In Downriver in the Multiverse, eight PAFA alumni—Donna Backues, Gregory Brellochs, Chenlin Cai, Maureen Drdak, Amy Herzel, Karey Kessler, James Lloyd, and Tad Sare—draw on nature in a variety of ways. They are inspired by global and international events, the uncertainty of technology and more intimate considerations of the human condition, spirituality and sublime.
Backues, Cai, and Drdak consider environmental and political impacts that alter the relationship between humans and nature. On a Fulbright trip in the Himalayas, Drdak studied global forces that threaten cultural preservation. Her work “is an exploration of philosophical and cultural synthesis in which eastern and western iconographies and cultural paradigms are meaningfully integrated.”Cai combines oil painting and traditional Chinese ink-painting to represent the effects of catastrophic and environmental events on the human body. Cai’s work can be interpreted as a representation of a microscopic structure or alternately as a mushroom cloud from a large bomb. In Backues’ work, nature is in control, dominating humanity. References to craters, bodies of water and land-based forms attempt to capture the vulnerability of living symbiotically with the dangerous beauty of the surrounding landscape, where life-giving oceans turn into destructive waves, volcanoes explode and the fertile earth shakes.
Kessler, Herzel, and Lloyd enter a place of spirituality offered by the natural world. Through a meditative drawing practice, Herzel has developed a symbolic vocabulary to address microcosms and the subjective experiences surrounding issues of justice, reproduction, and cultural decolonization. For Lloyd, “Everything in the manifest universe seems to be a complexity of oneness,” and he seeks to represent the spiritual connection humans have with nature in his sculpture. Kessler’s paintings reference cartography to map an internal landscape of memory and spirituality, making the invisible into something visible.
Gregory Brellochs’ work warns of technology’s capacity to disconnect us from nature, effectively crushing the human spirit and any chance for an emotional connection to our world. This informs his impulse to create “visual allegories” in his graphite drawings, which seem to depict single cells made of wood or amorphous, glowing networks of sludge.
Sare’s looping video disorients the implied horizon line leaving, the viewer groundless in a mysterious forest. For Sare, the cyclical viewing “heightens the absurdity of movements through repetition.”
These artists’ ideas are complimented in adjacent museum galleries. In the Morris Gallery, Bill Viola’s Ocean Without a Shore is titled after a quote by Andalusian Sufi mystic Ibn Arabi, who wrote, “The self is an ocean without a shore. Gazing upon it has no beginning or end, in this world and the next.” From the Schuylkill to the Hudson: Landscapes of the Early American Republic highlights the important contribution Philadelphia has made to the history of landscape painting in America.