Mirror, mirror in the gallery: new Clay Center exhibit opens Friday

Ellen Harvey spent more than seven months hand engraving the mirrors in “Arcade/Arcadia” with a diamond point. The exhibit opens at the Clay Center Friday.
The exhibit is inside a self-contained structure, surrounding viewers with images of a once-idyllic seaside resort in decay from over-commercialization.
Photos courtesy of Locks gallery, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Art lovers and history buffs alike can enjoy the thought-provoking installations of “Arcade/Arcadia” by internationally-acclaimed artist Ellen Harvey beginning Friday at the Clay Center. The artist said she hopes to show how “beauty can suffer when it’s over-commercialized or exploited.”

The exhibit, which has a free, public reception at 6 p.m. Friday, is described by gallery curator Arif Khan as an “immersive experience” where an amusement arcade collides with a gallery.

“I’m really excited about it. As the viewer walks in to the gallery structure, they will be completely surrounded by the artwork,” Khan said, noting that Harvey will participate in a free artist talk at 6 p.m. Sept. 25.

Harvey is a graduate of the Whitney Museum of American Art Independent Study Program, as well as a graduate of Harvard College and the Yale Law School. She is excited about the exhibit, too — because she gets to visit West Virginia.

“I have never been to West Virginia. I’m originally from the U.K. and I live in Brooklyn, so I’m very excited to visit. I hear it’s beautiful,” she said in a recent telephone interview from Salzburg, Austria.

According to Khan, visitors to the art gallery will feel as if they are stepping inside an old-fashioned aluminum fairground sign when they enter the exhibit. Inside, they will discover hand-engraved mirrors offering a 360-degree view of a derelict seaside resort.

“For me, the piece is very much about the idea that people can love a place to death. Margate was a naturally beautiful place, an arcadia, and people came and turned it into an amusement arcade and then abandoned it. It’s a bit of a cautionary tale for us all, I suppose,” Harvey said.

“Arcade/Arcadia” was originally produced for the 2011 opening of the Turner Contemporary in the seaside town of Margate in the United Kingdom.

“The new museum is located on the site where J.M.W. Turner, the famous English painter best known for his dramatic, light-filled landscapes, lived with his mistress when he was not in London. Margate is a seaside resort town that has fallen on hard times in recent years due to the availability of cheap international travel, and I wanted to make a piece that both showed what Turner loved about Margate — the beautiful skies, in particular — and the reality of Margate today,” Harvey said.

“I engraved every single mirror in ‘Arcade/Arcadia’ by hand with a diamond point. It took over seven months, and my hands were numb by the end, despite a lot of icing,” she added, referring to the use of ice to treat repetitive strain injuries.

“Arcade/Arcadia” recreates in 3/4 scale the gallery that Turner maintained in London. The arrangement of mirrors recreates the arrangement of paintings in his gallery upon his death.

“The mirrors are engraved to show a panoramic view of Margate seen from the beach and illuminated from behind so that they appear as drawings in light on the mirrors,” Harvey said.

“Most obviously the mirrors reference the amusement arcade’s funhouse mirrors, but they are also a way of inserting the viewers into Margate. There aren’t any people in the engravings, but the viewers are visible.

“Mirrors are also sort of magical; it’s hard to walk past them without looking. I wanted some of that for the piece,” Harvey said.

History lovers may find the art exhibit’s subject matter particularly interesting.

“The paintings of George Jones, Turner’s friend who painted images of Turner in his coffin in his gallery, were the starting point for this installation. The historical reality of Margate today was another inspiration.

“Hopefully, it’s possible to appreciate the piece even if you’re not interested in the history. We all worry about the degradation of the physical world today and the way in which beauty can suffer when it’s over-commercialized or exploited.”

For additional information about the artist, visit ellenharvey.info/.

Reach Judy E. Hamilton at judy.hamilton@wvgazette.com, 304-348-1230 or follow @JudyEHamilton on Twitter.

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