Richard Torchia

State Museum of Pennsylvania

Through his use of lenses, Richard Torchia explores the history of perceptual systems,simultaneously confirming the pleasures of the experiential moment and drawing on the tradition of the camera obscura. In two earlier installations, Torchia invited the viewer into the “dark room” where he placed lenses in an exterior wall to reveal the world outside in a dizzying (in)version of reality. His recent, site-specific installation, Birds of the Commonwealth, A Peepshow, 1992, reflected a new level of control over the world his lenses might illuminate—here, Torchia included references to trompe l’oeil painting and 17th-century Dutch peep shows.

Given access to a selection of mounted birds from the museum’s study collection, Torchia created a pair of displays bordering a small staircase in the lobby. A slight wooden structure—a plein-air version of a camera obscura—framed and housed the birds. The walls were gone and the birds hung upside-down from fishing line tied to branches or to an open-canopied grid above. But for this skeleton of a dropped ceiling, all of the structural forms were round, directly referencing the architecture of the museum and much of its “modern,” ’60s detailing. As a conceptual take on the dioramas in the museum’s Hall of Mammals, a circular photographic scene—one of water, one of woods—provided a backdrop for the dangling birds. At each display, a group of seven lenses covered with circles of frosted glass, and positioned at varying heights, surrounded the birds like so many eyes. Without the walls they, too, were part of the picture. The image they “pictured” fulfilled our common expectations: when viewed through these lenses the birds appeared to stand upright on their perches—the world was made “right” once more.

Torchia frames his images in the self-reflexive, overlapping language of contemporary artmaking and criticism. Ultimately, the doubleness of the experience—viewing the birds with the naked eye and through the lenses—was central to the work’s meaning. As in Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” one did not know which to prefer. The work both identified and questioned standard museum practice, though what we were given was not simply a restatement of the critical questions, but a lively investigation of perceptual conceits. In Torchia’s hands, inversion assumed its own poignancy. Slowly turning in the museum air, these lifeless birds not only represented their species, but spoke of the fate that placed them there. Chance encounters became hard facts that structured our visual experience: an accompanying text identified who found each bird, as well as when and where it was found. In this way, Torchia underlined that how we describe our experience of the world reveals not only what we love but how we know it; these resonant observations became the object of his representations.

Eileen Neff