Treasures in Darkness, Old and New
Psalm 19:1-6 ESV
The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In them he has set a tent for the sun, which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber, and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy. Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them, and there is nothing hidden from its heat.
…who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy…
All images: Discovery in a Tar Pit, by Lynn Aldrich, 2021, courtesy of the artist, © Lynn Aldrich; Tar felt sheets, acrylic sheets, oil point, enamel, lights, 22 x 58 x 58 inches.
Throughout history, mankind has looked to the stars in awe for guidance, meaning and transcendence. Artists have depicted and interpreted their understanding of cosmology through architecture, sculpture, and a variety of media. The medieval model held that there is meaning and purpose to all of life and an order to the universe. When medieval scholars studied the stars, they believed that the nature of the cosmos and all of life’s forms and essences held intrinsic meaning. The pursuit of astronomy was to better apprehend one’s purpose. It was a humble posture that held if man looks up, the unity of experience and reason served the soul to better worship Creator God. “The heavens declare the glory of God and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” (Psalm 19:1-6) Today, the modern era’s philosophical revolution has largely replaced “the heavens” with “space” and scientists now prioritize utility rather than meaning, yet artist Lynn Aldrich is exploring ancient ideas within new discoveries in the stars.
Lynn Aldrich is a contemporary American artist who chooses common, everyday objects and transforms their purpose to explore questions about life, humanity, and God. Her sculptures, installations, and wall art range between playful and serious conversations through the lens of her Christian faith. Rather than working with one material or art form in a classic series, Aldrich has spent the last 30 years grounding her artistic approach by returning to universal questions and themes.
In her description for Discovery in a Tar Pit, Aldrich states,
This sculpture is from a series of works inspired by Rose Windows, the round stone openings filled with stained glass in medieval cathedrals. They might be compared to our contemporary telescopic lenses focused on the cosmos, a quest for knowledge and understanding of creation and human relationship as to its meaning. In the heart of Los Angeles primeval tar bubbles to the surface – sites where archeologists dig deep to learn of our ancient past. It is made from tar felt layers, and deep inside, the viewer “discovers” the glowing remains of a Rose Window, painted on plastic sheets. Could it be that millennia from now the preserved ruins of a Rose Window might be unearthed in such a dark pit, telling us of an age when humans celebrated God as creator and sustainer of the universe?
Aldrich developed the idea for Discovery in a Tar Pit in part from her work in 2008 when she collaborated with Cal Tech astrophysicists who obtained infrared images from the Spitzer Orbiting Telescope. The infrared telescope could see past the dust clouds to the stars beyond and obtained new information that did not exist previously. Scientists were assigned to pick colors by reading the chemical elements which results in the vibrant colors in Aldrich’s sculptures. Some chemical properties were completely unknown so there was some guess work involved but human participation in translating the colors does not take away the awe that viewers experience when they behold the images. Rather it allows a sense of human co-creativity in science. Aldrich’s work with Cal Tech resulted in a room-sized installation and exhibition in 2008 called Pilgrimage through the Wormhole.
While she creates site-specific installations, she will break down a piece and use the material or idea within a new framework, especially if she had other ideas and questions that her work prompted to her to explore. She describes her approach as “a low-tech inventor to make discoveries,” as she explores, edits, and explains concepts and ideas that inspire her. Aldrich has often meditated on Matthew 13:52 that says, “And Jesus said to them, ‘Therefore every scribe who has become a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like a head of a household, who brings out of his treasure new things and old.” Aldrich delights in the word given to Jesus’s disciples that we bring forth the kingdom of God in layers of old and new in our work in such a way that does not alter Jesus’s meaning so much as reveal a deep accumulation of truth that is memorable, strong, and beautiful.
Aldrich discovered more layers for her work in the medieval stained glass Rose Windows in the monumental stone darkness of Chartres Cathedral. She states,
“A circular Rose Window seemed like an oculus opening to rotating galaxies of color and reminded me of the splendor of contemporary galactic images from deep space…. I was contemplating some of the losses and harmful actions of both the ancient and contemporary Church. It is a kind of lamentation but still hints at sublime transcendence. As in other works from this series, the shapes of the Rose Window insets are conflated with the shapes of spinning suns and rotating galaxies.”
Discovery in a Tar Pit was part of the Rose Window series in 2015, but she has since changed and added to the sculpture. One scripture that came to her when she worked on the piece was Psalm 103:4, “who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy.”
It is rare to view images of the heavens by looking down, but this physical posture requires us to slowly move around the work in a contemplative position. In today’s hurried culture when the night sky is largely eclipsed by artificial lights and dark sky sanctuaries are rare, perhaps we too need to bow our heads to glimpse treasures in darkness, old and new.
Lynn Aldrich is a Los Angeles, CA, USA, based artist who makes sculpture, wall constructions and installations, often using purchased consumer products. Her work is inspired by nature, art history, literature, theology, and the observation of contemporary culture. She has exhibited widely, with recent shows at Art Affairs gallery, Amsterdam, and DENK gallery, Los Angeles. Her works are in numerous notable collections such as MOCA (Museum of Contemporary Art), Los Angeles, the Los Angeles County Museum, the Portland Art Museum, Portland, OR, and the Calder Foundation, NYC. In 2014 she received a Guggenheim Fellowship. https://lynnaldrich.com/home.html