Michael Jones McKean’s Prism of Possibility

Rainbows never lose their magical ability to make us look up in wonder and delight. In that first unguarded glimpse, it slips into that part of our heart, no matter how tiny, that is always five years old. Hesse McGraw remembers seeing rainbows sometimes while riding in the car. “It was the only time I could compel my father to turn the car around.” A rainbow! It caused a similar disruption when it was signaled to a curator, a plumber, an engineer, an atmospheric scientist, an architecture student, and irrigation specialists, causing each to stop, wonder, and figuratively turn the car around. Just as I did.

Michael Jones McKean. Photo by Mike Machin.

I’d been intrigued by Bemis Center’s announcement card for the exhibition. It began in the standard, formal, intellectual style—“The Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts is pleased to present Michael Jones McKean’s The Rainbow: Certain Principles of Light and Shapes Between Forms.” But what followed went straight to my heart—“This summer, at scheduled times, a rainbow will appear above Bemis Center’s downtown building.” A rainbow? So I proposed an article for a local magazine and arranged interviews with McKean and with McGraw, Bemis Center’s Chief Curator.

McKean is tall, slim, and has an air of imperturbable depth. His hair is tousled, as if he’d had more important things to attend to rather than the kind of tousled that comes from anxiously raking your fingers through your hair. He told me he’d been studying rainbows for a decade. “Each is unique,” he said. “They represent the here and now, and yet they may be the world’s oldest constant image.” Innately and intensely curious, he is a man enthralled by paradox, and guided by a human desire to find connections. Although I had the material I needed for my story, I wanted to know more about McKean and why people working with him, those experts mentioned earlier, were so dedicated. On my way out, I picked up a flyer about ISConnects. On July 21, the International Sculpture Center, collaborating with Bemis Center and KANEKO, offered an unusual opportunity to meet artist and artwork in depth, through lecture, tour, and conversation. I could hardly wait.

On that Saturday morning, the audience was a mix of artists, collectors, teachers—the usual “art crowd,” and representatives from the hosting organizations. The mood was relaxed and anticipatory as McKean got up to talk. He discussed The Rainbow’s gradual evolution over a decade in conjunction with other projects; the elusive, elastic persona of objects; time signatures; metaphor and meaning. He speaks softly, distinctly, discursively, guiding us through his thought process and questioning the scene at every corner. He makes odd, apt descriptions, such as describing a beached yacht as an earthwork. You could almost hear the mental “saves” clicking throughout the audience. My notebook is filled with asterisks and coiled connectors. (McKean’s lecture can be heard in full at ISConnects.)

Dusk view of the rainbow over Bemis Center for Contemporary Art.

The tour that followed detailed a marvel of creative responses to daunting challenges, three years in testing and two months of installation. McKean, with his multivalent vision, saw the century-old brick building as both a support and a sculpture in itself. I began to appreciate the logistical and aesthetic intricacies of pipe. “What was so exciting,” said McGraw, “was to do work that tested our limits on a daily basis.”

Inside the Bemis Center, a small gallery component complements the rainbow’s ephemeral being. A bristlecone pine (Bristlecones may be the earth’s oldest living organism; this one is watered by the same rainwater that makes up the rainbow.), a meteorite from Argentina’s famed Campo del Cielo, a Micronesian conch shell, and a 19th-century handmade quilt. Together they make up “a small poem on the nature of space and time,” says McKean.

Visual poems and pragmatic problem-solving aside, the rainbow is the magnetic draw. Its image is recognized by people everywhere—a familiar curve and the seven bands of color, from outermost red through orange and yellow, cool green, blue and indigo, to sweet violet. Yet each is unique, based on atmospheric conditions and viewer’s vision and perspective. In fact, each viewer (and each eye!) sees a different rainbow. And the colors aren’t distinct bands but form a prismatic continuum as light is reflected and refracted in each water drop. Science lessons are forgotten as the rooftop water jets come on with a great Shhhhhh! Faces up, expectant. A water wall, shining in the sunlight that warms our backs, shifts almost imperceptively, morphing into a rainbow, beaming ethereal magic.

Rainbow above Bemis. Photo by Mike Machin.

Rainbows are made of sunlight and water. There are no blueprints, no maquettes. The Rainbow is an artwork without dimensions, medium, or even regular viewing times—atmospheric conditions must be just right for an appearance. And when it shimmers over the Bemis, uncontained by walls, undefined by labels, over the cognoscenti and the clueless it unfurls the power of art—using McGraw’s words—“to transform and amplify and challenge our idea of the world that we live in.”

The Rainbow: Certain Principles of Light and Shapes Between Forms continues through September 15, 2012.

Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, 724 S. 12th Street, Omaha, NE  www.bemiscenter.org

A free tour of the exhibition and project is available every Thursday at 6 pm.

www.therainbow.org  A live website with current schedule for Rainbow viewing, mobile apps, and other events and information.

By Suzanne Arney

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