Joy Feasley’s work takes inspiration from the magical optics of the natural world such as the aurora borealis, phosphenes, will-o’-the-wisp, and bioluminescent creatures. Included in the exhibition, lyseslukker, Danish for candle-snuffer, will be new paintings, as well as silkscreen on photographic prints that are set between land and sky, or physical and spiritual planes. Intimate and small-in-scale, Feasley’s paintings reveal a distinct logic and pattern, hinting at some unseen, underlying structure to the universe.
Through painting, Feasley connects with the world and what can be found when one stargazes or searches for mysteries and meaning. A contemporary symbolist, she depicts the invisible and unexplainable–emotions, theories, things at the edge of perception and those things too big to comprehend. Feasley’s lodestar is the experience of phosphenes, the seeing of light with eyes closed. In this meditative moment, the colors and shapes that appear in the darkness might be understood as evidence of the existence of a parallel universe or proof of the seer’s spiritual awakening.
Feasley draws from the practices of the occult and pagan magic, as well as belief systems where the cycles of seasons and life carry profound sacred meaning. The aesthetics of the Pennsylvania Dutch and the United Society of Believers (more commonly known as the Shakers), whose commitment is to the pursuit of perfection and understanding through work and deeds, are both prominent influences. Personal observations and direct experiences—a trip to Norway, mushroom hunting, and a regular practice of long walks in the woods to connect with nature—also inform the work.
Mager discs or color wheels occur throughout the work and are a direct reference to a tool used by clairvoyant water diviners that utilizes color to determine the quality of water. Candles swirl up to the heavens, alluding to an anonymous engraving from 1571 that portrays the aurora borealis over the town of Kuttenberg, Bohemia as candles in the sky. Hex signs, magical barn adornments of the Pennsylvania Dutch countryside, symbolize good luck and abundance. Radiating lines reference the sun and black holes, as well as the Hieronymous Bosch painting, Ascent to Heaven.
Feasley’s earnest inquiry yields a picture plane filled with Sehnsucht, sadness, longing, enthrallment and ecstasy, resulting in works that can be understood emotionally as well as visually. Hers is an enchanted world view.
The exhibition also features a new collaborative body of photographic prints made with Paul Swenbeck. A narrow palette of grey and silver reminiscent of antique silver prints or photographs links the work to 19th and 20th century spirit photography that offered proof of ghosts or spiritual beings. Flashes of light appear against photographs of the landscape made by Swenbeck using a prism that reveals shifts in perspective and vibrant spectrums of color.
Gazing into the Flame by Lynda Brody
Joy Feasley and Paul Swenbeck have a long history of collaboration and a shared interest in occult and spiritual themes in art. Present in past works such as their 2014–15 large-scale installation, A Hatchet to Kill Old Ugly, this unwavering current of the otherworldly is both vibrant and ephemeral in Out, Out, Phosphene Candle. A multilayered installation that incorporates light, video, sculpture, painting, and photography in dialogue with historical and personal objects and artifacts, Out, Out, Phosphene Candle initiates an alchemical reaction that inspires contemplation and a new way of seeing the world.
Out, Out, Phosphene Candle is rich in symbolism, imagery, and ideas rooted in ceremonial magic, alchemy, witchcraft, and curious natural phenomena. It nudges at questions about the play and perception around truth and belief. The work is intentionally flexible, planting seeds that reveal just enough to engage interest, while leaving things open to an individual journey. Favoring handmaking over machine fabrication, the majority of items present are full of kinetic energy built up through hours of joyful and intentional work. The creativity is palpable and magnified by dynamic layout decisions. Original works of art by Feasley and Swenbeck refer back to and communicate with more archetypal objects like wedding rings and enigmatic borrowed pieces including a bevy of hydrometers, bathometers, and a giant cauldron, devices antiquated enough to possess an aura of the arcane. There is also a full-fledged mystery object from the American Philosophical Society, a black slate dodecahedron incised with unidentifiable markings that is the only one ever found of its kind. These objects and the traditions associated with them have power in and of themselves that interacts to create a field of energy that has the potential to transform the viewer, if they are ready and open to the experience. We are not talking about art in a purely conceptual or literal sense; there is more to it—an unseen but nonetheless palpable something that not only activates and unites the vast network of ideas at play but elevates the space itself with the potential for magical transformation.
Phosphenes, incandescent images that are produced by stimulation of the visual system by means other than light entering the eye, are the inspiration and the certain something that illuminates the Out, Out, Phosphene Candle cosmos. As light without a source, Feasley and Swenbeck see phosphenes as part of a parallel universe that always exists even when you aren’t looking at it. Casually mixed in with all of the classic esoteric themes, one could easily miss how revolutionary their presence is within the context of art. Undeniably real but nonetheless perplexing, very little is known about what phosphenes are and what causes their appearance. Associated with meditative states and kundalini awakening, phosphenes are most commonly seen in the moments between waking and sleeping, in the ethereal space where we slip into the dream world, eyes closed in darkness. Their exact cause is unknown, and the experience has been likened to a seizure without injury. Both Feasley and Swenbeck understand phosphenes as something available to everyone, a connection to a deep part of being human that we all share. If there is such a thing as the collective unconscious, perhaps phosphenes are a gateway for access. Because our eyes are closed, seeing phosphenes is completely internal, emerging only when we are quiet and still. As we experience the colorful moving patterns, perhaps there is a calibration of consciousness and capability as we shift from the physical, rule-bound everyday world into something more flexible, fluid and limitless, opening our access to that which has passed and that which remains to be seen. We experience the world within and open to an awareness that allows the everyday to melt away, making space for the rising crystallization of deeper truths.
The appearance of phosphenes can indicate spiritual awakening, a deeper connection to the underlying oneness that is life. On any spiritual path, awakening takes time and is usually marked by challenges. The rite of passage that is Out, Out, Phosphene Candle is no different. The journey begins in a room equipped with tools that evoke a scene straight from a scientist’s laboratory or drawings from the yellowed pages of an old alchemical notebook. Standing to face an oblong work table there is a crucible, a beaker, a tower of glowing, fertile flowers, and a sundial featuring a gnomon in the shape of the all-powerful lightning bolt of inspiration. At first it appears to be a room of science, where discoveries are made using these devices that measure, weigh, and examine. As we adjust to our surroundings, it becomes clear that none of the tools have been used in a long time. Many are behind glass, relics on display because they have gained value for their historical significance and rarity rather than their usefulness, a three-dimensional snapshot of that which has almost, but not quite, happened. The entire room has a feeling of being frozen in time, an eclectic dreamscape with touches of Arts Deco and Nouveau, celestial linework on the walls reminiscent of Charles Burchfield, a chalice-shaped antenna and Symbolist-inspired artworks along the mantle of the fireplace-like archway. This is the room of what is already known. All that can be measured has been evaluated, and its results recorded. Despite its shimmer and shine, the experiments here will reveal nothing new. It is only through letting go of the safe and the known, that we may endeavor to embrace possibility. It is perfectly fitting that the gateway to possibility is a passageway through a fireplace, as fire is a force of transformation. We see our own reflection in the glass above the mantle and come face to face with the mystery object—the dodecahedron—imbuing us with the power to heal and evolve. In order to access the next level of knowledge, we must get down onto our bellies, forsake the rational, categorizing mind, and engage viscerally, crawling forth into a space of moonlight, water, fire, and stars. This act of surrender is akin to initiation, transporting you from one point in evolution to the next. Like the phoenix, the traveler must be reborn.
The first stage of a phosphene experience is characterized by ring-shaped visualizations. Circular forms abound in the exhibition, building on the notion of phosphenes while also emphasizing resonance with the occult. A visual thread woven throughout Out, Out Phosphene Candle is the Mager disk, a device designed to assist with the ancient art of dowsing. It resembles a color wheel and is a recurrent subject in Feasley’s work. It appears here in glass, both as a stage for the display of other works, and as wall-based art; and in the form of a giant carpet where visitors are invited to sit and to observe. The carpet’s circular shape recalls the magic circle of sorcerers, magicians, and witches. Having made the journey and survived initiation, we are now privvy to an extra-sensory, in-between space and all of the mystery it reveals. There is much to see. A light resembling the moon and rotating projections evoking the aurora borealis, another long-time theme in Feasley’s work, guide our way.
Many works of alchemical, magical, and occult writing explain how to manipulate unseen forces to attain a desired objective. Forces of elements and planets are harnessed and personal power is concentrated to a single point. This work, the work of transformation, is performed inside the circle, a place where time becomes flexible.
Although they work very closely, Feasley and Swenbeck have differing perspectives on how time is represented in this environment. Feasley sees it as something that has already occurred while Swenbeck understands Out, Out, Phosphene Candle as a vision of the future. By defining the work as simultaneously representing two different spaces in time, Feasley and Swenbeck have allowed for the possibility that Out, Out, Phosphene Candle is happening in the present, making it a real-time representation of the occult concept that “all time is now,” meaning that it is possible to use magic to effect the present, the past, and the future. The presence of a full, moon-like light projection emphasizes this possibility and adds a deeper layer of magical significance.
The linchpin of imagination and beating heart of the show quietly resides in this fertile space, inside a glass sphere embedded in the wall. It is the phospene candle itself, burning steadily in full support of this potent and magical space. This pulsing nexus of creativity contains within it the moon, the stars, fire, water, and earth. As the phosphenes come from within us and are a shared experience accessible to all humanity, are we not ourselves each a universe, capable of potent creation? All of the elements are present and can be experienced fully in this environment of creativity, manifestation, and magic. It is up to the viewer to choose whether or not to use them in accordance with her ability and will.
— from Out, Out Phosphene Candle, a publication to accompany the exhibition of the same name, edited by Joy Feasley and Paul Swenbeck and published by the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, 2018.
Joy Feasley (b. 1966, Buffalo, NY; lives and works in Philadelphia, New York and Maine) studied at Massachusetts College of Art, Cooper Union, and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Most recently, Feasley and Paul Swenbeck presented Out, Out Phosphene Candle at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Sheboygan, WI and Will o’ the Wisp at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, Rockland, ME. Feasley’s work has also been exhibited at the Fabric Workshop and Museum, Moore College of Art, Temple Contemporary Gallery, the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Vox Populi, all Philadelphia, PA; Columbia College, Chicago, IL; LUMP Gallery and Contemporary Art Museum, Raleigh, NC. Feasley's work is included in the collections of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the West Collection. She has been in residence at the Acadia Summer Arts Program, Bar Harbor, ME, the 18th Street Arts Center Santa Monica, CA and the Arts/Industry Residency Program Kohler, WI. In 2011, she was awarded a Pew Fellowship in the Arts. Feasley and Paul Swenbeck recently completed a major permanent installation for the Art Preserve of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center and are currently in residence at Stelo Arts, Portland and Colton, OR.
Paul Swenbeck (b. 1967) graduated with a degree in ceramics from Massachusetts College of Art in 1991. In 2018, the artist collaborated with Joy Feasley to present Out, Out Phosphene Candle at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Sheboygan, WI. His work has also been exhibited at The Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia; The Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; The Morris Gallery, The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Fleisher/Ollman, Philadelphia; Vox Populi, Philadelphia; Massachusetts College of Art and Design, Boston.