When students visit Lehman College Art Gallery’s latest exhibition, they’re posed with a question: “What’s your fantasy structure?”
The answer, obviously, depends on each person’s preference and where they already live, according to Bartholomew Bland, the gallery’s director.
“People want grandiose houses or palaces,” he said, “and some people want to go live in a tiny cottage in the country.”
The question is designed to encourage students to immerse themselves in the gallery’s latest exhibition, “Castles in the Sky: Fantasy Architecture in Contemporary Art.” On display through Jan. 26, the exhibition offers different perspectives from 30 artists surrounding the theme of how people can use their imagination to conjure up their own castle.
The inspiration for “Castles in the Sky” stemmed from Bland’s interest in 18th century Italian artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi and 19th century American painter Thomas Cole. While Piranesi shows a nightmare side of an architectural fantasy dream with images of dark spaces, Cole had “Youth,” a piece featuring a man who’s running toward a castle in the sky where all of his youthful dreams are located.
The vast difference in perspectives was enough to make Bland wonder what contemporary artists had to say about architectural structures in their work.
“I’ve always been very interested in the idea of the mind and where artists go in their minds,” he said.
It took two years for Bland and his team at Lehman College Art Gallery to narrow down an initial list of 100 artists to 30 who would be able to grace the gallery’s space on campus.
It’s important for Bland to have a mix of artists who are well known, those who are mid-career, and display some sort of emerging talent from within the Bronx. As a result of this plan, “Castles in the Sky” features notable work from Spanish painter Salvador Dalí, photographer David LaChapelle, Bronx artist Linda Cunningham, and Lehman graduate Peter Hamlin.
The goal was to have an “imaginative juxtaposition” of work on display.
“We try to balance those things and put those artists in dialogue with one another,” Bland said.
That dialogue prevails throughout the exhibition, from photographer Diane Arbus’ desolate look at Disneyland in 1962, to a whimsical image of a flying building tied to an elephant.
By having this mix of perspectives, Bland sees how the exhibition has the power to challenge people’s assumptions about buildings and structures.
“I think everyone loves the idea of living in a castle,” Bland said. “I think there is a romanticism about the structure of a castle and the idea of its association with fairytales, and it’s very, very powerful.”
The reception to “Castles in the Sky” has had positive reactions from students and regular visitors to the gallery, Bland said. Students who usually visit the gallery during the semester come from all sorts of classes, ranging from creative writing to photography. And after having a discussion about the work, Bland feels he sees a lot of the work through new eyes.
“I’ve certainly seen things that I wouldn’t necessarily thought of myself from some of the material that the students talk about,” he said. “You do think about things in an entirely new way.”
Looking back on what he’s taken away from the work, Bland has come to a simple conclusion: “I’ve learned that I don’t want to live in a castle.”
Despite that, he still loves the idea of a fantastical structure, and hopes people “think about what their own fantasy structure is and what their own sense of place and their own sense of home is” through the lens of these artists.
“None of the artists in the show are trained architects,” Bland said, “but they all engage in building in a sort of way that I think is very imaginative and sort of appeals to the dream that we all have about the perfect home, or the perfect building, or the perfect place we would want to spend time.”