Air To Explore Physical, Spiritual, Cultural Aspects Of The Elements.
“AIR” continues the series of exhibits exploring the physical, spiritual and cultural aspects of The Elements (earth, air, fire and water) at The Gallery of Contemporary Art at Sacred Heart University. The exhibit opens on September 16 and runs through November 4. A reception, featuring jazz by the Carol Sudhalter Duo, will open the show on September 16th, from 1–3:30 p.m. On Wednesday, September 25th, at 7 p.m., Robert O. Mendelsohn, Ph.D., the Edwin Weyerhaeuser Davis Professor, Professor of Economics and Professor in the School of Management at Yale University will present “The Impact of Air Pollution in the U.S.”
Exhibiting artists include June Ahrens (New Canaan, Conn.), Susan Goethal Campbell (Detroit, Mi.), Elijah Gowin (Kansas City, Mo.), Kysa Johnson (Brooklyn, N.Y.), Ned Kahn (Sebastopol, Cal.), Mary Magsamen & Stephen Hillerbrand (Houston, Tex.), David Maxim (San Francisco, Cal.), Gina Miccinilli (Mahwah, N.J.), Tomomi Ono (Brooklyn, N.Y.), Jaanika Peerna (Cold Spring, N.Y.), Tim Prentice (West Cornwall, Conn.), Lucy Sander Sceery (East Hampton, Conn.), Joseph Smolinski (New Haven, Conn.), Charlie Varley (New Orleans, La.), and Paul Villinski (Long Island City, N.Y.).
The pre-Socratic philosopher, Empedocles (c. 492-432 B.C.), noted the world’s division into four naturally occurring Elements –“earth, sea, air and the fiery aether of the heavenly bodies” – were the basis of all matter. For centuries, these elements continued to be the foundation for our decoding of the world.
Empedocles was also the first philosopher to conduct an experiment that proved air has volume, takes up space and exerts pressure. He used the clepsydra or, literally translated, the “water-thief.” This water clock, used from the time of the pharaohs, was a simple globe shape with a protruding tube. When submerged in water with the tube covered, water would not enter the sphere. Uncovering the end of the tube allows the water to flow in a measurable time period. Empedocles reasoned that, since the water could not flow in when the tube was covered, air must have mass.
Many ancient cultures including Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Sumerian, Indian, Mayan and more had at least one powerful deity of the sky. There are also numerous myths concerning the wonder of traveling up through the air and a reverence for the flight of birds or mythical beings. In most religions there is a reference to air or breath and/or spirit.
In traditional cultures, air is associated with purity and seen as a universally powerful element. In fact, the Greek and Latin words for air come from the root words for breathing or spirit/soul. Today, we know that the rhythm of our breathing is connected to the process of photosynthesis. But it is predominantly through our sense of touch that we experience air. Although we cannot see it, we feel its movement and have an extensive vocabulary associated with air: wind, breeze, hurricane, monsoon, tornado, cyclone, mistral, zephyr, El Nino and more. We have airwaves, airports, airmail, and an Air Force, and many common phrases like “air so thick you could cut it with a knife,” “vanishing into thin air,” “walking on air” and “light as air.”
According to Sophia Gevas, director of The Gallery of Contemporary Art, “the sixteen artists in this exhibit depict air in its varied movement, use air to animate their works, propose a way to harness air, or depict creatures who have the gift of flight.”
The ferocious aspect of moving air includes hurricanes and tornadoes and we immediately think of hurricane Katrina. Charlie Varley, a well-known freelance British photojournalist, was visiting New Orleans when Katrina hit. He photographed for over a year, documenting images with a date and text. In August 29, 2005, taken from the 25th floor, we see the blown-out windows of the Hyatt hotel and the organic shapes of the curtains flowing out of the geometric building.
A painter whose works often veer into three dimensions, David Maxim’s 2004-326 (2004), a loosely rendered watercolor, depicts the furious motion of tornadoes, painted on a free-hand penciled grid which seems to control their energy or contain the shape of the funnel. Lucy Sander Sceery has photographed the northern Connecticut tobacco fields for years with infrared film. When the plants reach a certain height, they’re covered by scrims to shade them. Loosely tied on trellises until needed, flowing and fluttering across the landscape, framed by clouds and sky, the scrims in Plantation Road #28 (1996), create a mysterious and romantic landscape that mimics the paths of the wind.
Tim Prentice and Ned Kahn use the air to animate their sculptures. Although Prentice works from tiny to huge outdoor installations, Clear Banner (2006), composed of stainless steel, aluminum and Lexan, falls in between. With its small pieces precisely tied together by wire and engineered for maximum motion, it hangs from the ceiling and reacts to the gentlest air currents, creating a magical, rippling effect. Executed on a grand scale, working with natural elements such as fire, wind and fog, Kahn’s works often use the movement of air to set the individual elements in motion. A recipient of a McArthur Foundation grant, he has been commissioned to create works that educate people about the forces of nature in science museums, as well as works for public buildings. For this exhibit, Kahn created a video of his site-specific, air-related works of shimmering walls of plastic or metal that often reflect the sky or clouds as they transform the side of a building.
Lament, (2001), by Paul Villinski, is composed of hundreds of black gloves dropped on the streets of New York City in wintertime. Recycled and sewn together, the gloves create large wings held together by a harness. Evoking the myth of Icarus and the mystery of winged flight, this work spans over twelve feet. Elijah Gowin references this myth with his digitally constructed and intentionally imperfect photograph, Falling in Trees I (2006), Of Falling and Floating series. The person who is free-falling from a beautiful summer sky appears unconcerned that she is about to encounter tree tops. Gowin states, “Searching for balance and grace in a time of instability and shifting paradigms, I present these images as an expression of our contemporary faith and doubt.”
Joseph Smolinkski’s video, Tree Turbine (2007), provides a humorous glimpse into a future powered by turbines that resemble trees, whirling to create the energy that we require for daily living. A comment on our inexhaustible appetite for energy in a consumer society, he envisions fake trees as part of the solution.
For June Ahrens, living in Tribecca and watching the TwinTowers fall made the lack of breathable air a reality. Working intelligently and thoughtfully, with readily accessible materials, Too Soon (2007), is composed of an adult’s and a child’s oxygen masks mounted on a piece of clean, light green Styrofoam packing. Twisting and turning, tied air tubes are loosely attached to nothing, unable to deliver oxygen.
Kysa Johnson states that art, science, religion and music all came from the same impetus – an attempt to understand the world around us. Believing that there is no difference between the scientist who looks for and finds elegant solutions in mathematics or subatomic particles and the artist who studies aesthetics, her works utilize the art/science connection by using the forms of creation and decay. Her large-scale work on blackboard with white chalk, blow up 83 (2007) depicts the magnified spores and pollutants that exist in our air. The impermanence of her media reflects the changing quality of our air.
The Estonian artist, Jaanika Peerna, believes macro or micro particles in motion offer information and are patterns of controlled chaos. She works in drawing, photography, film and sound, and often combines her work in installations. Air Void (2005), a work on paper, is pierced with pinholes in a vortex pattern.
Tomomi Ono, Mary Magsamen and Stephan Hillerbrand and Gina Miccinilli’s works reflect the cycle of life and death. Often working with the seeds and spores, that live when filled with water and go dormant or die when they dry out, Ono depicts “existence”. Between the beginnings and endings of life, the spores float through the air. The delicately drawn shapes of Seed-to the earth (2003) poised in the middle of negative space, evoke gentle breezes.
Magsamen and Hillerbrand create videos of daily events in their lives that are magnified, “exploring ideas about relationships and perceptions.” Air-hunger (bathroom) (2003), presents a close-up of blowing bubbles with bubblegum. A man’s mouth blows the bubble as the image dissolves to a woman blowing a bubble, blurring identity. Slowed down to 1/3 time, we see air inflating and deflating. The bubble reflects the room and then is withdrawn or swallowed. The cycle of creation and destruction is repeated in an endless loop. The life-cycle of cicadas – birth, burrowing underground, molting, developing wings to fly and mating – have been symbols of rebirth and transformation for many ancient cultures.
Enhanced with sound, Miccinilli’s Echo (2006), is an installation of cast iron cicadas in sand. “It (cast iron) is embedded in liquid form bubbling deep within the earth’s core creating a magnetic field that keeps us on course. It infuses the blood coursing through our veins enabling the transport of oxygen to our cells.” Using discarded radiators to create her work continues the symbolic recycling process.
Air Space I (2006), by Susan Goethal Campbell, is composed of three horizontal panels with the sky in the center panel. She states, “I am fascinated by the characteristics of weather and our desire to harness and control natural forces. My current body of drawings frame the sky and consider the atmosphere as a type of wilderness that is encroached upon in much the same way that land is.”
“Of the four elements air is perhaps the most ephemeral and, at the same time, the most challenging to interpret. The artists exhibited here have accepted that challenge,” stated Gevas.
The Gallery of Contemporary Art is located at the University’s main campus at 5151 Park Avenue, in Fairfield, Conn. Gallery hours are Monday through Thursday from 12 to 5 p.m. and Sundays from 12 to 4 p.m. (Closed Columbus Day Weekend). Admission is free.