PAFA presents ‘Fernando Orellana: His Study of Life’

His study of afterlife

The supernatural is a subject that polarizes opinion. If you believe in it, no proof is needed. If, however, you do not believe in it, no proof is possible. One way or the other, there’s no harm in having a little fun with it, as artist Fernando Orellana clearly is having with his new installation at the Morris Gallery of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

Eakins's palette, ready for supernatural action (Photo courtesy of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts)

The Morris Gallery, in PAFA’s Historic Landmark Building on Broad Street, is rumored to be haunted by the ghost of Thomas Eakins, one of America’s great masters, who was also an instructor at PAFA more than a century ago. Orellana has taken these ghostly rumors as the theme for his homage to the great master, constructing an installation that wouldn’t be out of place on the SyFy channel.

Live models for a dead artist

Orellana has taken a bunch of electronic sensing devices commonly used by alleged ghost hunters and wired them up to certain Eakins artifacts from PAFA’s archives. He connected these to an electronic stylus set to produce line reproductions of various Eakins drawings, usually nude figure studies. Throw in a live nude model, and we’re good to go.

According to Orellana himself, who attended the September 7, 2016 opening of his exhibition, if the ghost of Eakins does indeed haunt the Morris Gallery, the sensors attached to the artifacts will detect something. The live nude models (male and female) are merely an encouragement for the ghost to show up (and they’re an homage to Eakins, who advocated the use of live nude models in PAFA’s figure studies classes — and got into a boatload of trouble for it).

Orellana claims to be a skeptic, but in his talk he couldn’t help but to delightedly show off one of the stylus sketches that showed certain anomalies he couldn’t explain. Spooky!

Eakins centenary death celebration

There’s not a whole lot of substance to be gleaned from the installation— but that’s okay, because substance is not really its purpose. As a fun piece of work that capitalizes on Eakins’ connection to PAFA, the exhibit is intended to spark interest in, and discussion of, Eakins and his connection to PAFA as part of the centenary celebration of the artist’s death in 1916. And as a starting point for that discussion, and for the exchange of fun ghost stories, the installation does its job.

For me, it’s enough of a thrill to be able to examine the Eakins artifacts close up: The chair he used to sit in to paint, his palette and paint box — even if they are hooked up to gadgets that could have been contrived by Mr. Spock.

Since the spirit of the installation, so to speak, is appropriate for the Halloween season, His Study of Life will be at the center of the PAFA After Dark program called “Paranormal Creativity.” There will be several Eakins-related and Halloween-influenced activities planned, including lectures and music.

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