It’s an unassuming exhibit.
Lining just one hallway of the Environmental Science Center on 21 Sachem Street, Ava Orphanoudakis’s “Many Voices, One Song,” is a quiet ode to the earth. As not only an artist but an environmental activist, Orphanoudakis focuses on the connection between man and nature in her paintings. In particular, she asks in the exhibit’s introduction for passersby to consider two main questions while viewing her works: Can we listen to the music of the earth? Can we hear our many voices as one song?
Orphanoudakis opens her exhibit by inviting viewers to contemplate themselves — and discard the “I” entirely. In a piece aptly named “Death of the Ego,” Orphanoudakis sets the stage for an experience that is more about just feeling rather than thinking — the music of the earth, after all, not the theory. It is the only work featuring human figures, but it is far from out-of-place. “Death of the ego” isn’t necessarily “pretty” to look at —flustered, frenzied, it’s a surreal dream in grayscale—but that’s exactly the point. It disturbs, it discomforts, it discredits what is traditionally beautiful — because nature as rendered by Orphanoudakis is not the serene landscapes, the woods, the fields we’ve grown accustomed to. Instead, through “Death of the ego,” she creates a striking world where there are no definable things, only the colors and textures of the land and the sea and the sky.
Orphanoudakis’s weakest works in the exhibit are often too literal for their own good. In the trio “Up From The Earth We Rise #1, #2, #3” and “Melting Ice, Rising Black Water,” Orphanoudakis struggles to match the title of the piece to the actual content of the piece. For example, “Up From The Earth We Rise #1, #2, #3” feature columns rising up from layers of soil while “Melting Ice, Rising Black Water” looks like an actual ice floe torn to pieces by the sea. The result is jarring.
Orphanoudakis really shines when she just lets her paintings settle on the paper, when she just lets the art speak for itself. “From The Earth: Blue-Green Ode,” is perhaps the most intriguing painting in the exhibit. It’s an interpretation of the ocean that, for the most part, looks nothing like the ocean — sheets of solid color disturbed by squares of rough- and-tumble whorls and warps — but it’s that little similarity, that tiny connection hinted at by the title that lends it its power. The title and quotes give the context, and the painting gives the meaning: the peaceful lull of the waves, the crash and break of the storms.
Orphanoudakis succeeds whenever she gives her art and the viewer room to breathe. Her “Standing Tall” series (highlights include “Lit By Moonlight, Standing Tall,” “Falling Night Rain, Standing Tall,” “Chased by the Wind, Standing Tall”) are the strongest in her exhibit. They are nothing more than lines and shades, but they invite the viewer to get lost in their curves and angles, to put away titles and quotations for a moment and just feel nature, the stillness of the moon, the melancholy of the rain dripping on metal, the whip of the wind blowing away at clothes. They’re evocative, they’re entrancing, they’re alluring, and it’s here that Orphanoudakis really does display the titular “music” and “voices,” that persuading song of nature, mysterious and inexplicable, calling out for company.
“Many Voices, One Song” ends with the eponymous collection of paintings “Many Voices, One Song #1-28,” a series of 28 miniature panels, each with a different image. Some are more concrete, a yellow-tipped mountain watching over an unbroken sea, while others are more abstract, intersections of ridges and grooves and melting colors. It’s a collection of scenes, snapshots of nature, universal in their location and time, the sunset, the sunrise, the calm, the wreck, the order, the mess, everything that Orphanoudakis has expressed in her previous paintings condensed into a mosaic of tiny squares that captures the unity in diversity, the connection of disparate things, that threads through her entire exhibit. “Many Voices, One Song #1-28” is not only visually striking, spanning an entire wall, it’s also the most satisfying piece. While the other works were simply short meditations on nature, some of them off-the-mark, “Many Voices, One Song #1-28” is the culmination of Orphanoudakis’s efforts, at once both neatly simple and fascinatingly intricate, a fitting end to an impressive showcase.