Angels on earth are by no means a new artistic theme.
Heavenly beings have been depicted in worldly art for centuries - by some of the greatest painters, sculptors and in various other mediums. But "Phillip Chan: Fallen Angels," an exhibit which will be on display at SAMA-Altoona until Jan. 7, applies this theme in a brand new way.
"When people hear 'Fallen Angels,' the first thing they might think about is Lucifer, but it has nothing to do with that," said Chan, a life-long artist and recently retired professor at Youngstown State University, during a phone interview. "It really is kind of a generalized portrait of humanity. I think of human beings as fallen angels in a sense that, unlike most people, I think of man as really two separate species... Every person is born, and part of mankind. But to be human, I think you have to strive to go beyond. In other words, strive to be an angel."
Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec
Haley Hawk and Jody Hesley of Hollidaysburg check out some of the works in the exhibit “Phillip Chan:?Fallen Angels.”
Whether or not you agree with the theory behind it, SAMA-Altoona Site Coordinator Barbara Hollander said Chan's layering, texture, pattern and composition in each of the 40 "Fallen Angels" on display make the exhibit worth a look.
"I think it's unbelievable," Hollander said of the exhibit. "I've never seen anything like it."
Chan has been working on "Fallen Angels" for the last 25 years, focusing whatever free time he could while working full-time as a college professor.
If you go:
What: "Phillip Chan: Fallen Angels"
When: through Jan. 7
Where: The Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art at Altoona, 1210 Eleventh Ave., Altoona
Details: Admission is free. Museum hours are Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturdays, 1 to 5 p.m.; closed Sundays, Mondays and holidays.
Tickets for the Lunch a l'Art program with the artist at noon Oct. 19 cost $13, or $12 for SAMA members. Reservations are required and can be made by calling the museum at 946-4464.
Aside from teaching at Youngstown State for the past decade, Chan has also done one- to two-year stints at more than a dozen other universities across the country, including Penn State University Park.
He credits growing up in California for his "naturalistic roots" and time spent on the East Coast for a more "constructive, formalistic side." But being a "migrant academic," as Chan described it, provided him with the most inspiration for his art.
"At first it was really a drag because, you know, who really wants to do that? But after a year I realized - at least at that time, when I was still in my early 30s - I actually rather liked it, because it gave me a chance to move around and see a whole lot of America," Chan said. "In a sense, in a different way, I've sort of become more of an American painter simply because I've lived and taught in almost all parts of the country. ... So all of that put together sort of gave me a very mixed experience in how vast America is, and how diverse it actually is."
Though he received his MFA in drawing and painting, Chan's position at Youngstown State until his recent retirement was as a graphic design professor. He said teaching outside of his medium helped him develop new understandings of his own art.
"Many of the questions I probably wouldn't have asked in terms of my own art because it was separate, but nonetheless it gave me a broader background to understanding what I was doing," Chan said.
The interest in the mind and body dichotomy has been a part of his aesthetic since his own schooling, Chan said. This grew into the desire to portray both a physical and a metaphysical state in his "Fallen Angels."
Chan added that both the subject of angels and physicality of the technique and the paint itself should allow the audience to feel the same emotions and contemplate the same ideas that interest him.
"I don't think when people look at it they'll be able to see a physical/metaphysical dilemma, but I think they feel it, and I think they feel it's quite physical. I think they feel torment. I think they feel suffering, and I think they understand it is [about] humanity."
Hollander said the SAMA-Altoona audience may find the exhibit "provocative" and 'slightly disturbing," but will nonetheless give them something to think about.
"Questions are left unanswered, which is always good of art," she said. "You don't always want everything spelled out."
All of the 40 pieces of artwork have the same general theme and layout, but Chan incorporates different symbols, colors and textures to make each angel unique. Hollander said this would be hard to do and still keep someone's interest, but the various tools and "beautiful techniques" Chan used help him accomplish this.
"Each one stands on its own, but collectively it's magnificent," she said.
Chan said many of the paintings have a texture created by layers of paint that were then scraped away. These layers were made from the failed paintings that he decided to keep instead of throw away, where a year or two later, he would start a new painting right on top of the failure. Some "Fallen Angels" are composed of up to 10 layers of paint on top of each other, Chan said.
"What that does is it creates a different dimension," he said. "What it allowed me to do was to retrieve the history of the past. This could not have been done if I had thrown away the failures. Because the failures were reincorporated in a generational sense, I could excavate back into it and retrieve the synthesis of the past into the present. That created a very interesting relationship."
While he was scraping away these layers of the past, Chan would sometimes forget what he would find underneath. He said this made every "Fallen Angel" a process of discovery - a similar process he hopes the audience will go through when exploring the exhibit.
"It's sort of like finding your parents through genealogy .com or something," he said. "To me, it's a mystery, and I hope when people come look at it, they get that same sense of mystery."
Chan will appear at a Lunch a l'Art program at noon Oct. 19 hosted by the museum. Hollander hopes he can further explain his techniques.
"I'm hoping I can apply his technique to my own work," she said. "That's how much I like it."
Mirror Staff Writer Beth Ann Downey is at 946-7520.