Do you remember the telephone game?
It is the game in which a message is whispered in the ear of one person and then relayed to a second person, a third, and so on. The original message becomes so mangled by reinterpretation that in its final form the words hardly bear any resemblance to the original.
The current exhibition in the main gallery of the Susquehanna Art Museum, “Circle of Truth: 49 Paintings Ending with Ed Ruscha,” is the visual equivalent of that childhood game. It was launched in 2009 by curators Laura Hipke and Shane Guffogg and was completed in 2016. The “Circle of Truth “project explores the subject of truth in the human experience through its unique methodology.
The domino chain of this exhibition started with a source painting created by Guffogg. His work was delivered anonymously, along with a blank canvas, to the second artist in “the circle.” Each subsequent artist received an identical package: the anonymously created previous artist’s painting, a blank canvas, and the instructions to find and paint their response to the “truth” that they saw in the first painting. This chain was repeated to 49 artists over nine years.
The resulting 49 works of art were created specifically for the “Circle of Truth” and are displayed in sequential order based on their creation. Featuring primarily oil paintings, all the works measure 20 inches square by 2 inches deep, creating uniformity and continuity in structure despite the vast differences in artistic styles.
“The project is a microcosm of contemporary art, encompassing many artistic styles,” Guffogg described. “It pushes beyond the post-modernist era where all styles are relevant – from hyper-realism to pop, to pure abstraction with the myriad overlapping styles which reside between. Using paint and words, the artists speak to the viewers candidly, providing a rare perspective into their experience and thought processes.”
Many of the artists also include a statement of response describing their thought process and reaction. These statements and the works show both evolutionary continuity and radical revisions.
Guffogg’s is the first painting in the series, “Circle of Truth Sequence #1”; it is a musing on the spatial ratio of the golden mean. In artwork, this mathematical ratio creates a pleasing aesthetic through the balance and harmony it creates. The painting seems to illustrate a sheer veil hanging over a colorful patchwork. Thus, the series starts with a nonrepresentational abstract creation.
Subsequent paintings continue on the path of abstraction until “Circle of Truth Sequence #4” by Jim Morphesis as a form emerges to reveal a skull. This begins the first representational painting in the series, but it is far from the last.
The curves of the skull evolve through to “Circle of Truth Sequence #11” by Stanley Dorfman and return to abstraction, as overlapping circles twist and layer, giving a sense of motion flowing from the canvas.
It becomes part of the viewing experience to identify the commonalities and references to the prior work. Some are obvious, others are jarring departures.
In “Circle of Truth Sequence #41,” Jimi Gleason uses a silver nitrate surface coat that has been chemically electroplated to the acrylic base making the painting’s surface instantly interactive. It reflects the viewer as well as the light and colors in the room, leaving it up to the viewer to find his or her moment of emotion, activating their truth.
A layering of imagery occurs in “Circle of Truth Sequence #47” by Cal Lane. Serene vintage wallpaper is covered by a black world map as dual handguns fire at one another along the bottom edge. The message alludes to the truth and power achieved by violent means throughout the world.
The series ultimately evolves to painting number 49 by Ed Ruscha who draws inspiration from the concept of an alternative truth with his work titled “In.” Ruscha is a well-known American artist associated with the pop art movement. His media have ranged from painting and printmaking to drawing and photography, as well as film. His contribution is stark in its lack of color, using acrylic black and white with shadowy grays on linen. It resembles a spotlight illuminating the mysterious single word “In.” This ambiguity allows for the viewer to add an interpretive meaning to the work.
This exhibition provides a compelling insight into the creative process. The vision each artist brings to “Circle of Truth” shows us just how differently we all see the world. The exhibition raises questions of perception, integrity and authenticity, and the state of ethical values in contemporary society. Some may come away with the idea that “truth” itself is relative or open to interpretation.
“Circle of Truth” blends both eclectic and fascinating art and thought-provoking intellectual exercise. It is truly compelling to walk through the exhibit and not only view each individual work but see its place in the larger whole.
“Circle of Truth: 49 Paintings Ending with Ed Ruscha” is on view in the Beverlee and Bill Lehr Gallery through Sept. 19. The Susquehanna Art Museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Wednesdays, and from noon to 5 p.m. on Sundays. Susquehanna Art Museum is located at 1401 N. 3rd St., Harrisburg. Free parking is available to museum visitors in the lot behind the Museum at Calder and James streets.
For more information on visiting the museum, visit susquehannaartmuseum.org.
Joseph George holds a degree in history and art history from Dickinson College. He and his wife, Barrie Ann have spent over 30 years together traveling and visiting art galleries locally and throughout the world. They have been writing about the local art scene for nine years. Their tastes range from fine art to street art.