On View March 2024.
Engineering, mathematics, technology, and art come together in the 4,000 square foot Main Gallery of the Morris Museum. Artist and professor Richard Whitten depicts improbable yet compelling invented machines in Renaissance-styled architectural spaces. These paintings invite the viewer to enter another world to experience a new kind of space and motion. Whitten meticulously fabricates wood panels to evoke the silhouettes of Chinese architecture and domestic interiors.
The centerpiece of the Morris Museum exhibition Set in Motion: Kinetic Worlds from the Studio of Richard Whitten is twelve drawings on paper from the artist’s Galileo Project. Whitten spends much time researching historic scientific instruments and, in the process, recognizes that while their intended purpose may be lost to today’s viewers, there is no doubt that their makers designed these devices to perform a specific task or function. Put simply, ancient machines such as those on display in Florence, Italy at the Museo Galileo: The Museum of the History of Science have acquired a “scientific patina.” Whitten believes that objects designed by an artist could manifest an equally convincing scientific aura when viewed in museums whose mission relates art to science.
Whitten first selected six objects from the Museo Galileo’s collection of early seventeenth- and eighteenth-century instruments. His criteria were simply that the works were not only beautiful but were also difficult to identify. Seeking to blur the lines between purpose driven objects and art objects, Whitten then drew an additional six machines of his own invention inspired by that museum’s collection.
The resulting Galileo Project, a fictional twelve-page illuminated catalog of scientific instruments, will be paired in the Morris Museum Main Gallery with the artist’s working models and oil on wood panels invoking Renaissance illuminated manuscripts.
Richard Whitten’s fresh approach to the relationship between art and science is the lens through which he explores the intersections or “crosscurrents” between Chinese and European scientific thought. “When I examined the instruments in the Museo Galileo collection, I became keenly aware of Asian influence in design and concept,” Whitten explains, and “this discovery entirely changed my attitude towards the project.” As an Asian American, he frames his project as a conversation between Asian and European sources in the hope that visitors not only enjoy the beauty of his art, but also absorb the richly nuanced shared cultural heritage evident in scientific instruments – both real and invented.
Set in Motion: Kinetic Worlds from the Studio of Richard Whitten connects directly with the museum’s historic Murtogh D. Guinness Collection of Mechanical Musical Instruments and Automata. Whitten’s paintings reveal technology in action.
Richard Whitten studied Economics, Math, and Art at Yale University, receiving a BA with Honors in Economics. The son of an American businessman and a Chinese painter, Whitten worked as a commodity futures broker before receiving a Regents Fellowship and an MFA in painting at the University of California at Davis. He joined the faculty at Rhode Island College in 2006 and is represented by ArtMora Gallery in Ridgefield Park, NJ, Clark Gallery in Lincoln, MA, William•Scott Gallery in Provincetown, MA, and the Natsoulas Gallery in Davis, CA. His work is in permanent collections of museums on both coasts. He is a recipient of a 2022-23 Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant.
This exhibition is curated by Anne Ricculli, Ph.D., Director of Exhibits and Collections, Morris Museum.
Set in Motion: Kinetic Worlds from the Studio of Richard Whitten is made possible by leadership support from Will and Mary Leland.
Richard Whitten gratefully acknowledges generous support from Rhode Island Council on the Arts (RISCA); Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation Artist’s Resource Trust; Golden Apple Art Residency, Harrington, Maine; and Rhode Island College.
Image Caption: Richard Whitten, Tellurian, 2021, oil on wood panel, 46 x 30 inches. On loan from the collection of Roger and Sara Preston. Photography by David DeMelim is courtesy of the artist.