University Medical Center at Princeton: Therapy for the Eyes: A Prescription ... ArtFirst!
It must be alchemy. Mix the right time and place with a healthy dose of art and Molisano's Deli glows like a masterpiece while a row of nearby houses reveals a formal charm never seen before, although you've walked or driven past them for years. Here's the prescription that worked for me. Time: around twilight. Place: outside the hospital entrance on Witherspoon Street. In order to see the enchanted scene across the way, you will need to have consumed at least 60 minutes of the art currently on display in the Medical Center's ArtFirst! exhibit of work produced by artists with disabilities.
It's also true, of course, that the intensity of the hospital environment can send you back into the everyday world in a heightened state of mind even without the assistance of art. In the same way, art seen in an element where illness, accident, birth, death, and bereavement are the dominant reality is probably not going to look the way it would in the relatively protected confines of a gallery or museum.
The official hours for the exhibit are 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Needless to say, the lobby and ground floor of a hospital can present distractions no matter when you go there. You may find yourself, as I did, looking at a pastel landscape in one of Sal Panasci's Pearls of Provence while someone nearby is on a cellphone talking to a family member about a parent in intensive care. "It looks bad," the person is saying. "They want to move him to Philadelphia. I don't know what to do." You can't help feeling like an eavesdropper when the only way to get a clear view of the art is to stand right beside the chair the caller's sitting in. Looking at Mr. Panasci's vivid pastels, however, the only "intensive care" that comes to mind is that employed by the artist to produce the maximum intensity of color and light.
As the exhibit's name suggests, the fact of disability is secondary to the accomplishment of art. Except for pieces that belong to the hospital's permanent collection, the artists' particular disabilities are not identified. Even so, the hospital environment makes it hard not to be aware that the work on display has been produced against great odds. It's also hard not to be aware of the urgent-sounding PA system announcements summoning various doctors, or the televison blaring forth news of fatal accidents and the Pope's health. Or the man staring into the disturbing depths of Bobcat No. 3 by Raymond Hu while waiting to be called in for a CAT scan. To move from that dark vision to an image that could easily pass for a view of heaven, all he has to do is look to his right and gaze into John Sears's acrylic on canvas, Monte Amiata Clouds, Tuscany. Such is the range of ArtFirst!
I noticed another man who had been brooding and pacing in a gloomy trance when his eye was caught by Sheila Erbst Bifaro's photograph/pastels of Spanish missions in San Antonio. His expression immediately brightened. Ms. Bifaro's ability to improve on reality had lifted his spirits. Works like these delicately subtle mission exteriors and interiors, with pastel touches of pink bringing out the detail, show the artist capturing a place, a mood, and a moment in time. She also captured third prize for her work.
As for prizes, a Best in Show went to Gayle Nord Harrison's needlepoint tapestry, Gustav Klimt's The Kiss Opens on Broadway. A deserving winner, this work's brilliantly detailed synthesis of concept and execution sets it apart from the competition. For one thing, it can be seen as a microcosm of the exhibit itself. If art can be displayed in the public corridors of a hospital, then why not put Klimt in one of America's most famous public spaces? For the artist, one thing led to another since the kiss most famously associated with Times Square is the one photographed by Alfred Eisenstadt during the VE celebration, and here they are again, the sailor and the girl rendered in needlepoint below the billboard displaying Klimt's kissing couple. The title notwithstanding, the most remarkable part of this work, done in the guise of another Times Square sky sign, is the elaborate and finely fashioned representation of Klimt's Ode to Joy. Here the brilliance and precision of detail is so striking, especially the gold leaf quality, that it seems to reduce the human figures on the street below to almost prosaic, puppet-like dimensions. Another compelling Gayle Nord Harrison needlepoint variation on a famous work is her expansion of Edward Hopper's Nighthawks, in which we see not only the people in Hopper's diner but the ones looking no less isolated in the windows above it.
It's not all that far from the diner in Nighthawks to the revelation of Molisano's enchanted Deli.
Art as Recovery
Paintings, pastels, and needlepoint are not the only forms on display here. ArtFirst! also includes sculpture, stained glass, scrimshaw (Sitting Bull and Custer, Grant and Lee), woven baskets, mixed media, montage (pages from old ledgers, labels off cans), and fibreglass figures. In black and white photography, stand-outs are Roger Weiss's film-noirish Tracks to Nowhere and a particularly evocative image of a mangled sphere at Ground Zero. Sofi wa Nairobi's expressive photographs of musicians in performance are so alive as to make mentioning the fact that she's legally blind a necessary exception to the rule of not naming specific disabilities. Her work seems all the more extraordinary if you know that what she's photographing has more to do with what she hears than with what she can see. In spite of being able to make out only vague forms, she catches the force of the playing, right down to the play of shadows in Ezra Reed's trousers in her Second Prize photograph, Keys to My Heart.
Throughout the show I kept thinking of medical terminology like intensive care, CAT scan, remission, and, especially, recovery. Seeing what all these artists had done, producing remarkable work in spite of polio, blindness, multiple sclerosis, brain trauma, paralysis, and schizophrenia, the notion of "recovery" seemed particularly appropriate to their accomplishment. They have recovered moments, places, scenes, and a vision of humanity. Whatever the level of expertise, whether it simply gives pleasure or offers escape or changes your life, the art these artists have recovered against odds can be seen at the Medical Center from now through April 16.