Starry eyed: Bennett and co. harness the heavens

Between giant sun flares and the recent “super moon,” not to mention new theorizing that life on earth sprang from space fungus, the cosmos has been making news lately. (And let’s not forget the freak-out that occurred when people thought their zodiac signs had changed due to an ancient miscalculation of stars’ alignment.) Humans have a universal fascination (yes, pun intended—no groaning) with outer space, vast and beyond reach yet able to affect our immediate lives— dictating tides, enabling navigation, and producing the aurora borealis.

Awe and the impulse to comprehend and control the stars underlie the work of the four artists included in Chroma Projects current exhibition, “Small Breaches in the Firmament.” Barbara MacCallum uses pages from her astrophysicist husband’s scientific papers— burning and stitching them— to sculpt life-size earthbound objects, like a woman’s ball gown and a man’s dress shirt.  Randall Stoltzfus embellishes digital prints with metallic leaf to create abstract images of star-filled night skies. And Kathryn Henry-Choisser’s simple oil-on-canvas compositions depict nostalgic nighttime scenes, glowing with fireflies and imagined constellations.

But the star of the show (yes, pun intended— no groaning) is Bill Bennett, a sculpture prof at the University of Virginia. Combining carved stone and other natural elements with brass and copper mechanical devices, Bennett produces large- and small-scale works that feel simultaneously antiquated and futuristic. Often the pieces include an interactive element—e.g. a tiny spyglass that provides a new perspective in “Feather Observatory,” or a mechanical arm ornamented with a cast-bronze ear, which turns a star-studded drum to produce gentle clicking noises in “Ear to the Stars.”

Although Bennett’s aesthetic would appeal to steampunk aficionados, who embrace the industrial trappings of 19th century science fiction, his pieces offer a more reverential/superstitious attitude toward the cosmos. His large structures resemble temples; the objects they contain seem iconic.

 In Bennett’s “Stone Bed on a Sea of Stars,” a patina-ed copper tower rises above a rectangle of frosted aqua glass on the floor. On top rests a bed carved from black stone, with a headboard of roughhewn rock arching over a convex half-dome, its interior glistening with gold-dotted pockets. When viewers stand on the frosted-glass “water,” they notice multiple panes of green glass arranged on end below the bed. Illuminated stars twinkle up through the glass, visible only from that vantage point.

Whimsical and fun, Bennett’s stellar sculptures (yes, pun intended—no groaning) inspire speculation and wonder— not unlike the cosmos itself.

“Small Breaches in the Firmament,” featuring work by Bill Bennett, Kathryn Henry-Choisser, Barbara MacCallum, and Randall Stoltzfus, is on view through the end of April at Chroma Projects. 418 E. Main St. on the Downtown Mall. 589-3117.