When the group of Princeton area artists that calls itself Movis wanted to do a show, they needed a superstructure that would bring together their diverse crafts. John Goodyear, professor emeritus of visual arts at the Mason Gross School of the Arts and a sculptor, came up with a uniting but also provocative theme — all the work in the show would be suspended from the ceiling rather than the ways art is traditionally shown — either mounted on a wall or installed on a floor. The show, aptly titled “In Suspension,” is on view through Friday, September 12, at the Mason Gross School of the Arts Galleries, 33 Livingston Avenue in New Brunswick. A closing reception takes place on Thursday, September 11.
Movis developed out of a happenstance meeting of several artists at a cafe at the Princeton Shopping Center. What was originally “the Tuesday lunch group” became Movis, and eventually the artists hatched the idea of an exhibition, with Goodyear, practiced in areas of shows and exhibitions, as prime organizer.
Two Princeton artists, Frank Magalhaes and Rita Z. Asch, who have been “partners in life” for 16 years, both created pieces specifically for this exhibition. Magalhaes, an electrical engineer for Bell Labs until he took early retirement, and is now a member of Gallery 14, a photography gallery in Hopewell, created a hanging structure to display the original and five variations of an intricate photograph he took of a tree from Marquand Park. Asch, a pianist and composer, combined spoken words and phrases from Marcel Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past” with her own music on electronically generated cello. Visitors listen to the “suspended” music while sitting on a bench from Magalhaes’ and Asch’s garden that resembles those Asch saw in Proust’s garden while visiting Combray, France.
Magalhaes has dabbled in photography throughout his life, and by age 12 had set up a darkroom in his basement. In the last six years or so, digital photography has been his creative focus.
With digital, he can adjust a picture to look exactly the way he wants it to. “One of the reasons digital is so satisfying is the incredible control you have over the image,” he says. “You can do so much to get the image to look like it looked in your mind’s eye when you were taking the picture.”
Digital also allows him to take things back easily to a previous version if he doesn’t like the way they look. “I’m more comfortable working if I know I can grab something back,” he says.
The picture of the thread-leaf maple tree central to the piece he developed for “In Suspension” was a natural. He remembers encountering it in the park in early September and thinking to himself, “Wow, this is one of those things that has to be photographed.”
A horizontal version of the same tree sold like mad, he says. It got him a first in photography at the Ellarslie Open at the Trenton City Museum and was later purchased by the museum. It was also exhibited in the New Jersey Arts Annual at the Noyes Museum of Art near Atlantic City and in Magalhaes’s “I Am a Tree” show at Gallery 14.
A vertical version of the original picture with five variations, all of which reach out from a center post, appear in “In Suspension.” The process Magalhaes used to vary the original accentuated different details while maintaining the same geometry. “It gives me another dimension to work in,” he explains. “I’m not just taking tones I see in nature; I’m shaping them into tones I find more pleasing.”
He had tried and rejected another approach to suspending photography from the ceiling in an interesting way. His first try was a two-sided piece, to be viewed with a mirror on a wall. “I thought it probably would be iffy to observe,” he says. “It would only look right from one position.”
The experiment with suspending his tree portraits gave them dimension, says Magalhaes. “As you walk around it, it has a feeling of more substance.”
When Asch was asked to create a musical piece for the show, she had recently finished a three-year reading project of Proust with her friend, Clara Reeves, and had created a performance piece that combined texts from Proust with her music.
The piece she developed for “In Suspension,” called “Au Jardin de Proust,” is a little different. She recorded Charles Rojer — a native French speaker and husband of Marcia Levin-Rojer, another artist in the show — reading bits of text that she was fond of. “I liked the timbre of his voice and wanted to combine it with the sound of the cello,” says Asch. In the piece his voice would function as another instrument with the synthesized cello, which evokes for her the idea of memory.
The bench plays two roles: it is of course the place where people will sit and listen to the music, but it also provides a visual representation of a sound experience for the exhibit catalog. The music occupies its own small, faintly lit gallery, which the visitor enters through a black curtain. Sitting on the bench, the visitor listens in silence to the six-and-a-half-minute loop. “It moves me every time I hear it,” says Asch. “It puts me into a very reflective state, which is what I hope will happen to people who listen to it.”
Asch wrote the cello music first, sometimes shaping it to fit the text she wanted spoken. Then she recorded Rojer, independent of any music, choosing texts that worked best. “They are splotches, bits, ideas, and it is really not important that they be understood,” she says. “It’s the sound of his voice and it’s the sounds of the words that are important rather than the meaning.” Her vision is that listeners will have sound wash over them, and she has subtitled the piece “Time Is Suspended in a Garden of Color and Sound.”
Asch created the piece with the help of Magalhaes, who served as sound engineer for the project. “What I did not want this piece to be was a recital of text with music accompanying it,” says Asch. “In this case, the voice becomes another instrument, and Frank’s expertise was absolutely required to do the balance, adjustment, and mixing.”
Magalhaes was born in Brooklyn just before World War II and lived there for three years until his father’s military duty required moving to Iceland and England. But once the war began, Magalhaes and his mother and baby sister went to his mother’s home in Dayton, Ohio, where they stayed three years. When his father returned, they lived in Florida and the District of Columbia, finally settling in New Jersey when he went off active duty.
Magalhaes’s father remained in the New York National Guard, and Magalhaes still sees him as the consummate military man. Even though his father was successful as an electrical engineer for Con Edison in New York, eventually rising to the position of assistant to the president, Magalhaes believes it was never as interesting to him as his military work.” His mother he describes as a “mid-century stay-at-home mom” who had done college work in costume design, then used her talent to make dresses for herself and her daughter.
Magalhaes’s own educational path was not direct. He was at Cornell for a little while, but after having what he characterizes as a “bad dip in my education,” he got a summer job as a technician at Bell Labs, where he ended up staying for his whole career. He went at night to the New Jersey Institute of Technology, earning both a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and a master’s degree in physics in the 1960s. At Bell Labs, as a research engineer, he worked on microwave amplifiers at the Murray Hill facility, near Summit.
After retiring, Magalhaes wrote poetry; edited and published a quarterly literary journal, “The Higginsville Reader”; and served as managing editor of “US1 Worksheets,” published by the US1 Poets Coop.
In addition to poetry and photography, Magalhaes has also worked in silver jewelry and sculpture. But he has always returned to photography. “I don’t know if it is just because I started there or because it holds a special place,” he says, “but for someone with my bent for detail and ordering of things, it works better than other types of graphic expression.”
Asch grew up in the Bronx, where she started playing piano at age five or six. “I always loved it and always knew I would be a musician of some sort,” she says.
Her father was an architect for the City of New York; her mother had been a math teacher before Asch was born but then stayed home with her daughter. “I had a terrific New York childhood,” says Asch. “I was always taken to concerts, theater, ballet — all of the things I loved.” She attended the High School of Music and Art, where she began studying composition, and then headed off to the Oberlin Conservatory, although after two years she switched to Oberlin College. “I realized the conservatory was too confining and wanted a more liberal arts education,” she says. She got her bachelor’s degree in music in 1959.
Asch moved with her husband (she is a widow), a fellow Oberlin student, to Princeton, where he was a graduate student in economics at the university, and they had two children during that time.
After a brief stint in Washington, DC, the couple returned to New Jersey. Asch’s husband taught at Rutgers University, and they lived in Belle Mead. When he died, she sold their house and moved back to Princeton, where she had always wanted to live.
Early in what she calls a “pretty chequered career in music” Asch did an internship in music therapy at the New Jersey Neuropsychiatric Institute in Skillman, and then continued working in the department for several years. Her focus was music therapy for drug addicts in a methadone maintenance program, many of whom were jazz musicians or otherwise interested in music.
Eventually she and another department member left and got a grant to set up a program of their own in music and art therapy for the methadone-maintenance population. “We did it for a few years, until we became exhausted,” she says.
Asch considered social work while involved in methadone maintenance, but after a few courses decided it wasn’t for her. When she gave up the “clinic business,” she decided to try teaching piano privately, focusing on people who didn’t succeed too well with traditional music teachers. She had several students with varying disabilities, but gradually her practice evolved into a regular piano teaching studio, which she has continued into the present.
At some point Asch teamed up with cabaret singer Lee Dratfield; Asch wrote songs for Dratfield about topical material — being a woman, current affairs, psychotherapy — and they performed together. Asch also wrote a show that she thought the two of them could do — a one-person version of “Charlotte’s Web.” But when Asch realized the show was too much for one person to pull off, she took it to Creative Theater, a Princeton-based acting program for kids that she heard about from the mother of one of her piano students.
At Creative Theater she met Pamela Hoffman, who was very interested in the piece and thought she and Asch could use it to develop a piece with a class. The two women clicked and worked together for 25 years at Creative Theater.
After Creative Theater closed its doors a decade ago, the women moved the program to Westminster Conservatory for a couple years as “The Play’s the Thing.”
Always interested in music and text, Asch then turned to writing pieces involving narration and music. The first was based on a selection from “The Little Prince” for oboe, piano, and narrator (played by Magalhaes).
Sometimes a show is just a show, but “In Suspension” has been a little bit more. By starting with an idea that required the artists themselves to think in new ways, this show has intervened in the creative process, with sometimes startling results.
“In Suspension,” Mason Gross Galleries, 33 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. An exhibit including painting, sculpture, and installation by Rita Asch, Frank Magalhaes, Vincent Moreno, Charles Ray, Tom Shannon, Douglas Vogel, Margaret Kennard Johnson, Eve Ingalls, and others. On view through Friday, September 12. Closing reception on Thursday, September 11, 5 to 7 p.m. 732-932-7511 or www.masongross.rutgers.edu.