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A selection of prints from artist Frank Stella’s spectacular “Imaginary Places” portfolios will be displayed from March 20 through April 30 at the Williams Center Art Gallery.

Gallery hours are noon-5 p.m. Monday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Wednesday, and 2-5 p.m. Sunday. For more information, call 610-330-5361.

The public is invited to attend a Brown Bag lecture that will put the works (completed in 1995 and 1996) in context at noon Monday, April 3, at the Williams Center. Lafayette art history professor Robert S. Mattison will discuss the history of Stella’s work, and Lafayette mechanical engineering professor Erol Ulucakli will describe fluid dynamics—one of the scientific theories that has influenced Stella over the past decade. The lecture is free to the public; lunch can be purchased for $3.

One of the most ambitious and best known contemporary artists working in an abstract style, Stella’s recent projects have included a 60-foot wall piece in cast aluminum and entire architectural environments. His graphic work is also remarkably complex and innovative, extending the boundaries of the medium.

Stella’s twisting, multi-dimensional forms reveal his interest in the natural and scientific character of vortices and turbulence, and this exploration connects Stella’s art to some of the most ancient and compelling motifs in history, as well as to one of the hottest scientific topics of the millennium, chaos theory. The prints were made at Tyler Graphics Ltd. and are loaned courtesy of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The printmaking techniques developed by Tyler to realize Stella’s vision radically extend the boundaries of that medium in a manner that parallels the complex scientific discoveries preoccupying him. “Fanattia” (1995), for instance, is a 41-color etching, engraving, relief, lithograph, hot foil stamping, woodcut, mezzotint on handmade paper with hand coloring.

For Stella, the story begins in winter 1983, when he was invited to deliver the Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard University. One night while relaxing alone in the “masters’ apartments” after a lecture, Stella was absent-mindedly blowing smoke rings with a cigar when he reasoned that the smoke could be a way “of making imagery, of creating shapes that I hadn’t seen before—a kind of Faustian fantasy.”

Stella’s interest in the relationship between order and disorder represented by the smoke rings, disintegrating into apparently random configurations, stretches so far back in the artist’s career that it might be called a leitmotif, Mattison explains in an essay included in an illustrated brochure on the exhibit. During the 1960s, the clarity of Stella’s seminal “shaped paintings” gave way to his “Protractors, in which the colorful arching bands intersect each other, suggesting impossible patterns of interwoven strands.

Stella’s “Polish Village” paintings and constructions of 1971-73 similarly suggest unattainable relationships, now between intersecting planes, says Mattison. In the later part of this series, the works began to actually project from the wall, and while Stella spoke of these pieces in terms of investigations of “real” space, his spatial configurations had become extremely complex and ambiguous.

In Stella’s “Circuits” (1980-82), the spatial tension and complexity that he had courted in his earlier career reached an explosive climax. The reliefs explored the limits of the artist’s organizational abilities and the fringes of what the eye and mind can comprehend. The “Circuits” were individually named after automotive racetracks on the European Formula One circuit, and the constructions propose analogies between the swerving path of a racecar seen at speed and the spectators’ visual reflexes.

Stella’s “Moby Dick” series (1986-89) featured a new configuration, the wave. Previously, the projecting forms in Stella’s constructions had been largely planar—the surfaces were flat and the designs confined to the edges, explains Mattison. By contrast, the waves are curved-space structures; they feature both curved edges and curved faces. While he was working on the “Moby Dick” series. Stella was reading James Gleick’s Chaos: Making a New Science (1987), a book providing popular history of the seminal developments of chaos theory.

In 1990 with his studio assistants, Stella constructed a device for freezing the flow dynamics of smoke in a form that can be mapped. It was an eight-foot enclosed box, lined with black velvet and lit internally by four electric bulbs. On all six sides of the box were stop-action cameras focused on the center, and drilled in the vertical edges were holes through which Stella could exhale smoke. When Stella blew smoke rings into the box, all cameras fired simultaneously capturing the image from six sides. The photographs were then digitally processed by a computer to create two-dimensional maps of the billowing three-dimensional smoke. From the thousands of photographs taken, Stella chose about a dozen images that most interested him.

The exhibition series is presented under provisions of the Detwiller Endowment, and is funded in part through 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.

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