Seana Reilly’s new Whitespace exhibition “Docking on the Orphic Shore” bears a title that might lead the classically educated among us to expect mystical initiation—or at least the story of a creative personality who has been to Hell and back without accomplishing the goal. Most of us may not quite remember whether Orpheus had to cross the river Styx to rescue his dead wife from the underworld. Fewer of us are likely to remember anything but the name of the Orphic mysteries, but even before we look up the forgotten information, the mysteries’ myth of humanity’s complicated origins and the better-known myth of Orpheus and Eurydice are inevitably suggested by Reilly’s title.
In fact, Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem “Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes.” is written in calligraphic lettering on one work in the exhibition. But it’s significant that the words can’t be read because the liquid graphite with which they are written has flowed down the page, seduced earthward by the force of gravity. This might suggest that even though we try to reach orphic heights and to tell the story of that transcendence, matter pulls us back to earth and blurs out the story in the process. The goal of this exhibition is to find ways to visually communicate the notion that there is more to life than oppressively dull dailiness, but if that something more constantly eludes expression, failure is inevitable. In the original myth, Orpheus looks back to make sure that Eurydice is still there following him, and that’s the end of the rescue operation. Even when the orphic is embodied in the patterns of fast-changing natural processes, trying to snatch at it only disperses it. The physics of fluid dynamics underpins the processes of flow that make Reilly’s art possible, but its expression there as a set of mathematical relations is a static representation of a process of continuous change that rhymes prettily with the Buddhist sense that all reality is impermanent.
Buddhism, however, has found quite a few solidly material analogues for the invisible processes of instability that are revealed in meditative practice, and Reilly has done likewise in a gallery space she has turned into a total work of art (that’s Gesamtkunstwerk to you, art historians), an immersive environment in which the cloud- or mist-colored gray of the walls complements the gray of the pedestals on which books lie open like sacred texts upon altars. Even the sumptuous saffron-shaded fabric beneath the books calls up echoes of Buddhist monastic spaces. The verticality of the paintings flanking the books recalls the shape of Buddhist thangkas or wall hangings of divinities, but they depict not gods but the flows and pours found in avalanches or cataracts of water (in Downwelling) or a vast abyss beneath the solidly defined shape that usually represents “house” in standard visual shorthand (Eurydice’sHem)—as though the ground were opening up beneath a stable place of dwelling. These potentially disquieting representations are offset by the prevailing placidity of the overall gallery environment, creating a sense of tranquility in tension.
The contrast with the spare dryness of the entry gallery could scarcely be greater. Although close inspection reveals visual riches in the grid of small works rubbed into imagistic flow by the direct application of Reilly’s gloved hand, the minimalist spatters of the larger works beget a sense of vague dissatisfaction. But that may be only an initiatory moment in the psychological pilgrimage to the subtle interplay of shape and color in the second gallery. Or that may be overinterpretation of an exhibition that is trying to get at the elusive orphic by any means necessary.
Whatever the reason, the entry gallery’s emotional tone is chilly. The purposefully imbalanced vertical lines of such works as SlowSilence, ChthonicCourse and FrozenCadence suggest shattered shards or the icy peaks and caves of the 18th-century sublime, in which the immensity of glaciers, caverns, or icebergs inspired fear and awe at the insignificance of the human beings faced with their frightening glory. The larger paintings are (deliberately) static where the works in the second gallery are fluid. The smaller works in the wall-filling grid, by contrast, suggest the fluidity of dense fog—the series title Nocturnes is a nod to Whistler’s atmospheric paintings—with results that range from romantically obscure to almost disturbingly dark. If this opposition of bright white and unsettling dark seems a bit off-putting, I recommend rereading chapter 42 of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, “The Whiteness of the Whale” for some historically nuanced insight into the sources of this unease.
Melville’s shudder at the mystery of the cosmos contrasts with the Romantic poets’ mystical astonishment at the wonders of nature—but not with the 18th century sublime, something with which the 21st century has found new resonance. For Reilly as for the 21st century in general, the gentle, confident mysticism of William Wordsworth’s 19th-century “sense of something far more deeply interfused” in natural processes has become translated into awareness of the power of what object-oriented philosopher Timothy Morton calls “hyperobjects,” connected processes too immense to be perceptible except by indirection. Even when we present mathematical models of such real phenomena as, say, changes in weather patterns across the planet, we can’t keep the whole picture in mind as a real event that we can’t perceive directly. This is because consciousness is designed to filter out things that seem irrelevant to our survival, even when it turns out that those things are actually extremely relevant. We see the parts, but we can’t experience the whole.
We don’t usually run into art exhibitions trying to present this kind of paradox, of making us see something we can barely imagine. This one succeeds at its task only at moments and in part. But it is the latest iteration of a task that we are not obligated to complete (because we can’t possibly) but are not free to ignore, either. (Note to plagiarism hunters: the phrase is adapted from a much-quoted rabbinical maxim.)
Maybe the whole point of “Docking on the Orphic Shore” was also expressed by the aforementioned poet Rainer Maria Rilke, whose Duino Elegies’ meditation on the autonomous quality of “things” seems freshly relevant in the age of hyperobjects: beauty’s the beginning of a terror we’re just barely able to bear.
For a variety of reasons, I feel obligated (that word again) to conclude with a remembering of a much earlier attempt to dock on the orphic shore, Ronald Sukenick’s 1975 98.6: A Novel, in which a deliberately deranged combination of narrative and theory ended with a frantic Moment of Luminous Coincidence in which the novelist intended to express all possible events at once, ending with the memorable non sequitur, “Another failure.”
Perhaps parts of this exhibition are, likewise, another failure. But the parts that succeed do so with such nuance and depth that they will linger long in viewers’ memories, and convey exactly that evanescent sense of elusive but inevitable interconnection that Reilly set out to evoke.
Dr. Jerry Cullum is a freelance curator and critic living in Atlanta. His poems, reviews, and essays have appeared in a wide variety of local and national publications, including Art Papers and Art in America.