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"Blue Sky: Visionaries, Romantics, Dreamers" Opens at Pomona College Museum of Art

"Blue Sky: Visionaries, Romantics, Dreamers,” an exhibition of the work of a select group of contemporary Southern California artists, will be on view at the Pomona College Museum of Art from January 20 through April 4. An opening reception will be held at the Museum from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Saturday, January 24, with a music and dance party provided by DJs DME beginning at 8:30 p.m.

Organized by Steve Comba, assistant director, and Rebecca McGrew, curator, “Blue Sky” is the result of a labor of love unique to the curatorial process. Having observed and admired over several years the works of Russell Crotty, Sharon Ellis, Nancy Jackson, Tom Knechtel, Kelly McLane, Vally Mestroni and Hillary Mushkin – the artists included in this exhibition – Comba and McGrew identified a theme that would allow them to bring this extraordinary work together at the Museum. “Blue Sky” materialized as an exploration of how these artists employ fantastic or imaginary subject matter to mediate the relationships between the unconscious realm and the real world.

Defined as that which is idealistic, impractical, or visionary, “Blue Sky” is a term also used by designers and architects to denote the brainstorming, conceptual stage of a project. The artists included in “Blue Sky” transform their inner visions and experiences into something highly inventive, and often painstakingly rendered, creating idiosyncratic narratives that examine our ambivalent relationship to nature and culture. Throughout the history of art, artists have looked inward to the creative imagination, in an attempt to comprehend the greater mysteries of the universe through the extrapolation of dream states and inventions of personal cosmologies and imaginary realms. Others have turned their imaginative energy outward, mining the fertile realm of history, popular culture, science fiction and the scientific in order to make sense of the social landscape. Through drawing, painting, photography, sculpture and video, the artists in “Blue Sky” examine ideas such as representation, Romanticism, spirituality, and the sublime.

The exhibition, “Blue Sky,” is accompanied by a full-color catalog with essays by Amy Gerstler and Christina Newhouse. Gerstler’s essay follows this release.

The Pomona College Museum of Art is located in the Montgomery Art Center, 330 N. College Avenue, Claremont. The Museum is open to the public free of charge Tuesday through Friday, from noon to 5 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m. For more information, call (909) 621-8283 or visit the museum’s website at


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The Pomona College Museum of Art collects, preserves, exhibits, and interprets works of art. The Museum houses a substantial permanent collection as well as serving as a gallery for the display of temporary exhibitions. Important holdings include the Kress Collection of 15th- and 16th-century Italian panel paintings; more than 5,000 examples of Pre-Columbian to 20th-century American Indian art and artifacts, including basketry, ceramics, and beadwork; and a large collection of American and European prints, drawings, and photographs, including works by Francisco de Goya, José Clemente Orozco, and Rico Lebrun.

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Seven Versions of Heaven

By Amy Gerstler

Is the sky always blue in heaven? Is the weather always temperate there? Surely that kind of paradise would not please or reward those who relish a drenching, dramatic storm. “The heaven of each is but what each desires,” wrote Thomas Moore, who believed not only in god but in the devil as well. If Moore is right, then we human beings need multiple, flexible interpretations of heaven—smeared heavens, turbulent heavens, muddy autumnal heavens—maybe as many heavens as there are wild minds to dream them up.

Can one of the myriad heavens we require be found in the imagination—the soul’s cinema? If it’s possible that heaven sometimes does emanate from our heads (the halo being one of its wavery indications) then it’s also possible that heaven could be reflected in the finest things our minds produce, such as art. Like the visionary scenes and landscapes offered by the seven artists in this exhibition, heavens can be places we project ourselves, voluntarily, or involuntarily (as in dreams) for pleasure and punishment, for refuge or contemplation, for transformation, solace, erasure and escape. Each of these seven artists reaches his or her heaven—meaning here a fulfillment of the artist's vision—as the poet says “by their own strange road.” This is true even when the artist's “heaven” is an anti-paradise, a hallucination, an absence, provisional and sketchy, extremely earthy, transparent and ghostly, or a sort of skeptics’ heaven in which the very idea of paradise is coated in irony.

Russell Crotty’s heaven is derived from staring skywards. There’s something earnest and grave about his work and the devoted study of the firmament that fuels it. His globes are factual and fantastic, literal and figurative, like the beach ball representing the earth that Charlie Chaplin punts around the room in his movie “The Great Dictator.” Doesn’t all astronomy seem on some level like science fiction? Crotty seems to remind us as he contemplates the vast solar system with a kid’s avidness that we are smaller than we think.

Many of Sharon Ellis’ eye popping, acid-trippy paintings reveal fiery auras of connectedness between flora, ground and sky. Peering into other paintings she has made gives the eerie impression one is looking through a microscope at cells and networks of blood vessels pulsing in one’s own retinas. Everything in these paintings is molten, aglow, wildly alive and in the process of mutating. Here we are presented with what we are normally blind to—the pure throbbing energy that underlies and magnetizes all of nature and jumps from thing to thing in continual synapse. These pieces read like photographs of nature at moments of orgasm.


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Doors and compartments spring open in Nancy Jackson’s images of revelation. These doors to perception reveal worlds within worlds, secret teeming universes. Bodies are pulled open painlessly as shirtfronts, revealing hidden cities. A lumbering figure crouches within an inscribed volcano, ringed by primitive looking tree stumps, many of which appear to have been bitten off. These paintings suggest oracular narratives, and the allegories, metaphors and symbols of alchemy, complete with mystic animals and diagrams of occult systems.

Tom Knechtel’s work fuses an almost religious eroticism with a ferocious yet highly civilized love of all that’s mortal and earthy. His rich, gorgeously rendered paintings explode with imagery, suggesting a world where thoughts, urges and secret histories of men, plants, animals and objects proliferate and are made visible in a great visual carnival. The work vibrates with a kind of hyper aliveness and sensuality that never let us forget how all that lives blazes up, suffers and dies, sometimes again and again, forever.

Kelly McLane’s palimpsests suggest a scene that is materializing, or dematerializing, or perhaps both at the same time. Multiple layers of transparent realities are progressively lifted, yet we still can’t quite see through the mists. In this heaven there is both lulling delicacy and fog-shrouded threat. We sense a quiet beauty and a stilled, pastel tinted terror. One feels a great yawning calm before some darker kind of knowing inevitably seeping into these pale vistas.

Vally Mestrioni’s hovering notations remind us that written language and diagrams are kinds of choreography. These are ethereal, between-worlds blueprints: maps in flux, sketches of the actual waltzing with the potential. The poet Rainier Maria Rilke, who wrote mostly in German, has a word in one of his poems: nimmergekomene, which has sometimes been translated as “one who never arrived.” These pieces are like plans for notes on state of grace or comprehension that is “ever arriving.”

Hillary Mushkin’s sensibility embraces irony and paradox and ranges from finding beauty in the apocalyptic on into the frisky and playful. What would heaven be without a sense of humor and play? The “faux” and the “real” are presented as equally charming, equally revered. This is a heaven in which made things vie for pride of place with nature’s creations. With an incredibly light and deft touch Mushkin animates a little, perfectly framed world, a kind of Eden in which we are forced to examine what’s dear to us, what we consider amusing, beautiful, true.

So perhaps heaven isn’t a lofty floor in an impossibly high skyscraper you ascend to via elevator after you die. Perhaps it isn’t reached by rising like the mercury in an old-fashioned glass thermometer poked under the tongue of someone sweating with fever. Perhaps it is just all of the above.

Amy Gerstler’s most recent book of poems, Medicine, was published by Penguin Putnam in 2000. Her book Ghost Girl will be published by Penguin in April 2004. Her previous books include Crown of Weeds (Viking Penguin, 1997), Nerve Storm (Viking Penguin, 1993) and Bitter Angel, (North Point Press, 1990; Carnagie Mellon University Press 1997) which won a National Book Critics Circle Award. Her work has also received a California Book Award and a Durfee Artists award and has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. These include The New Yorker, Paris Review, American Poetry Review, several volumes of Best American Poetry, and The Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry. She does a variety of kinds of journalism, and teaches in the Bennington Writing Seminars Program in Bennington, Vermont, and at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California.