Wurmfeld's 'Immersed in Color' Brings UT's Ewing Gallery to a New Level

One can argue that art, architecture, music, literature, and performance cannot be great if they don't somehow challenge the perception of "recipients," as odd as that term might seem. But calling viewers, participants, listeners, or readers "recipients" is fitting if we acknowledge that experiencing extraordinary perception is indeed a gift of sorts. Whether induced by peyote or Bernini, altered states have apparently been sought by humans beings since their beginnings, and Sanford Wurmfeld's remarkable exhibition Immersed in Color: E-Cyclorama offers yet another way to transcend everyday reality.

At the University of Tennessee for another week, the show will end on Thursday, Oct. 27, with an artist's lecture at 7:30 p.m. followed by a closing reception. Long based in New York, Wurmfeld presents us with five large acrylic canvases and three series of watercolor images—the "E-Cyclorama" being his pièce de résistance. As opposed to his "Cyclorama 2000", commissioned by the Karl Ernst Osthaus-Museum in Germany, the artist's 90-foot long, seamless painting in Immersed in Color assumes the shape of an ellipse, not a circle (thus the "E" prefix).

First exhibited at 2008's Edinburgh Festival, the "E-Cyclorama," like its predecessor, occupies an elevated space accessed by stairs. The viewer therefore stands within the work, encompassed by the virtual reality of an almost 9-foot-tall painting and all 675 square feet of its meticulously applied pigment. Although painted panoramas are nothing new, Wurmfeld's two cycloramas (both years in the making) signal a significant departure from previous efforts in the same format.

When emerging into the "E-Cyclorama," we expect to be centered within an area that references the classic color wheel. Instead, we're in elliptical space, the shape of which lends the artist's 100-plus hand-mixed paint colors a different effect than they have in his "Cyclorama 2000." Because Wurmfeld's ellipse has a long axis with yellow at one end and violet at the other—whereas its short axis has intermediate, grayscale-oriented colors—the shadow effect of colors facing one another across the shorter span serves to further intensify the luminosity of the bright lemon yellow-orange and deep blue-violet hues.

Yes, color theory, the bane of every art student's freshman year in a foundation program. After all, creating scales and memorizing terminology having to do with color properties—hue, tint, shade, tone, saturation, intensity, value—seem a bit anal when one wishes to get on with the exhilarating business of experimenting with color. Then again, Wurmfeld's art exemplifies what's possible when experimentation and a thorough understanding of one's medium come together.

The history of what eventually became known as panoramic images is fascinating, as they've long existed in one form or another. There were many attempts to incorporate observers into that which is observed during the Baroque era, when primarily Italian artists painted ceilings to resemble the sky or the heavens. Nevertheless, this illusory world beyond architecture does not quite place a viewer within the image. Later, paintings that could more accurately be called "panoramic" featured battle scenes in addition to landscapes and cityscapes. Claude Monet's "Water Lilies" triptych was originally intended to be an image in the round. Alas, panoramas lost much of their appeal when moving pictures debuted—sometimes projected in structures built to house panoramas.

Despite his extensive knowledge of Baroque art, Wurmfeld became most inspired to do what he does now upon visiting the Hague in 1981 and seeing "Panorama Mesdag," a wraparound view of the Dutch coast at Scheveningen created 100 years earlier. Yet Wurmfeld's "E-Cyclorama," having no subject matter per se, is more a place than it is an image; its objective is to influence perception, not convey any particular visual information. Although other works in the show could be considered "objects on the wall," their exploration of the luminosity of color appears to be part of a process crucial to the realization of the "E-Cyclorama."

Duncan Macmillan, curator of Wurmfeld's exhibition in Edinburgh, has expressed that the "E-Cyclorama" shows us how painting "has evolved around the puzzles of how we see and know." However, viewers of art who dislike being puzzled, approaching works that rely on any sort of technical device or scientific theory with a certain skepticism, perhaps fear the end result is a gimmick—not justified by means that seem manipulative. Wurmfeld indeed plays with our perception of space as well as color. But his hand, evident in the mixing and application of paint in the "E-Cyclorama," reminds us that the physical world is only as real as humans are capable of perceiving it to be.