“Awake” – Jamie Bloss (watercolor)
In the spring of 2020, Southsider featured a story about three digital exhibits at the Banana Factory, which offered Bethlehem residents the opportunity to enjoy vibrant artwork during the early days of Covid-19. As many of us remain in quarantine, Southsider returns to the Banana Factory for a deeper dive into the beauty of one of these digital exhibits titled Compendium: Chroma, Color Through the Decade.
This digital arts exhibition features work by artists living within a 50-mile radius of the Lehigh Valley and showcases a range of visual artistic works, using mediums such as photography, acrylic, oil, watercolor, glasswork, stoneware, assemblage, collage, and mixed media. The theme for this 4th annual juried exhibition is inspired by and features Pantone’s Colors of the Year from the years 2010-2020.
The Chroma Exhibition reminds the visitor just what playing with color—let alone form, depth, lighting, and texture—can evoke in a viewer. Experiencing the exhibit for the first time, I was struck by the range of color and media that each artist explored and how this simple theme could mean something so distinct to each individual artist. In viewing the gallery as a whole, it felt foreign to alternate between mediums like photography and acrylic, or abstract and realist visions of the world. My past experiences with art exhibits had always been tidily arranged in terms of style, often in terms of medium. To be presented with such a range, and identify it with Bethlehem and the Lehigh Valley, reminded me how much I fall into the pitfall of decrying the lack of creativity in the world. Utter beauty was all around me, on my doorstep. At first, I scrolled quickly through the exhibit, hoping to absorb at a glance the impressions each piece would leave with me. This whirlwind of impressions was overwhelming, but as I returned to sit with each piece, I realized with the right mindset, the digital exhibit was much the same as a physical exhibit space.
When I look at this digital exhibit, I see an opportunity for the Bethlehem community not only to join a collaborative conversation about what these pieces of art mean to us, and how they affect us, but also to reimagine what our own creative capacity to interpret these artworks reveals about our commitments and values.
I have selected just a few examples from the exemplary compendium from the Chroma Exhibit, to offer up some of my own aesthetic interpretations, and perhaps begin a larger conversation about art. Explore the other breathtaking artwork in the Chroma Exhibit here.
Linda Kneller Medaska’s photo “Blue” stunned me by its sharpness and cool colors, freezing me into my own contemplative melancholy. The girl’s gaze is startling in its directness, engaging the viewer unquestioningly. Yet her expression is almost grim, hiding secrets, determination, or ennui. Together, her gaze and facial expression seem to replicate a push and pull that both engages and refuses the viewer. Similarly, she seems to be both simultaneously submerging and emerging from the water. The reflection in the bottom half of the photo seems to beckon the viewer into a fictive world that is far less sharp in its outlines and shapes, blurring the reflection of two eyes into many eyes. With this whimsical reflection, the immediacy of her swim dissolves into the dreamy remembrance of many summer days of swimming, a contrast to the hints of melancholy in her gaze.
Karina Cuestas’s acrylic canvas painting “Dimessions” pops with strong blocks of color and geometric flourishes. Faces emerge in attitudes of inquiry, almost shocked to find themselves face to face with their viewer. Color here is both a border and the uniting theme that brings these figures together. After returning to the painting again and again, I now see a woman, her downturned face outlined by the parrot’s beak and the blocks of black that I envisioned as carefully bobbed hair. Her encircled right eye catches the gaze of the viewer, but the turn of the face downward suggests reflection, contemplation. In my interpretation, she is looking down at her pregnant womb. The blue and pink shapes, each containing its own figure, are her pregnant body in profile, but their alternating orientations imply the stacking of multiple stories, multiple moments captured in a frozen painting, revealing the history of her motherhood which composes her body for the viewer.
James A. DePietro’s oil and acrylic painting “Shadow Series: Best in Show” is striking in its simplicity: tomatoes shine against the dark background, which is reminiscent of a playful tablecloth. The painting is a perfect compliment to the early summer months as it celebrates the simple flavors of summer picnics brightened by fresh grown tomatoes. The painting reminded me of the joy of discovery in farmer’s markets or the carefree fun of family grilling and barbecues. With social interaction and social distancing rules continuing due to Covid-19, outdoor events that safely share food seem to be a crucial way for us to celebrate the summer and reconnect with each other. In that vein of thinking, DePietro’s tomatoes can be read as a promise. A promise of rays of sunshine, the replenishing juice of fruit on a humid day, and the laughter of a friend you haven’t seen in awhile.
Nanci Hellmuth’s photograph “What Remains” is a geometric reflection on the ways we see historical buildings in our contemporary spaces. Depicting multistory gridded windows, through another set of gridded windows, the viewer is invited to think deeply about aged buildings with broken glass and rust. Hellmuth’s photograph reminds us to ask through which windows and lenses we see the past. Do we pay attention to the grid through which we see, or rather the object we are peering at? There are many decaying buildings like this on the South Side, and often I walk by without thinking about what they used to be or the histories they hold. Converted spaces, like the Steelstacks, proudly preserve the history they contain, but this photo reminds me of how frequently we ignore those buildings that we haven’t already decided to preserve.
Jamie Bloss’s watercolor painting “Awake” reminds me of life teeming under the ocean waves. The textured patches of yellow, bright green, and a spectrum of blues, capture similarly a spectrum of emotions of waking life, from the deep melancholy blue of meditation and the borders of sleep, to the sharpness and vividness of the most poignant identification with a leafing tree. As I connected these colors and textures to images of nature in this way, I couldn’t help being reminded of our own limited capacity to travel and experience the natural world that this painting speaks to, due to Covid-19. In this particular context then, the painting speaks to a longing I have to dive into the ocean without having to calculate how close I am to another human stranger as I pass them on the beach, focusing instead on the vibrancy of life, rather than its fragility.
Anna Capaldi Edwards’ photograph “Honeysuckle Rose” captures defiance, knowing, and pride. The fuchsia shawl that the subject wraps around their body is at once intimate and bold, asserting doubly the same message of LGBTQ pride implied by the pink triangle tattoo on the subject’s arm. The framing of the subject at once toys with traditional notions of portraiture, yet also reclaims such a tradition to emphasize its capacity for profound reflection upon and reverencing of sexuality, gender, intimacy, and here, Blackness. Such a presentation of these themes makes it particularly powerful for this moment, as we are in the midst of Pride month, dedicated to celebrating LGBTQ lives and contributions.
The art I have shared here is just a taste of the expansive collection in the Chroma Exhibit. All together, these examples shared here remind me of the promise of summer swims and sharing food with friends, the fierceness of LGBTQ communities, and the past I too often ignore, living in the buildings of Bethlehem. The other beautiful pieces in the collection had me considering themes like protesting through art, the delicacy of nature, and the strength of the maternal body. Diverse in theme, all of the pieces invited me to pause and think expansively. Having been cooped up at home for so long due to the pandemic, such a deliberate pause was much needed. For other residents of Bethlehem, a visit to the Chroma Exhibit promises to offer an important opportunity to revel in the beauty that Lehigh Valley artists have to offer.