I was immediately struck by just how many windows there seemed to be in the Zilkha Gallery. Landscape, greenery, and sky met me from all angles, and it took me a moment to recognize that, while the facing wall was actually lined with windows, the other supposed “windows” were in fact paintings. Paintings as windows, windows as landscape, and landscape as a looking glass: welcome to Tula Telfair’s world of dreams.
On Tuesday, Sept. 16 the Center for the Arts (CFA) unveiled an exhibition two years in the making: Professor of Art Tula Telfair’s premiere of “A World of Dreams: New Landscape Paintings” in the Zilkha Gallery. This was likely one of the most heavily and diversely attended exhibitions that I have seen on campus. Perhaps most interesting was just how many professors were in the room, particularly those not associated with the Art and Art History Departments, representing instead the Biology, Astronomy, and Classical Studies Departments, to name a few. It became very clear to me that this exhibition went beyond one medium and subject to become a truly multidisciplinary installation.
Though the idea for the exhibition was conceived over a year ago, Telfair has physically worked on these pieces since January, when they quickly became her babies.
“I haven’t done a lot in this time apart from paint, perhaps write a few letters, and teach,” Telfair said.
As an artist, Telfair has experimented with a variety of styles and subject matters, but of late she has been renowned for her modern landscape paintings, as highlighted in this exhibition. Her landscapes are monumental in scale and vibrant in color. Some aspects of her landscapes call to mind the grandeur of historic landscapes while others can be likened to photographs.
Telfair describes these places as being fictive and an expression of her imagination. She emphasizes the role of creativity in her artistic process.
“I enjoy the possibility of creating something from nothing, which is something that you don’t get to do all of the time,” Telfair said. “These paintings are made up places; they are collages of ideas and experiences. Some I’ve only imagined.”
An integral part of the exhibition, apart form the works themselves, was the Zilkha Gallery space and the manner in which it interacted with the works. CFA Director Pamela Tatge described this component, underlying its unique addition to the final show.
“What excites me most about this show is that it is a site-specific installation,” Tatge said. “The paintings were scaled to the size of the bays and walls. Tula [Telfair] had the idea of painting the white bays gray to work against the notion of verticality and to feel the idea of horizontal.”
In the Zilkha Gallery, these paintings were quite idyllic, boasting views larger than life. This property, juxtaposed with the gallery’s huge windows revealing the New England greenery, created a heightened sense of drama.
Telfair also noted this intended pairing.
“I wanted to highlight what I appreciate so much about this space,” Telfair said. “And look at the way [CFA architect] Kevin Roche framed nature through these beautiful limestone walls, and the glass veils that separate us from nature, but allow us to access it.”
The orientation of the room in combination with the largely proportioned paintings created a sense of inclusion in which the landscapes envelop the viewer.
Emery Frick ’18 observed this drama and sense of mystical transportation.
“It made you feel like you were actually there,” Frick said. “It was really breathtaking. I just kind of stopped and didn’t know what to do.”
The interdepartmental dialogue emphasized by the diverse visitor demographic was strengthened through the support of a varied group of University faculty. Professors from many departments wrote essays to complement the exhibition catalogue in which they reflected on Telfair’s body of work and related it to themes within their own field of study.
There is a preconceived, utterly ridiculous notion that art exhibitions are about looking at something directly in front of oneself, heaving a “hmm” or “ha” in appreciation, and then moving on to whichever piece is adjacent.
But here the viewer is connected with the artwork. This exhibition forced participation by being a multi-sensory installation that questioned not only “art,” but also biology, language, and astronomy. It transported us as the audience into different worlds within our imaginations, thus pushing the confines of art and beauty and exhibiting an increasingly more pertinent interplay between disciplines.
Tula Telfair’s “A World of Dreams” will be on display until Dec. 7, and I encourage all to stop by. Telfair will also be giving an artist talk on Sept. 27 at 2 p.m. in the CFA Hall.
“They will draw you in,” Tatge said. “They are beautiful, they are evocative, and they are disturbing, and they invite you into a world that you have never been before.”