Cornell’s Light-Up Exhibition a Must-See

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The proliferation of visual art on the Internet has surely done museums no favors. Just as the reality of movies downloaded onto iPhones has begun to make cinemas obsolescent, so can virtual galleries make the brick-and-mortar ones seem superfluous for all but the most experiential art lovers.

Unless, of course, your museum exhibition showcases the kind of work that cannot yet be replicated online—art that shimmers and glows and flickers and pulsates, ever-changing visual symphonies of light that beg to be encountered and even touched. The Cornell Museum’s inspiring “Lit” is just this kind of exhibit, curated as always around every nook and cranny of the two-story space.

Noting in her introduction to the exhibition that masters from Caravaggio to Hopper considered lighting as carefully as they did color and shape, curator Melanie Johanson sought out contemporary artists operating in the latest frontiers of illuminated art—creatives whose work is able to “harness, manipulate, digitize and bend” light. What is, on the surface, a bright and motley celebration of neon, resin, and bulbs both towering and microscopic, is, underneath the glitz, an enigmatic portal to the vivid imaginations of the light-wielders.

Johanson collected work from internationally renowned light artists and emerging South Florida locals alike, with her favored utilitarian approach making no distinctions between them. Some of it is instantly accessible. It’s easy to be drawn into the joyous neon kitsch of the late Chris Bracey’s reclaimed signs, like “Sail Away With Me Honey,” and to Olivia Steele’s large-scale sculptures such as “All I Ever Wanted Was Everything,” a neon mini-poem scripted onto a wall-sized garden of plastic leaves and silk flowers. Like the rest of her work in this exhibition, it uses language and form to cut through the noise: Each sculpture resonates with the concision of a proverb.

Other artists bristle with mystery. Boca artist Carol Prusa earned an entire room for her sculptures—mostly half-moons jutting from the walls and designed from materials such as vitreous china and fiber optics. Inside some, tiny circular video screens broadcast a loop of animated, Rorschachian forms. Prusa calls them “acrylic hemispheres,” and they’re cosmically captivating, blinking with the suggestion of life. Each is like a maquette for a science-fiction film waiting to be made.

Equally compelling is Dominic Harris’ mesmerizing wall sculpture “Digital Shimmer,” a series of graduated circles that is Duchampian in its hypnotic pull. A bit of artistic backstory helps aid the appreciation of some of the pieces, such as Frank Hyder’s light-shifting fiberglass panels of swimming koi—the fish in whose multiple colors the artist sees a metaphor of a multicultural utopia. Or Troy Abbot’s ingenious, captivating videos of birds, illuminated from tablets perched in century-old birdcages and representing a soulful clash of technology and antiquity.

Johanson agreeably liberalizes her definition of “light art” enough to include Vincent Cacace’s beautiful oil paintings of nocturnal landscapes, which seem to twinkle with stars; Ryan Thomas’ abstract photography, which manipulates the photo process to its very essence; and even Valentin Popov’s photorealistic paintings of candles, which convincingly capture the swaying dance of their flames.

But I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the Brooklyn subversive Sam Tufnell that inspired the entire of concept of “Lit.” His true-to-size garden gnomes, identical in form but lit in a Warholian variety of colors, are a pointy-headed leitmotif both inside and outside the Cornell, greeting pedestrians near the Old School Square lawn and poised at the entrance of the galleries like pint-sized guards.

Then there’s Tufnell’s candy-colored resin creations, which exude a postmodern, pop-cultural exuberance, like “Dad Ain’t OK LOL,” which is a resin Darth Vader mask the color of a watermelon Gummy Bear. Even better are his tabletop tableaux, like “New Work Bitches,” a diorama of controlled randomness whose representations include Jesus, Batman, Marilyn Monroe and the Statue of Liberty, all breathing the same canonized oxygen. It’s both childlike and adult and, like the best work in “Lit,” it needs to be admired in person, in anactual museum, to be fully appreciated.

“Lit” runs through Aug. 28 at Old School Square, 51 N. Swinton Ave., Delray Beach. Admission is a $5 suggested donation. For inoformation, call 561/243-7922 or visit oldschoolsquare.org.