The presence of famed Philadelphia painter Thomas Eakins (d. 1916) has long been felt at PAFA, but Fernando Orellana’s new installation, His Study of Life, aims to evoke Eakins’ spirit in a very direct way–via machines attached to objects used by the painter that seek to register his ghostly presence, measured in terms of fluctuations in electromagnetic fields, temperature, and infrared light. These are not the first so-called ghost machines that Orellana has made, but this is the first time he has attached his machines to both historic objects and a historic setting. The juxtaposition of old and new produces a resonance between past and present that activates the space of the Morris Gallery, a former studio in PAFA’s historic Furness building, opened in 1876. Orellana and Curator of Contemporary Art Jodi Throckmorton confront some of PAFA’s ghosts, putting together a thought-provoking installation that offers a new perspective on the life, art, and legacy of Thomas Eakins.
Orellana’s installation consists of four machines constructed to interact with a paint box, palette, and paintbrush from Eakins’ studio, and a large armchair from his home. Each of these objects, taken from PAFA’s archives, are attached to machines designed and engineered by Orellana. Together, the paint box, palette, and paintbrush reminded me of the relics of saints–the remains of holy men and women, or the objects, earth, or clothing that came in contact with them during their lives. Too precious for human hands to touch, too powerful to stay buried in the ground (or archive), they can only be accessed through the containers that surround them. The saint’s (or artist’s) power is manifested by his ability to produce miracles through his relics. With His Study of Life, Orellana offers us the possibility of a sort of post-modern miracle, making a tongue-in-cheek yet deeply serious exploration of the religion of art, and of the ghost in the machine.