Mixing the Highs and Lows

Artwork in home
Photograph by Eric Tadsen

I have owned an art gallery for many years. In addition to selling art, we offer the services of delivery, installation, and design consulting. On one of these visits many years ago to deliver and install a new painting, the person showing me around their home commented on another painting they owned. This one was older, in a wide silver and mirrored frame: a tropical landscape with a flamingo—think Miami 1950s. The homeowner explained she had purchased it at an antique shop and said, “I know I’m not supposed to like this sort of thing, but I do. My serious art friends will hate it.” What she meant was that painting would be considered lowbrow art.

The term highbrow connotes high culture and intellectualism, and even though it might have been popularized over one hundred years ago, people can still be intimidated when choosing art and objects for their home, concerned about their taste viewed through the eyes of visitors. Hiring interior decorators, architects, and other design professionals for advice is a prudent idea, but it’s important to bring your own predilections, even the quirky ones, into the mix.

Lowbrow and highbrow culture are hard to define and might seem hard to mix in your home’s interior, but done right, it can be very chic. My friend Molly effortlessly mixes new and old, serious and kitsch in her Madison lakeside home. She and her husband, Brian, have filled their home with objects, art, and furniture that reflect their interests and obsessions, decorating with a sense of style and humor. They have artwork by well-respected contemporary artists in the same room as thrift or antique store discoveries. Seeing objects collected from antique shops, thrift stores, and yard sales in such a well-appointed dwelling reminds me that the best interiors are intrepid, not taking themselves too seriously.

Molly and Brian have renovated and updated parts of their home, which is filled with contemporary furniture and present-day art. Mixing in vintage furniture and art, including their collection of 1950s nautical paintings, pays homage to their home’s history as well as their own interest in the culture and objects of midcentury America.

There are many reasons we choose the art and objects that fill our homes. A love of art and research into the artists who made the works you collect is gratifying, but does not mean you can’t mix in collections of oddities, works by unknown artists, sentimental pieces, and family treasures. Don’t be afraid to purchase that art object you are genuinely attracted to just because you think it isn’t serious art.

At my gallery, I talk to a lot of people purchasing original, contemporary art for the first time. They can finally afford a piece from an artist whose work they may have admired for years, or were suddenly struck by something never seen before that they can’t live without. Sometimes they’re afraid to purchase art they love because they worry their house isn’t impressive enough. Will it mix well with other objects in the house? Homes don’t have to look like perfect
stage sets.

If we learn to trust our taste and inclinations—surrounding ourselves with art and objects we are naturally attracted to—things will fall into place. Go ahead and buy that contemporary sculpture. Put it next to the painting of the harlequin you love because you inherited it from your grandmother who always hung it in her living room. The taxidermy squirrel from your husband’s father on the fireplace mantle will look just fine by that abstract painting from the local gallery.

Our homes are not show places—they’re our sacred place where we should feel the most relaxed. They’re reflections of who we are—the side of us that enjoys visits to the museum and foreign cinema, as well as the person who grew up enamored of 50s television and watches football on the weekends. Chances are if you create an environment you are comfortable in, others will be too.

Theresa Abel is an artist and owner/director of the Abel Contemporary Gallery, a fine art and fine craft gallery in Paoli. She studied painting at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the Scuola Lorenzo de’ Medici, Florence Italy, receiving her BFA in 1991.

View additional photographs at homeelementsandconcepts.com .

Abel Contemporary Gallery
6858 Paoli Road
Paoli, WI 53508