Pictured Above: A large installation by John Spears. Photo credit: Arts News Now.
Bringing Movement, Music and Light to Life
By Louise Feder
Arts News Now feature writer Louise Feder dives into the creative depths with award-winning artists John Spears and Jeff Talman, exploring the mesmerizing collaboration “Wave Reflections” at New Hope Arts.
Guest curator Rita Romanova Gekht has created a truly singular environment upstairs at New Hope Arts. The large, usually light-filled exhibition space has become dark, moody, and awash in the cool, tell-tale tones of ultraviolet light. Vivid paintings beckon through the darkness, flashy and spectacular in their glowing, multicolor hues. And playing throughout the gallery is a recording of waves in the Mediterranean Sea, captured in Genoa 15 years ago, recalibrated for the historic New Hope Arts building…and only including the edited soundwaves typically inaudible to the human ear.
“It’s a different kind of show for sure,” says Gekht of Wave Reflections. “You have abstract art; you have all these elements. But I think the sound leads you through it.”
Gekht, a fiber artist working in New Hope and exhibiting in Lambertville has both exhibited and curated at New Hope Arts before. In 2021, she curated Illusions of Light, a career retrospective of John Spears’ work. The exhibition was the institution’s first to welcome back in-person audiences since the necessary pandemic closures and Gekht felt longtime friend Spears was an ideal artist for the moment. “He has a tremendous amount of work, including big pieces,” she remembers. “And he uses ultraviolet light, which is in itself a wonderful thing because it kills the virus.”
Pictured Above: A corner gallery shot of John Spears and Jeff Talman’s latest installation at New Hope Arts Center. Photo Credit: Arts News Now.
Given the public interest in Spears’ work with ultraviolet paints, this time around the Wave Reflections exhibit focuses solely on this subset of the artist’s paintings, all of which were produced during the last 3-4 years. While half of the New Hope Arts gallery was devoted to the UV paintings in 2021, today every work in the gallery uses UV light or is highly reflective and meant to be viewed in low to no light.
“But I realized something,” Gekht says, remembering the exhibition planning process. “When people come into a dark room, and their only orientation is visual…I think we need to do sound. And I know just the person.”
To say sound artist and composer Jeff Talman’s work is unique is an understatement. Noted many times over for its, “unique timbres, spatial gesture, harmony, expression and resonance in an extended symphonic form,” Talman regularly blurs the line between science and art to capture and create his compositions. Earning awards from the New York Foundation for the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, Talman’s work is meant to be experienced in site-specific installations and is presented in, “cosmic, arts, natural, and spiritual contexts.”
Pictured Above: Immersive Artwork by award-winning artist John Spears comes to life with color, light and sound by Jeff Talman. Photo credit: Arts News Now.
Gekht has known Talman since she was 18 years old and living in Queens, NY. The pair have kept in touch over the years and remain friends. Luckily, when New Hope Arts needed a show for the Fall, he was living in Bucks County temporarily and open to collaboration
“Jeff works with sound waves; sounds that he records and interprets in various ways from nature,” Gekht explains. “Sounds that we cannot hear in our human ability to hear – that’s what he pulls out. And John[‘s work] has to do with visual waves, with light. And I said, ‘This is what the two of you have in common: you work with things that are either unheard or unseen unless presented in a specific way.’”
The two artists had never met or worked together before. But they quickly bonded over their common ground and spent hours going over each other’s work. And when it came to the exhibition, both Talman and Spears readily agreed on much about the exhibition design in the New Hope Arts space.
“I suggested a dark background and he agreed immediately about how the senses change. So that was kind of a starting point but we were looking for a commonality. And the idea of waves came up – light waves and sound waves. And I thought, you know, there’s definitely a metaphor available here. But we need something more tangible,” Talman explains. “I needed something that would give a very strong metaphor – and this was a ‘hit you over the head’ kind of metaphor: I chose the Mediterranean Sea. I mean… the sea is waves. And it’s planetary, the waves extend everywhere. The scale of it – both John and I like to work large scale. In my work I like to bring up the idea of cosmic or planetary – big scale. And it’s not like I’m trying to inject that into the work; I’m trying to make the listener get something larger, larger than my work. And I think in a way that’s what John’s trying to do as well.”
With a compressed installation schedule, the team sprang into action. Given its complexity and specificity to the space, Talman’s auditory work guided much of the installation design. “I went to the installation site [at New Hope Arts] and I did an analysis of the sound there,” he explains. “I captured recordings and then I took them back to the studio and worked on [them]. From those I could find what the resonances of the actual space are. And then I retrofitted the piece to work with the resonance in that space. The sounds you hear there are in tune with the space.”
It took three days to find a configuration of speakers that would clearly produce Talman’s composition in the space without any “hum.” Ultimately, the installation required six speakers on the floor, a subwoofer on the stage, and a speaker on the ceiling. “The six speakers that are on the floor – they don’t work at the same time,” Gekht explains. “They’re actually on different circuits and create different waves in the way they relate to each other. So, depending on where you are in the room, you hear different things. You hear closeness and distances. You hear sounds that come and disappear. We wanted people to have an opportunity to come in, and sit with it for a little bit in different parts of the room.”
Pictured Above: Seating is placed throughout the exhibition for patrons to absorb the multi sensory experience. Photo credit: Contributed.
Spears agreed when considering the exhibit as a whole. “We merged together without any kind of need to qualify our work or whatever… Definitely, we complement each other. It was spontaneous and coincidental and all those good things for our work. The accident turned out to be the best part of the experience.”
While it is a challenge to pull out one piece from an otherwise cohesive whole, it is fair to say that Spears’ monumental Celebration has a guiding presence in the gallery. Twenty-four feet long, undulating shapes glow in neon tones under the UV light, and mounted above the stage at the far end of the gallery, the piece beckons viewers deeper into the dark.
“I knew it would be a crescendo moment in the show,” Spears says with a laugh. “I knew I wanted to do something that focused, that brought the viewer into the show. Chairs are put in a circular way in front of it so people have a spot to sort of meditate in the environment. People can sit, stay for the full 20 minutes [the duration of Talman’s accompanying sound composition], and experience.”
Gekht agrees with this approach. She even recommends viewers refrain from talking in the exhibit. “It’s experiential in a way that so much depends on the individual experience in there [the gallery space],” she says. “People have things to say, obviously. But I prefer they hold their comments until they leave so they don’t interrupt others’ discovery… Sit down with yourself. And see what this brings up.”
Wave Reflections: An Immersion in Light and Sound is on view at New Hope Arts through December 3, 2023. Gallery hours are Friday, Saturday and Sunday from noon to 5pm and by appointment. New Hope Arts is located at 2 Stockton Avenue in New Hope, PA. For more information about this and other exhibitions, please visit their website.