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The Williams Center Art Gallery will display the work of six artists in “Journeys: An Exhibition Inspired by Homer's Odyssey” October 24 through December 10. The curator is Gallery Director Michiko Okaya.

One of the exhibitors, Darlene Nguyen-Ely, will present a slide lecture from 3-4 p.m., Sunday, October 31,at the Williams Center, followed by a public reception for the artists. Several of the artists will speak on their work and how the Odyssey influenced it at a brown bag panel discussion at noon Monday, November 1, in Williams Center Room 108. Lunch may be purchased for $3.

The exhibit features the work of Jehanne-Marie Gavarini, Lafayette assistant professor of art; Costas Varotsos, Peter Terezakis, Martha Posner, Mary Owen Rosenthal, and Nguyen-Ely. It is part of Lafayette's 1999-2000 Roethke Humanities Festival, titled “Modern Appropriations of Homer's Odyssey,” celebrating the epic that was this summer's common reading assignment for the Class of 2003. Held every two years, the Roethke Festival is named for Theodore Roethke (1908-63), a former Lafayette faculty member and noted poet of the 1940s and '50s. Roethke published several critically acclaimed volumes of poetry, including The Waking, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1954.

An illustrated brochure for the show includes an essay by J. M. Welker, curator of photography and exhibitions coordinator for the Heckscher Museum of Art, Huntington, N.Y.

Varotsos, a Greek sculptor, and Terezakis, an American artist of Greek ancestry, offer work strongly informed by their national heritage.

Varotsos, who often constructs large outdoor installations closely related to the land, retains this sense of visceral connection in “Horizon” (1991), a series of 16 pieces of which three are installed in the exhibition. The work evokes the sea that envelops the mainland and islands of Greece. The artist stacks layers of glass within a series of steel rings, with wall-mounted steel plates acting as support and background. The metal has taken on a warm, earthy patina, against which the glass glows with a pale green light. The irregular edges of the stacked plate glass suggest the shimmering surface of the Aegean Sea. But the edges' sharpness is also a reminder of the sea's constant shifting and power and the dangers of its depths.

Homer's Iliad and Odyssey were first spoken to Terezakis, a Brooklyn-based artist, as bedtime adventure stories by his father, a Greek Orthodox priest. The artist exhibits one of his series of othiporoi, literally, pilgrims or travelers.

Terezakis observes that it is only when Odysseus has been battered by life and loses his strength, that he truly gains the wisdom to be a more just ruler and a better husband and father. The othiporos he created for this exhibition acknowledges that this is a difficult lesson for the young and untested to accept, but an important one to hear. It is a sentinel constructed from PVC pipes and painted in bright reds and yellows, as though to give warning. At timed intervals, his othiporoi broadcast passages of the Odyssey recorded on a silicon chip, suggesting a classical chorus.

Nguyen-Ely well understands the transformative aspects of the archetypal journey. At seven she found herself torn from her mother on a ship leaving Saigon. Constantly facing the specter of shipwreck, she was forced to stand on the jammed deck to the point of collapse, and was robbed. A man standing next to her shot himself rather than face dying slowly of hunger and thirst. She would not be reunited with her family for two decades. In 1994, Nguyen-Ely was interviewed about these experiences, raising memories that had lain still beneath very deep waters for many years. Through her art, she found a healing path, exploring and exorcising her pain, and finding in the archetype of the journey a vehicle for life's endless transformation. Nguyen-Ely began constructing ships, exquisite in craft and form. Often they are filled with small photographs — scenes of travel, of airplanes, of shipwrecks and burning vessels. An outer shell of beauty bears a heavy cargo of memory and fear; they leave her hands “on a journey of destiny,” and one suspects that each launching leaves the artist lighter in spirit.

Traditional readings of the Odyssey naturally center on the travails of Odysseus., but Posner and Gavarini look beyond the archetype of the hero and weave their own tales around the women of the Odyssey.

Posner was drawn by the strength of Athena, goddess of wisdom and of warfare, whose interventions allow Odysseus to return home. Posner's work “Untitled” (1999) takes the form of the swift black vessel in which Odysseus made his journey, under the aegis of Athena. Employing materials such as beeswax, hair, and rose canes, Posner constructs a ship on an armature of rusted metal fencing from Martins Creek farm on which she lives and works. The nine-foot-long, canoe-like vessel incorporates continuing concerns of the artist's work, while also exploring important subtexts of the Odyssey.

Gavarini examines quite different female roles in her multimedia piece “Arachnes” (1999). She was struck by the parallels between Odysseus's patient wife Penelope, who weaved by day and unraveled by night to stave off suitors during her husband's absence, and Monica Lewinsky, who taught herself to knit in the ten months she waited for Bill Clinton to return to her affections. The title of Gavarini's piece derives from the legend of Arachne, a weaver famed for her skill and artistry. When she boasted that her talents were superior to Athena's, who was also goddess of the “womanly arts,” such as weaving, the goddess put Arachne in her place by turning her into a spider — a fate not unknown to Lewinsky. Gavarini's computer piece includes video clips, text from the Odyssey, and computer-generated images derived both from contemporary culture and art history.

Rosenthal is inspired stylistically by Greek vase painting (and perhaps by its convention of linear narrative), and has created two woodblock prints depicting scenes from the Odyssey. In one, Penelope's foolish and drunken suitors are sandwiched between Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, and Penelope, furtively unraveling her day's work. The expressive images are accompanied by ironic text that functions as both commentary and homily, asking us to question messages such as: “every beggar is a prince in disguise,” “the sons of the rich are all wastrels,” and “patience will be rewarded.” Odysseus's blinding of the man-eating Cyclops comes in for similar treatment in a second print. Its legend: “The brave and clever will vanquish evil.” Rosenthal makes her point with grace and humor, but the subtitles of her works, “Verities I and II,” reinforce her skepticism regarding the principles embedded in Western thought through works like the Odyssey.

The 1999-2000 Gallery Exhibition Series is funded, in part, by a grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, a state agency funded by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Gallery hours are noon-5 p.m. Monday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Wednesday, 2-5 p.m. Sunday, half an hour before Williams Center performances, and by appointment. For information on exhibits, call 610-330-5361.

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