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Synesthetic Art at Burchfield Penney

Sensory Crossovers

Imagine if hearing a sound triggered a splash of color in your vision. Every time you heard your favorite song, say a piece from West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein, you saw vivid shapes and patterns of color. Or if every word on this page produced its own color sequence in your head. Imagine tasting shapes.

These might seem like the effects of psychedelic drug use, but this is the way someone with synesthesia perceives the world. Synestheisa is a perceptual condition that causes the criss-cross of senses. It appears in as many as one in 2,000 people, many of whom are musicians, writers, and painters. On the list of people who perceive the world in this way are composer Leonard Bernstein, who heard the timbre of an instrument as a specific color; Vladamir Nabokov, author of Lolita, who saw words in color; electronic musician Aphex Twin, who visualizes sound; and visionary artist Charles Burchfield who purportedly painted music.

It is fitting then that the Burchfield Penney Art Center would present an exhibition of art inspired by synesthesia, titled Sensory Crossovers. When viewing Burchfield’s work alongside other synesthesia-inspired pieces, like Arthur Dove’s Fog Horns, a serene floating landscape with three hovering purple orbs representative of the sound of fog horns over a muted body of water, or a painting by the poet e. e. cummings called Sound, full of blended geometric shapes and bold colors, it becomes clear that Burchfield’s visual interpretation of sound and music played a major, if not primary role, in all of his works. In fact, Burchfield often thought about painting album artwork for his favorite records, based on the visuals that the music presented him, said curator Nancy Weekly. Although Burchfield never did this to the extent that he had imagined, there is one sketch on display that portrays his vision of baroque composer Handel’s orchestral suites, Water Music, mounted alongside the album from Burchfield’s personal collection.

The existence of synestheisa is difficult to prove, especially in someone who can no longer be interviewed and studied in person, but the evidence of synesthic experience in the work of artists like Burchfield and Georgia O’Keeffe, whose Train at Night in the Desert depicts the sound of a shrunken train with massive billows of colorfully accented smoke.

Sensory Crossovers sheds a new light on the artists you thought you knew. This exciting display of art by visual artists like Burchfield, Dove, Max Weber, Joseph Stella, and O’Keeffe represents the influence of synesthic artists on 20th-century art. The show opens on Friday, February 11, and runs through May 29.

cory perla

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