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Friday, December 19, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 26.0° F  Overcast
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MMoCA's Seen/Unseen examines the link between observing and believing
Kenneth Josephson's New York State (1970) seems to reference a state of being, not just a place.
Credit:Madison Museum of Contemporary Art

The relationship between senses and beliefs is fertile territory for thinkers in the arts and sciences. Must something be seen to be believed? When does sight fail to reflect reality? And if something is out of sight and out of mind, does it truly "exist"? These are just a few questions considered in the Seen/Unseen exhibition at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (through June 16 at the Henry Street Gallery).

The introductory text near the gallery's east entrance notes that artists have historically framed these queries as religious concerns. For example, in the 1800s, landscape painters tried to show how nature reflected the divine. And prior to the modern era, scientists sought to understand the natural world's laws and origins. Instead of searching for the laws that govern the universe, like natural philosophers such as Sir Isaac Newton, modern scientists tend to focus on pressing human problems. Experiments yield evidence, which in turn engenders belief. But artists still ponder what it means to exist. With paintings, photos and sculpture, Seen/Unseen's contributors consider reality's invisible facets and the tricks our minds play.

Sam Francis' Untitled Mandalas, a painting from 1975, acknowledges the spiritual nature of exploring the universe. Squares within squares form a mandala, a cosmic symbol from the Buddhist and Hindu traditions. Each corner represents an edge of the world, where the earthly meets the celestial. The outlines of Francis' squares are mostly white, while their interiors explode with vibrant colors plucked from nature: sunbeam yellow, bruise purple, blood-stain red. Violence and chaos converge with peace and order.

Photo prints line the exhibition's east wall. An ethereal image of a Mobil station Pegasus hangs beside a close-up of an uprooted plant and an entrancing example of light painting. But the piece that made me linger is a black-and-white image of the sea from Kenneth Josephson's 1970 series Images Within Images. Though this photo is titled New York State, there are no obvious references to the East Coast. "State" might to refer to a state of mind or being, not just a place.

Josephson uses the print's flatness to highlight the ways perspective can alter perception. A man extends his arm, holding it perpendicular to his body as he gazes at the horizon. In his hand is a snapshot of a cruise ship. Though he and the ship are far from the horizon, they seem to touch the point where the sea meets the sky. The tiny ship in the snapshot looks like it's floating on the vast sea that surrounds the man. Sight contradicts logic, suggesting that truth is more complex than it appears.

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