In January 1610, Galileo Galilei set up a telescope on the grounds of the Jesuit Collegio Romano in order to decisively show his colleagues, at long last, the movements of the planets and the moons of Jupiter. Once he had demonstrated his new findings to his satisfaction the Father of Modern Science, in true Italian fashion, threw a banquet, and several months later he published his treatise, The Starry Messenger. Astronomy was changed forever.
Four hundred years later, Meridith McNeal is celebrating her own findings with “In the Footsteps of the Starry Messenger,” an exhibition of pen and ink and watercolor drawings at Figureworks in Brooklyn. In the spring of 2009, McNeal found herself working in a studio at the American Academy in Rome on the very spot where Galileo made his celestial discoveries. In his honor, and in the spirit of inquiry both artistic and historical, she set out to capture the essence of the place and its people.
The starry messenger’s footsteps here are not just metaphorical but visible: Shoes, of every description and period, dominate the show, as well as representations of the bounty of the Academy—its toweringly stocked kitchen shelves, ripe fruit, attendant cats.
But the shoes are the headliners. Hung singly and in one magnificent constellation of 16, the drawings are incarnations of a city’s worth of souls, and just as diverse. There are ghostly baby shoes, a sexily reclining pair of ’70s wedges, shiny red Mary Janes, a pair of buckled shoes with a skirt in the brown, pink, and lemon of ’50s trim, expressionistic bold black heels, and the wonderfully graphic “Black Boots with Orange Skirt,” which surely would have made Andy Warhol’s heart beat a little faster. Each work is as different as a face on a busy street, and together they form an intensely pleasing collection of temperaments and slices of time.
There are also some larger pieces to locate us in place and pay homage to Galileo’s banquet. A black and white portrait of the Academy’s kitchen looms dark but not in the least ominous, holding all the quiet promise of a public space at rest. The ink is laid on lushly, with shelves of glassware gleaming from a breakfront cupboard like stars in the firmament. “Apples by the Academy Gate” is voluptuously tactile: pebbles, leaves, a plastic bag, a newspaper, metal bins, and the fresh apples. The rendering, as in all the work here, is strong and personal, each texture given its own character but all part of a bustling whole.
In a way, though, the linchpin of the show is one of the quieter pieces, "l'Accademia." McNeal’s drawing, done in nib pen and ink with watercolor and Italian glitter eyeliner, is a refashioning of the coat of arms representing l'Accademia dei Lincei (the Academy of the Lynx-Eyed), Galileo’s scientific brotherhood. Here the wreath serves as a window onto her studio, with wineglass, brushes and hula hoop rampant, but it also sets the tone for the collection as a whole. For what are the shoes if not coats of arms or a sort? Whether the central image on a textured field of cobblestones or surmounted by the mantling of a woman’s skirt, each is an emblem preceding and representing its wearer. If they aren’t riding into battle, they are at least stepping out into the street, which is close enough. The two handsome black and white cat portraits that dominate one wall are heraldic as well, classical lions couchant composed as central elements crossed with strong diagonals.
This modern heraldry brings the span between 17th and 21st centuries to a human scale. These are Meridith McNeal’s stars, her banquet, her Accademia; although largely concerned with street-level imagery, “In the Footsteps of the Starry Messenger” is celestial in scope. The show is infused with the progression of her gaze: First down, then up and out, over and over—much as Galileo’s would have wandered in the process of discovering how the universe works. In 1610 he wrote in his foreword:
“THE STARRY MESSENGER: Revealing great, unusual, and remarkable spectacles, opening these to the consideration of every man, and especially of philosophers and
I would add to that artists, and the rest of us as well.
(© Lisa Peet 2010)