Artists throughout history have pictured reality as understood by their societies. Embedded in works of art are assumptions, varying from culture to culture, about the nature of all things. What is reality? Is it objective and understandable, or subjective and elusive? Finite and predictable, or infinite and in constant flux? Philosophers, theologians, and scientists, as well as poets and artists, have traditionally reflected on these questions. Their answers, as evidenced in Seen/Unseen, a new exhibition in MMoCA’s Henry Street Gallery from May 11, 2012, through June 16, 2012, embody particular notions of the world and the role human beings play.
Within this context, the sacred has been the most universally explored reality, and the goal of making the sacred visible has led artists to conceptualize it in both abstracted and concrete terms. Thus, Byzantine artists, in rendering their religious icons, simplified and exaggerated the natural features of holy figures. Conversely, nineteenth-century American landscape artists, proceeding from observation, saw and recorded the spiritual in the physical details of nature. In scientific and mathematical thought, also reflected in the arts, nature carries on without the intervention of the divine. As Galileo famously declared: “The book of nature is writ in number.” Magnificent as it is, it just is.
The nature of reality, in its secular as well as sacred dimensions, has been fertile ground for modern and contemporary artists. The paintings, sculpture, prints, and photographs assembled for this exhibition present a rich variety of interpretations. In Sam Francis’s Untitled Mandala (1974), concentric squares splashed with bright colors suggest a balance between underlying principles of chaos and order. Reality may be wholly subjective, a projection of mind, as evoked by Marsden Hartley’s Trees and Mountains (1932), where the artist’s brooding purples and aggressive brushwork charge nature with a dark energy that is felt more than seen. Ronald Bostrom photographs a deracinated weed in Mullen (1977). Pulled from the nurturing soil to be documented by the camera’s eye, the mullen plant nonetheless has seeds that remain viable for centuries, symbolizing for Bostrom the tenacity of all living things. From another perspective, all we know may finally be elusive, as suggested by Kenneth Josephson’s photograph New York State (1970), which questions, in plays upon representation, the ability of photography to chronicle objective reality.
Also included in the exhibition are works by Richard Anuszkiewicz, Adoph Gottlieb, Barbara Hepworth, Sol LeWitt, Richard Misrach, and Alyson Shotz, among others.
The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art will be closed December 24, 25, and 31, as well as January 1.