Over the past two months, quarantined at home, many of us around the world have had the chance to reflect on our lives in a very deep, uninterrupted way. We’ve had the opportunity to determine better what’s “normal” and “not normal”, what’s “essential” and “non-essential”, understand the nature of our relationships—to our family, friends, colleagues, clients, our neighbourhoods, nations, perhaps existence in general. Responding to this unprecedented event in history, James Cohan Gallery in New York City has put together a fitting meditative online exhibition titled “Cosmologies”.
“Cosmologies” draws inspiration from Robert Fludd, the 16th century Hermetic philosopher, who was among the first to identify the relationship between the microcosmic and the macrocosmic. Fludd expressed the impulse to qualify and quantify the inherent link between man and the universe. As we now grapple for our place in the larger order of things and reckon with the contemporary moment, the gallery has selected a few of their artists’ approaches to matters of the universal, with a portion of the proceeds from sales going towards the Food Bank of NYC.
The artists in the exhibition are: Katie Paterson, Josiah McElheny, Lee Mullican, Simon Evans™, Mernet Larsen, Fred Thomaselli and Matthew Ritchie. Their works take you on grand tours—of your own self and the universe. They refer to timekeeping across vast celestial distances, the rewinding and unfolding of the cosmos, space exploration, utopian ideas, the patterns of leaves, the structure of maps, the different worlds that we inhabit, the substances that alter us, things known and unknown, music, and much more. The biological and the spiritual, the pharmacological and the mystical, the minute and the massive, matter and mind, abstract and concrete come together smoothly in art that is simultaneously simple and complex.
Katie Paterson has become known for her multidisciplinary and conceptually-driven work with an emphasis on nature, ecology, geology and cosmology. Many of her poetic installations have been the result of intensive research and collaboration with specialists as diverse as astronomers, geneticists, nanotechnologists, jewelers and firework manufacturers.
Paterson writes: “Time runs through everything I make. From the time of a short phone call to a glacier to the centuries of its demise; the time for the light from a dying star to pass millions of years through space to reach our eyes. A circle of beads encompassing life and death through geological time. The time on Venus ticking away on a set of station clocks. A forest growing for 100 years to become a book, unread until then. A 12-hour candle burning through a journey from planet to planet. A nano-sized grain of sand lost in the depths of an ancient desert. Why I’m drawn to time is hard to describe – it’s to do with being outside myself, and being inside a more universal network where distance and time might not necessarily even exist.”
For over two decades Josiah McElheny has closely observed the history of modernist aesthetics and ideas. McElheny investigates and visualizes these concepts through a vigorously researched oeuvre. Often combining glass with other materials, McElheny creates sculptures and installations but also performances, films, projections, and curatorial and writing projects. McElheny’s concerns with the alternate potentials of modernism invite vastly-ranging topics of study and artistic subjects, spanning from astronomical cosmology to re-exposing and re-contextualizing under-appreciated artists and schools of thought, including the visionary abstraction of Hilma af Klint, the early twentieth-century writing of Paul Scheerbart, and the crystalline sculptural paintings of Robert Smithson. Combining these seemingly disparate sources, McElheny develops hybrid narratives that lucidly imagine divergent pasts.
The work below is dedicated to singer June Tyson, who performed in the Sun Ra Arkestra from 1968 until her death in 1992. McElheny notes that the work is specifically inspired by her voice in the song “Somebody Else’s World (a.k.a. Somebody Else’s Idea),” in which she sings about the painful alienation of our current world—built specifically to exclude many—but also of the possibility and necessity of finding, seeing, and creating worlds unlike our own.
Mernet Larsen’s paintings are simultaneously rooted in and distant from reality. Taking inspiration from the geometric abstractions of El Lissitzky and the narrative stylization of 12th Century Japanese and early Renaissance paintings, Larsen’s vertiginous spaces often rendered in reverse perspective, and hard edged figures offer familiar version of reality that is analogous and parallel to our own. Developed over the last 40 years, Larsen’s independent and meticulous approach to representational painting “reaches toward, not from, life.”
Larsen writes: “The Astronaut studies reconsider realism’s spatial conventions, looking at abstract and non-western paintings as possible springboards for a different kind of space. Horizons are my enemy. Horizons establish the ground plane; as long as the horizon is visible or implicit, you are oriented. I want the viewer to be disorientated, to not know exactly where they are relative to what they’re seeing.”
Simon Evans™ is the artistic collaboration between Simon Evans and Sarah Lannan. The artists create dense text-based collages saturated with short, poetic phrases, drawings, and images often created from the detritus of everyday life both inside and outside of the studio. They describe a world poised between two poles of earnestness and irony. With a wry brand of melancholy, Simon Evans™ presents us with a laundry list of drawings that take the form of diagrams, charts, maps, advertisements, diary entries, inventories, and cosmologies that plunge the viewer into alternate states of pathos and hope. In ‘Arbitrary Music,’ Simon Evans™ methodically lists people and places the artist has known, meticulously copying the names by hand in rainbow colored pencil. The text radiates outward, functioning as a yantra or visual energy diagram traditionally used to direct focus during meditation or ritual. Evans describes the work as a “record of people and places I have known,” playing on the multiple meanings of ‘record.’
Simon Evans™ write: “Categorizing is what humans do, and obsession is what is involved in anything you’re passionate about. I like the typical repetition of rituals, of punishment and worship, jogging laps, or doing yantras. It’s a beautiful cartoon of futile human acts.”
Since the early 1990s, Matthew Ritchie has developed an installation and painting practice drawing from the vocabularies of science, sociology, anthropology, mythology and the history of art. In his paintings, installations, wall drawings, light boxes, sculptures, projections, artists books and performances, Ritchie describes the generation of systems, ideas, and their subsequent interpretations in a kind of cerebral web, concretizing ephemeral and intangible theories of information and time in a unique and recognizable gestural form that emphasizes the human trace.
Ritchie writes: “Painting seems to me to be a way that you can hold onto both chaos and awe: the messy contradictions of our existence and our desire to understand the magnitude of the universe. You can be on the surface of it: it’s like walking across a lake covered in ice and you’re aware of the vastness underneath you, but there’s also something very beautiful about knowing you are skating across this surface.”
The late California artist Lee Mullican’s paintings are a uniquely West Coast exploration into abstraction; one that is grounded in content, full of mysticism and connections to the transcendent. Mullican describes, “We were involved with a kind of meditation, and for me this had a great deal to do with the study of nature, and the study of pattern…We were dealing with art as a way of meditation.”
Art critic Jules Langsner wrote on Mullican: “Throughout his career, Mullican adapted the spirit of surrealist innovation through process (especially automatism) to his own ends. Combined with his interest in non-European cultures and philosophies, Mullican exploited the immediacy of drawing as a means of perpetual exploration and innovation. Recounting his artistic “travels” Mullican once proclaimed that he “commuted extensively between heavens and earth”; his vehicle was the mark.”
Drawing upon art historical sources and Eastern and Western decorative traditions, Fred Tomaselli’s works explode in mesmerizing patterns that appear to grow organically across his compositions. These “portraits” belongs to an ongoing series Fred Tomaselli calls “chemical celestial portraits of inner and outer space.” Tomaselli creates likenesses based on each sitter’s astrological sign and the star map for his or her date of birth. The resulting constellation is comprised of stars named after the various drugs the subject remembers consuming, from cold medicine to cocaine. The result is an unconventional map of identity that cleverly weds the mystical and the pharmacological.
Tomaselli writes: “In the early nineties I was making photograms using pills and sugar, but without text. Simultaneously, I was also making chemical celestial portrait done entirely with white prismacolor and sometimes gouache on black paper. After a while, I merged the two practices and began adding text over photograms. These works happened just before that merge.”
The artist adds: “Shack, Commune, Compound puts together buildings representing various spiritual and political ideologies that have separated themselves away from the rest of America – from the Aryan Nations Compound and Shaker Meeting Houses to Thoreau’s Walden and everything in between. It is a landscape splintered by ideological divisions. I scattered these dwellings onto a topography of crushed leaves mixed with contour map imagery.
Utopianism and its discontents has always been a theme in my work. America, with its imposition of ideology over nature, is one of the worlds great utopian experiments and this experiment is central to who we are. We may have sought to create a new Jerusalem, but it took slavery, genocide and environmental catastrophe to get us there. Our aspirations for heaven on earth lead us to a new place in hell.”