From Real to Surreal: 'Orpheus Looked' Exhibit at MCCC’s James Kerney Campus Gallery Puts Tragedy in Historical Context


TRENTON – Take a dash of politics, history and mythology and throw in just a bit of kitsch and you have the formula for the photography exhibit “Orpheus Looked” by Rachel Stern, now on display at the Mercer County Community College (MCCC) James Kerney Campus Gallery (JKCG) in downtown Trenton.

“You will notice this is a bit different from the documentary style work we’ve shown in the past,” said Michael Chovan-Dalton, coordinator of the MCCC Photography program and director and curator of JKCG, during a community reception for the show. “It’s a fantastic show, with an incredible richness of art history, and just an interesting way of handling the material.”

Chovan-Dalton emphasized that the themes of the photographs, describing them as “both garish and luxurious” and “works with historical and literary moral touchstones.” In essence, he said, it is a lesson in the influences that have guided western history.

 “That is the foundation of a lot of work in the show, but this work also deals with other stories, mythologies, and religion. That is what I really love about this work,” Chovan-Dalton said.

Stern noted that the exhibit is comprised of images she created over a series of years – some seven years old, some only weeks. In assembling the show, Stern said she was seeking to present her work in a way that provokes modern-day thought in an historical context using vehicles that are both tangible and abstract.

“I think something that photography is able to do is to be both specific, and amorphous,” Stern said. “We are looking at things we know in all the photographs; we know they are in some sense real things. And at the same time, we are looking at something that looks like something else. So we are able to talk about an idea, and also tether it to our real material world in one breath.”

Stern explained that her family has something of a theme that was coined by her grandfather: Life is tragic – enjoy it. That, she said, is a good foundation for viewing the images in “Orpheus Looked.”

“This show is really about ideas of tragedy,” Stern said. “We think about Orpheus looking, and that moment where, in one single gesture, loses everything. We think of that as fundamentally tragic – tragic meaning different than sad or upsetting, but the idea of great stakes and great loss.

“We live in a world that relies on history of art to communicate really practical things on a daily basis. So here we are looking at things that talk about this idea of tragedy. But let’s enjoy it anyway.”

“Orpheus Looked” continues at the James Kerney Campus Gallery through May 9.


The James Kerney Campus Gallery

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Michael Chovan-Dalton (right), director and curator of MCCC's James Kerney Campus Gallery, introduces photographer Rachel Stern during a reception and artist talk for her show "Orpheus Looked."

Photographer Rachel Stern (right), discusses the creation of her images during a reception and artist talk for her show "Orpheus Looked" at MCCC's James Kerney Campus Gallery.