Category Archives: Visual art

Talking with Diane Burko on art and climate change

Diane Burko: Eagle Glacier, Juneau, 1982-2005, from Landsat Series, oil on canvas, 2015
Diane Burko: Eagle Glac­i­er, Juneau, 1982–2005, from Land­sat Series, oil on can­vas, 2015

My con­ver­sa­tion with cli­mate artist Diane Burko has just been post­ed on Cre­ative Dis­tur­bance, a pod­cast­ing plat­form for dia­logue among artists and sci­en­tists on sus­tain­abil­i­ty and envi­ron­men­tal issues. We’re hap­py to join oth­ers on their Art & Earth Sci­ences chan­nel, shin­ing dif­fer­ent lights on urgent issues relat­ing to cli­mate change—especially this week, as the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty gath­ers in Paris with the goal of reach­ing a uni­ver­sal agree­ment to slow glob­al warm­ing.

Here’s the link:

In the pod­cast, we talk about how Diane made the tran­si­tion from painter of large-scale land­scapes to an artist/advocate who has trav­eled to the Arc­tic and Antarc­tic, wit­ness­ing and doc­u­ment­ing the loss of glac­i­ers; and how she tries to con­vey the scale of cli­mate change through her paint­ings and pho­tographs, mak­ing her work a kind of bridge between sci­en­tists and the rest of us. In this paint­ing, for instance, she has over­laid a sky-view image of the Eagle Glac­i­er in Alas­ka with reces­sion lines, bright­ly mark­ing the retreat of the ice over 30-some years.

For more about Diane and her work:



An elegy for Tesla

Elegy for Tesla, installation by Jeanne Jaffe at Rowan University Art Gallery, detail
Ele­gy for Tes­la, instal­la­tion by Jeanne Jaffe at Rowan Uni­ver­si­ty Art Gallery, detail

Jeanne Jaffe’s ambi­tious Ele­gy for Tes­la is a high-tech, dream­like and heart­felt med­i­ta­tion on Niko­la Tes­la, the leg­endary sci­en­tist and inven­tor. Jaffe’s mul­ti­me­dia instal­la­tion fills the Rowan Uni­ver­si­ty Art Gallery with videos and sound, 3-D print­ed mod­els of his icon­ic inven­tions, and ani­ma­tron­ic, motion-acti­vat­ed fig­ures of Tes­la that move and, in some cas­es speak.

Tes­la stands as an avatar of mas­sive cre­ativ­i­ty, with his hun­dreds of patents, and basic break­throughs in alter­nat­ing cur­rent, radio, robot­ics, and even com­put­er cir­cuit­ry. Jaffe pays homage to his achieve­ments, while embed­ding them in the medi­um of a life that had strange­ly myth­ic ele­ments. She’s par­tic­u­lar­ly sen­si­tive to the poignan­cy of the old­er Tes­la, the eccen­tric lon­er who fed and cared for pigeons, whose lim­it­less imag­i­na­tion had run up against the lim­its of the public’s recep­tion of his work.

This aspect of Tes­la is part of what drew me to work with com­pos­er Jon Gib­son on Vio­let Fire, an opera that tried to cap­ture the inner life of Tes­la in all its strange­ness through music, move­ment and video. So I was delight­ed to be asked to write the cat­a­logue essay for this exhib­it. One part of the Tes­la mythos is the white pigeon he befriend­ed, and who trig­gered in him a vision of blind­ing light. Jaffe, who has cared for birds her­self, sur­rounds Tes­la with a flock of ten­der­ly mod­eled pigeons; for me, they can be seen as car­ri­ers of his ongo­ing inspi­ra­tion, and mark­ers of his intense, intu­itive con­nec­tion with the nat­ur­al world.

Elegy for Tesla, gallery view
Ele­gy for Tes­la, gallery view

But Tes­la, in the form of his motion-acti­vat­ed dop­pel­gangers, steals this show. Cura­tor Mary Sal­vante coor­di­nat­ed an NEA-fund­ed col­lab­o­ra­tion between Jaffe and stu­dents and fac­ul­ty in Rowan’s Engi­neer­ing Depart­ment to cre­ate the sys­tems that ani­mate her sculp­tures. They stand, and move, in a per­fect salute to Tes­la as “magi­cian” of wire­less elec­tric­i­ty.

I’ll be at the recep­tion on Thurs­day – if you can’t make it, the show will be up through Jan­u­ary 30.

Ele­gy for Tes­la, an instal­la­tion by Jeanne Jaffe

Rowan Uni­ver­si­ty Art Gallery/West, Glass­boro, NJ, through Jan­u­ary 30, 2016

Recep­tion Thurs­day, Octo­ber 8, 5–8 pm, start­ing with artist pre­sen­ta­tion and pan­el dis­cus­sion at 5 pm.


Phillips & Healy, sparkling

Phillips & Healy's 'Splendor in the Glass' at Wheaton
Car­olyn Healy & John Phillips, instal­la­tion in Ema­na­tions: Art + Process

Car­olyn Healy and John Phillips have done it again: they’ve cre­at­ed an art instal­la­tion piece that both trans­forms the space it’s housed in, and crys­tal­lizes some essence of the place.

This time they did it inside a one-room school­house on the grounds of WheatonArts in Mil­lville, New Jer­sey, a nation­al­ly known cen­ter for glass art. Their piece is part of Ema­na­tions: Art + Process, an ambi­tious exhib­it bring­ing in eleven invit­ed artists—some of them expe­ri­enced glass artists, and oth­ers, like Phillips and Healy, who would encounter Wheaton’s impres­sive glass­mak­ing stu­dio for the first time.

The inside of the school­house has become a kind of snow globe, doc­u­ment­ing the his­to­ry of glass­mak­ing at Wheaton, once the epi­cen­ter of the Amer­i­can glass indus­try. The open room is filled with glass objects that Healy unearthed from the back rooms and stor­age bins of WheatonArts, from big bell jars and old phar­ma­cy bot­tles to bear-shaped hon­ey bot­tles. Light-fil­ter­ing film on the win­dows, along with a few spot­lights, makes for a sin­gu­lar atmos­phere filled with odd sparkles and flash­es, and reflec­tions that seem to hov­er in midair. Sug­ges­tive videos on the wall and sound ele­ments by Phillips, seem­ing­ly explor­ing the inner qual­i­ties of glass, some­how com­plete the trans­for­ma­tion of the space into “a semi-trans­par­ent ves­sel itself, a cru­cible for con­tem­pla­tion,” as I wrote in the essay for a cat­a­log to accom­pa­ny the exhib­it.

Donald Lipski
Don­ald Lip­s­ki, Ema­na­tions: Art + Process
Judy Pfaff installation, Emanations: Art + Process
Judy Pfaff instal­la­tion, Ema­na­tions: Art + Process

Most of the Ema­na­tions exhib­it can be seen in the Muse­um of Amer­i­can Glass, and includes such stand­outs as Judy Pfaff’s exu­ber­ant and gaudy fan­ta­sia on a theme of chan­de­liers; Don­ald Lipski’s mis­chief-mak­ing inter­ven­tions into love­ly glass objects; Vir­gil Marti’s dizzy­ing faux-col­lec­tion of exquis­ite­ly hued vas­es; and the sur­re­al “barn­yard ani­mal” forms of Paula Hayes.

Dis­cov­er­ing this adven­tur­ous show at Wheaton, set in a shady pine grove on the sandy soil that made the glass indus­try pos­si­ble, is like find­ing the sparkling innards of a geode. If you go, don’t for­get to walk down the path to the lit­tle school­house with the extra­or­di­nary inte­ri­or, cour­tesy of Phillips and Healy.


EMANATIONS: ART + PROCESS     Artists include Mark Dion, Paula Hayes, Car­olyn Healy and John Phillips, Don­ald Lip­s­ki, Vir­gil Mar­ti, Michael Oat­man, Judy Pfaff, Joce­lyne Prince, Rob Wynn and Mark Zir­pel

Through Jan­u­ary 4, 2016 at WheatonArts, Mil­lville NJ   

Free admis­sion on Wheaton Wide Open Week­ends: Sep­tem­ber 11–13, Octo­ber 23–25, Novem­ber 6–8, and thru Jan­u­ary 2016


Burchfield and synesthesia

Burchfield's "Midsummer Caprice" (detail), 1945
Burchfield’s Mid­sum­mer Caprice (detail), 1945, Burch­field Pen­ney Art Cen­ter

In the paint­ings of Charles Burch­field, the trees vibrate, the air puls­es with rhyth­mic pat­terns, and bird­song takes on shape and col­or. Every­thing is alive, even a dead branch, even a house. At the major exhib­it of Burchfield’s work at the Brandy­wine Riv­er Muse­um, up through Novem­ber 16, you can see the ear­ly and lat­er paint­ings in which he worked full-out to trans­late his vision­ary expe­ri­ence of the nat­ur­al world.

Burch­field lived from 1893–1967, in Ohio and upstate New York, away from the cen­ters of art-world activ­i­ty. But he kept up with the cur­rents of mod­ern art. It’s pos­si­ble that learn­ing about the dar­ing art of the 1913 Armory Show helped him make his own break­through work in 1915, when he first began to make con­nec­tions between his own intense respons­es to nature and music, and his paint­ed land­scapes. In the 1930s he became known for some­times brood­ing por­tray­als of small towns and indus­tri­al scenes. Then, in the midst of World War II, he returned to his ear­li­er desire to con­vey the strange alive­ness of nature.

Burchfield's "Early Spring," 1966-67
Burchfield’s Ear­ly Spring, 1966–67, Burch­field Pen­ney Art Cen­ter

Birds trans­form­ing into air cur­rents, the sound of cicadas appear­ing like jagged leaves around a tree—was there some hal­lu­cino­genic stim­u­la­tion involved here? Very unlike­ly. Nan­cy Week­ly, who co-curat­ed the Brandy­wine exhib­it, has high­light­ed the idea that Burch­field had synes­the­sia—the abil­i­ty to expe­ri­ence trans-sen­so­ry per­cep­tions, such as sound as col­or or vice ver­sa. It may be that I love his work so much because I have synes­the­sia too—along with many oth­ers in my fam­i­ly, from my father, my sis­ter and broth­er through nieces and nephews. We have the most com­mon type, see­ing num­bers and let­ters as spe­cif­ic col­ors. Although it’s rel­a­tive­ly rare, at least one study has shown that synes­the­sia is more com­mon among visu­al artists, and I sus­pect that may be true of poets, musi­cians and com­posers too.

Synes­the­sia runs strong­ly through ear­ly mod­ern art: Kandin­sky wrote about try­ing to achieve col­or-sound con­so­nances through paint­ing, and it can be seen as a moti­va­tor toward abstrac­tion in his work and oth­ers, includ­ing artists of the Blue Rid­er school. Burch­field was aware of all this, yet he didn’t fol­low the path of pure abstrac­tion. For him, those sen­so­ry cor­re­spon­dences were inex­tri­ca­bly linked to the bloom­ing, buzzing pro­fu­sion of the nat­ur­al world. He per­sist­ed in mak­ing pic­tures show­ing how, for him, every­thing around us vibrates along many inter­con­nect­ed spectrums—sound, col­or, ener­gy.

Does any of this strike a chord? If so, what col­or is it?


Charles Burch­field: Exalt­ed Nature

Brandy­wine Riv­er Muse­um, Chadds Ford, PA — through Novem­ber 16





Seeing Turrell’s Skyspace

A view of the Chestnut Hill Skyspace
Chest­nut Hill Sky­space, pho­to by Greg Ben­son for Chest­nut Hill Friends Meet­ing

My friend and I arrived at James Turrell’s Sky­space, at Philadelphia’s Chest­nut Hill Friends Meet­ing­house, just before sun­down. When I asked anoth­er vis­i­tor if we could take pho­tos, the man—who had vis­it­ed a num­ber of times before—told us the artist had asked that no one take pic­tures, so that we could keep the expe­ri­ence “in here”—he tapped at his heart.

Tur­rell has built dozens of these per­cep­tu­al envi­ron­ments around the world, but only two in the con­text of Quak­er wor­ship. This newest Sky­space encom­pass­es the small, white-walled meet­ing­house room, with a care­ful­ly con­struct­ed, rim­less open­ing in the cen­ter of its roof, and a bank of hid­den, dig­i­tal­ly pro­grammed LED lights high on the walls.

If it rains, the Sky­space view­ing is can­celled, since the rain would come right in through the open­ing, which is usu­al­ly cov­ered. It had rained just a few hours before, but thank­ful­ly, the sky cleared up: when the cov­er­ing retract­ed, we looked up into a soft­ly blue sky with puffs of gray clouds. I took the invi­ta­tion to lie on the floor, right under the open­ing. This made it dif­fer­ent from a Quak­er Meet­ing for Wor­ship, though the silence that fell over the vis­i­tors through the next fifty min­utes felt very close to a Meet­ing.

The open, rim­less rec­tan­gle, fram­ing a piece of deep sky, at first touched off a sense that I was look­ing at a painting—although a paint­ing that moves—against a white back­ground. Paint­ings tra­di­tion­al­ly aspired to be win­dows onto anoth­er view, right? It’s as if Tur­rell knew how hard it is to keep our eyes and brains still enough to pay atten­tion to the sky, and offered us this one bite-sized piece.

Slow­ly, like a cur­tain ris­ing, the hid­den light­ing in the room changed, and with that, we were trans­port­ed into anoth­er place. Tur­rell the per­cep­tu­al magi­cian ush­ered us into worlds where our sky was intense­ly green, soft orange, deep lilac or fad­ed yellow—a star­tling result of our eyes adapt­ing to the chang­ing ambi­ent hue in the room. More amaze­ments fol­lowed: was that a halo around the sky? Was I maybe stand­ing in front of a win­dow, rather than lying under it—and could I just get up and walk through it now? Final­ly, we blinked under the coal-black aper­ture, and walked out­side to a sky of mid­night blue.

Lying under the win­dow of sky, I found myself want­i­ng to share the expe­ri­ence with others—particularly with my father. He is in his final ill­ness; he sleeps a lot and talks only a lit­tle. I wished I could con­vey to him some of the light we saw, tak­ing it out of my heart and putting it in his. Still, I know the expe­ri­ence is dif­fer­ent each time and for each per­son: every­body has to see his own light.

Chest­nut Hill Sky­space is open to vis­i­tors 
at sun­set on Sun­days and Thurs­days, 
and at sun­rise on Thurs­days.
Open­ing is sub­ject to tem­per­a­ture and pre­cip­i­ta­tion.
To learn more and to reg­is­ter, vis­it



James Turrell and sacred architecture

James Turrell’s Aten Reign at the Guggen­heim

James Turrell’s instal­la­tions at the Guggen­heim left me in an altered state.  Using light as his pri­ma­ry medi­um, Turrell’s art requires slow look­ing and an active accep­tance of ambiguity—both con­ducive to enter­ing a kind of con­tem­pla­tive trance.

He’s pur­sued his sin­gu­lar work, from ear­ly exper­i­ments with slide pro­jec­tors in dark rooms to Roden Crater, his mon­u­men­tal envi­ron­men­tal work-in-progress in the Ari­zona desert. Since most of us won’t get to Roden Crater—though I sure would like to—this year’s major shows in Los Ange­les, New York and Hous­ton offer a rare chance to see some big work by Tur­rell. Aten Reign, his trans­for­ma­tion of the Guggenheim’s atri­um into a mas­sive cone of grad­u­al­ly shift­ing light and col­or, is the biggest tem­po­rary piece he’s cre­at­ed so far. The expe­ri­ence of it is qui­et and med­i­ta­tive, shared with a crowd of peo­ple, and last­ing about an hour. In oth­er words, it feels less like an art exhib­it than the sacred expe­ri­ence you might have with oth­ers in a tem­ple or church.

Tur­rell  has been open about this side of his work; he talks about light as rev­e­la­tion. A Quak­er, he has designed a space for a Quak­er meet­ing­house in Hous­ton that brings the sky direct­ly into the room, trans­lat­ing the Quak­er idea of find­ing the light with­in into out­ward form. But, giv­en the times we are liv­ing in—many cen­turies after the ages of great sacred architecture—the art world can be a more or less wel­com­ing alter­na­tive for such impuls­es. It’s less wel­com­ing to the extent that talk­ing about the con­nec­tion of light with spir­i­tu­al life can and does make some peo­ple uncom­fort­able (see Jed Perl’s piece in the New Repub­lic).

Tur­rell may be bet­ter under­stood in the con­text of his pre­de­ces­sors in sacred architecture—including those who cre­at­ed the stained-glass light shows inside the great Goth­ic cathe­drals. The Abbé Sug­er, who lived in the 12th cen­tu­ry, brought togeth­er glass artists from all over Europe to make the inno­v­a­tive stained glass win­dows of the Abbey Church of St. Denis, the first tru­ly Goth­ic build­ing. The Abbé devel­oped his own the­ol­o­gy of light, involv­ing three aspects: lux, lumen and illu­mi­na­tion. Lux is phys­i­cal light, from the sun or anoth­er source. Lumen is light trans­formed by sacred intention—having passed through the artist’s sparkling glass pan­els into a con­se­crat­ed space. And illu­mi­na­tion is that trans­formed light, stand­ing for a divine, invis­i­ble light, appre­hend­ed with­in the viewer’s heart. This way of explor­ing how phys­i­cal light can be trans­formed feels more use­ful to me in respond­ing to James Turrell’s work than lim­it­ing the con­ver­sa­tion to per­cep­tu­al psychology—how the mind works to inter­pret the tricky behav­ior of pho­tons.

Tur­rell knows all about the pho­tons, and how we per­ceive them—he’s a mage of light and its effects. His pre­de­ces­sor, Abbé Sug­er, reminds us not to get hung up on the photons—to be open to the illu­mi­na­tion with­in.


The Barefoot Artist

Lily Yeh
Lily Yeh, Image thanks to The Bare­foot Artist,

Next Wednes­day, The Bare­foot Artist—a doc­u­men­tary about the unusu­al career of Lily Yeh—will have a spe­cial pre­view screen­ing at the Philadel­phia Muse­um of Art. Go if you can. It’s a chance to get a deep­er look at this artist, who’s trav­eled to “bro­ken places,” as she calls them, work­ing on projects that use “the pow­er of art to rebuild com­mu­ni­ties” (also her words). Over the past twen­ty years she’s worked in North Philadel­phia, in a des­o­late slum in Nairo­bi, a school for migrant work­ers in Bei­jing, and on a geno­cide memo­r­i­al in Rwan­da, always cat­alyz­ing the ener­gy of the peo­ple in those places to cre­ate some­thing they can con­tin­ue on their own.

Lily Yeh came to the U.S. from Tai­wan, already trained in Chi­nese land­scape paint­ing. Her work to reclaim an aban­doned lot in North Philadel­phia grew into the Vil­lage of Arts and Human­i­ties, with an abun­dance of parks, arts and youth pro­grams. When I wrote about her work for Art in Amer­i­ca as the Vil­lage cel­e­brat­ed its tenth birth­day, I tried to show how what she was doing, and is still doing, is her art—not just a very suc­cess­ful com­mu­ni­ty art project. The term rela­tion­al art may be the best art-world term to cov­er the thing she does, and it does take in com­mu­ni­ty-based work like the French artist JR’s mas­sive gueril­la pho­to instal­la­tions in Rio’s fave­las. But there’s some­thing so open-heart­ed about Lily’s work; I like the idea of “pub­lic art as a spir­i­tu­al path,” the title of a recent arti­cle that talks about her work. What we call it may not mat­ter, but I’ll be think­ing about this as I watch the movie.

If you sub­scribe to this blog, I’ll send you a copy of my review of Lily Yeh’s work, which includes a descrip­tion of one of my favorite art-per­for­mance moments ever.

The Bare­foot Artist, direct­ed by Glenn Hol­sten and Daniel Traub, at the Philadel­phia Muse­um of Art, Wednes­day, June 19 at 7 p.m. Free with admis­sion.


From the Ground Up

Isaiah Zagar landscape painting
Isa­iah Zagar’s Islands of Nova Sco­tia, 1973 — a pre-mosa­ic paint­ing

Like embed­ded jour­nal­ists, Peter Kin­ney, Isa­iah Zagar and Jeff War­ing have made the work in this show as ‘embed­ded’ artists, bur­row­ing deep into the nat­ur­al world to bring back its dirty, messy, mys­te­ri­ous secrets… Each of these artists is after full-on com­mu­nion with the nat­ur­al world, the kind that leaves you sur­round­ed and bowled over, for­get­ting the dif­fer­ence between being human, rock, plant or divine…”

Me and artist Peter Kinney - a painting by Peter on left, and one by Jeff Waring on right
Me and artist Peter Kin­ney — a paint­ing by Peter on left, and two by Jeff War­ing on right

This is part of the state­ment I wrote for the exhib­it From the Ground Up: LandWater&Sky, now up at Philadelphia’s Mag­ic Gar­dens through June 9. Thanks to Ellen Owens for invit­ing me to be part of this won­der­ful show, which has work by Peter Kin­ney, Jeff War­ing, and some rarely seen ear­ly land­scape paint­ings by Isa­iah Zagar, dat­ing to before his out­door mosa­ic work. Two years ago I includ­ed Peter Kin­ney in a small-group show called Ecsta­t­ic Land­scape in the Borowsky Gallery at the Ger­sh­man Y, where I’m the cura­tor. Peter, Isa­iah and Jeff’s work feels like they’re all part of the same school: wild, made-out­side vision­ary land­scape?

A wall of work showing it surrounded by Isaiah's mosaic ceiling and floor - works by Peter Kinney (two larger pieces) and Jeff Waring
A wall of work show­ing it sur­round­ed by Isaiah’s mosa­ic ceil­ing and floor — works by Peter Kin­ney (two larg­er pieces) and Jeff War­ing