"Small Breaches in the Firmament," Chroma Projects Art Laboratory, Through April 30

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At the edge of our grasp of the universe, where scientific understanding fades into the dark expanse of the unknown, artists have long stepped in to give form to the things that separate earth from the heavens. In ancient cultures’ religious imagery or in the confrontational weirdness of modernism, art has a way of picking up the conversation about existence where science leaves off.

Chroma’s new show “Small Breaches in the Firmament” celebrates the recent vernal equinox. Pictured: “Electronic Excitations of a Small Body in the Outer Solar System,” a sculpture by Barbara MacCallum.  

It feels natural, then, to see Barbara MacCallum stitch the pages of her astrophysicist husband’s research papers into clothing, or to hear Bill Bennett’s idea of what stars sound like within a moving sculpture at Chroma Projects’ latest show. “Small Breaches in the Firmament,” on display through the end of the month, puts the ample talent of four artists to the task of exploring the inevitable longing we feel to reach beyond the world we call our own.

If you’ve ambled through the Downtown Mall recently you’ve probably seen at least one MacCallum piece in Chroma’s prominent display window. It’s a strapless prom gown that close observers will notice is made from the pages of a physics paper that inspired the work’s title, “Electronic Excitations of a Small Body in the Outer Solar System.”

Step inside, and Bennett’s work fills out the remainder of the gallery’s front room. A fixture of UVA’s Art Department for three decades, Bennett explores a range of materials and shapes in sculpture that is engaging even outside of its broader context. In this exhibit, though, it’s useful to approach his work with some background. Chroma director Deborah McLeod says that motion and interaction are a part of the experience. Turn a neon-lit metal horn pointed at the sky on its base, and nails clinking loosely against each other create the sound of stars.

Go ahead and stand on the thick glass base of “Stone Bed on a Sea of Stars,” another of Bennett’s works, to peer down into his rendition of the night sky seen through the green edges of glass plates. Don’t be afraid to (gingerly) touch Bennett’s work or ask questions, as there’s much more to explore than will fit in a single review. For example, the starry paintings and mixed media works by Kathryn Henry-Choisser and Randall Stoltzfus offer a pleasurable transition between the gallery’s intimate rooms.

The remainder of MacCallum’s work resides in a dark room in the back of the gallery. There, a projector plays an MRI video of the artist’s husband’s heart framed in a valentine made of her Irish linen and paper sculpture. Beside it, a shirt sculpted from more linen and scientific papers contains a white light that filters through a constellation of holes and seams.

In all, “Small Breaches” does an adept job of confronting a challenging theme: What is our relationship to the universe and how do we feel about it? Using motion and light, imagery as obtuse as a stone anchor and as real as a man’s beating heart, the artists summon every tool at their disposal and toss their answers toward the heavens.

 

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