Netherlandish painter Hieronymus Bosch died. To mark the occasion, an exhibition was held this year in Bosch’s hometown, ’s-Hertogenbosch. Atlanta curator and writer Jerry Cullum visited the small town’s tiny Het Noordbrabants Museum to see the exhibition. The quincentenary was also the inspiration for Cullum’s ambitious show at Whitespace Gallery that features 36 works by regional artists. “The Garden of Unearthly Delights: Hieronymous Bosch in the 21st Century” is on view through September 3.
The exhibition title riffs on that of Bosch’s best-known work, The Garden of Earthly Delights. The 16th-century triptych, constructed like an altarpiece, has a grisaille exterior picturing Earth as described in the Christian story of creation. It opens to vibrant colorful depictions of the Garden of Eden and Hell flanking a central scene that gives the painting its modern name: a crowded burlesque of naked, frolicking revelers engaging in strange acts with oversized animals and giant fruit. There’s no consensus on the meaning of Bosch’s strange painting. It could be a warning to sinners, a procreation-touting nuptial centerpiece, or a satirical platform to showcase humanity at its worst. Whatever its intended meaning, Bosch’s lurid, hypnagogic visions are a welcome respite from beatific virgin mothers and other standard Renaissance fare. It inspired Dalí and the Surrealists, and it inspired the artists Cullum included in “The Garden of Unearthly Delights.”
Many of the artists created work specifically for this show. Lisa Tuttle’s Les Fleurs de Bosch, or The Temptation of St. Jerry even features a portrait of Cullum among the faces. Combining a Renaissance figurative style with bold teal-and-red floral abstraction, Tuttle’s work epitomizes the spirit of the exhibition with its pastiche of old and new.
Several artists replicated the altarpiece format but made unmistakably contemporary works. Charlie Watts’s photographic mixed-media work Pesce Della Madonna i, ii, and iii combines images of women and fish in arcuated wood frames. In two panels, an open-mouthed nude woman closes her eyes as she embraces a large sharp-toothed fish. As is the case with Bosch’s painting, the absence of easily discernible narrative makes the imagery all the more unnerving, and the use of photography rather than painting heightens the latent, eroticized horror.
Ali Norman’s tripartite Dreamgates: Welcome Me Home Again, featuring a dragon in the foreground and a ringed planet in the background, is part sci-fi, part fantasy rendered in obsessive, grisaille patterns. The arabesque patterns of the laser-cut frame reference the architecture of elaborate Gothic frames used in the early Renaissance. Julianne Trew’s Desert of Everything Fluid of Passions is a vaporous, black-and-white appropriation of Bosch’s tripartite composition. Trew’s use of blurred horizons and abstract, biomorphic forms also conjures the work of Surrealist Yves Tanguy. The allusion to religious altarpieces of the past imbues the images with a transgressive edge.
Trew’s painting occupies the same wall as E.K. Huckaby’s Scrutiny, a steam-punk assemblage composed largely of various old lenses and a marbled orb, and Elyse Defoor’s Pit, a subtly S&M abstraction made of a tangle of black leather belts. The arrangement of works shows Cullum’s acumen as a curator as these works share Goth undercurrents, capturing the grittier connotations of Bosch’s work. On the adjacent wall, Joe Tsambiras’s large monochrome print Sirens of Anthemoessa shows birds with human faces or flowers for heads. Not only does his work share some of the motifs of Bosch, it also evokes the printed images of the Renaissance.
The tone of the exhibition shifts with Patty Nelson Merrifield’s Exit Through the Gift Shop: Gifts of Earthly Delights, which offers up various Bosch-inspired tchotchkes and a printed shower curtain. This assemblage of items makes apparent what this show is, at least in part, about: a fan indulging in fandom with both seriousness and levity. Also included in this section are two fragrances designed for the show by Pat Borow and Lisa Tuttle, the botanical Les Fleurs de Bosch and the earthier L’Huile de Bosch (which includes deer musk), which attempt to translate the sensuality of Bosch’s imagery into olfactory experiences.
An unconventional Adam and Eve are the center of Ben Goldman’s Amerikaan Garden of Delight (2016), a loosely interpreted recreation of the Boschian scene. Sculpted from cheap material—polymer clay peppered with ample glitter—Adam kneels over Eve’s contorted leg in a position that showcases his many tattoos and a bouquet of roses inserted in his anus. Eve is a monstrous, goblet-wielding creature with an oversized mouth and lascivious, serpentine tongue. Giant raspberries replace her eyes and nose. Surrounding the pair are disembodied heads whose mouths gape open with the same slack-jawed, corybantic abandon as Eve.
Nearby, Aubrey Longley-Cook’s Engorged Fruit starkly contrasts with Goldman’s wild scene. The titular words are cross-stitched into a peach-hued sheet of paper. The deceptively simple work gains context by its proximity. Adjacent is Carole Lawrence’s The Bosch Around Us, a still life featuring mundane, household knickknacks and items. The central position of a reflective tea kettle is clever; it recalls the use of glass and specular surfaces in Bosch’s oeuvre and suggests both distortion and transformation. Again, Cullum’s placement enriches the works’ relevance: Goldman, Longely-Cook, and Lawrence each engage notions of kitsch, domesticity, and sexuality—albeit in radically different ways. Their proximity to one another foregrounds these concerns.
Though not made specifically for this show, James Barsness’s trippy paintings depict damned beings trapped in a nightmarish world, seemingly intent on hastening their own demise. The Supplicant shows a naked bearded man with outstretched arms. Below him, a naked, kneeling woman simultaneously vomits and lactates. The hellish scene resonates with Bosch’s dark visions. Though allegedly Bosch was by all accounts pious and devout, it’s easy to interpret Bosch’s weirdest paintings as amoral explorations of human experience pushed to its limits. Perhaps this is what makes Bosch compelling to contemporary audiences, and it’s this theme that ties much of the work in Cullum’s show together. Indeed, as evidenced by the many varied styles and tones throughout, Bosch proves to be a strange seed that yields strange fruit.
Rebecca Brantley teaches art history at Piedmont College. She is board president at ATHICA: Athens Institute for Contemporary Art and was a participant in the inaugural cycle of BURNAWAY’s Art Writers Mentorship Program.