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While the mandala is an artistic form rarely associated with photography, a new exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Photo Mandalas: Bill Armstrong and Milan Fano Blatný (September 6, 2008 – January 2009), will present more than 35 works by Armstrong (American, born 1952) and Blatný (Czech, born 1972), two contemporary photographers who have been inspired by this ancient symbol. The artists draw on the mandala concept in producing these images, although they have interpreted it liberally. While their technical approaches to representing the mandala are quite different, both Armstrong and Blatný employ the potent and universal symbol of forms emanating from a central core to inspire contemplation and wonder.
“Mandala” is a Sanskrit word translated to mean circle, sphere, or domain. Traditional mandalas, for centuries used to aid meditation primarily by Buddhists and Hindus, are visual maps for spiritual navigation. A mandala’s design typically has at its center a representation of the royal palace of the gods, frequently outlined as a square between circles, and sometimes incorporates triangles, figures, and colors that further enhance its meaning. This graphic diagram provides a gateway that encourages a journey from the periphery – which represents the concerns of everyday life—toward the center where harmony and spiritual wholeness are meant to reside, as well as a progression in the opposite direction.
Milan Fano Blatný creates gelatin silver prints using a manual, labor-intensive process. His dense, constructed images are meant to inspire viewers to meditation or contemplation. Many of the images are named for the places where they were made, including Kyoto, Buenos Aires, and Sudan. “Each photo-mandala is a record of one real moment from my life,” the artist explains.
Armstrong, by contrast, uses primarily color instead of form to interpret the mandala. His Mandalas are part of an ongoing body of work known as the Infinity series, which Armstrong has been producing since 1997. The series includes a wide range of portfolios, from figurative to abstract, which are made by photographing collages with the camera's focusing ring set on infinity. This extreme defocusing produces concentric circles of intense, almost pulsating color in the resulting photographs. As he describes them, they are intended to create “a sense of transcendence, of radiance, of pure joy!”
“The camera is known for capturing the appearance of the external world, but these artists use it to explore an internal landscape,” said Curator of Photographs Katherine Ware. “It is wonderful to see them using this modern medium to interpret a centuries-old spiritual symbol in fresh and thoughtful ways.”
Photo Mandalas will also include Mandala of Shiva and Shakti, an example of a Buddhist mandala from the Museum’s Indian and Himalayan collection. This Nepalese painting, which dates to the mid- to late-18th century, provides an example of a traditional piece used for worship. Its rich colors are echoed in Bill Armstrong’s richly hued mandalas, while its geometric and architectural qualities are emulated by Milan Fano Blatný’s intricately structured compositions. The painting depicts the Hindu god Shiva and his consort Shakti, seated in a white palace with a curved temple tower rising over them. Radiating from this central scene is a circle of minor deities guarding the directions of the compass; another circle filled with jewel-studded trees, flowers, birds, deer, insects, and jackals; all surrounded by the cosmic ocean represented as an outer ring of churning water with swimming creatures bounded by four green hills.
A concurrent exhibition in gallery 232 of the Museum’s main building, Marvels of the Malla Period: A Nepalese Renaissance, 1200–1603, offers an additional example of a mandala from the Himalayan region of India in the Museum’s collection as well as other examples of Nepalese art (on view through December 7).
About the artists
Bill Armstrong is a New York City based fine art photographer who has been shooting in color for over 30 years. He has been a photography instructor on the faculty of the International Center of Photography since 2001 and an adjunct professor of photography at the School of Visual Arts since 2003. Mr. Armstrong’s work is in numerous museum collections worldwide including the Philadelphia Museum of Art; the Brooklyn Museum; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Santa Barbara Museum of Art; the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne; and the Centro Internazionale di Fotografia in Milan. Mr. Armstrong is represented by ClampArt in New York and numerous galleries across the country and in Europe.
Milan Fano Blatný lives in Brno, Moravia, in the Czech Republic. He began his photographic career at the end of the 1990s and has completed numerous bodies of work created across the globe, particularly in Asia. His work is included in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Museet for Fotokunst in Odense, Denmark; Kiyosato Museum of Photographic Arts in Kiyosato, Japan; and numerous individuals. He is represented by John Cleary Gallery in Houston, Texas.