Gods sit on them, scientists study them, poets rhapsodize and artists paint them.
We ordinary mortals mostly dodge clouds. If they’re howling down from the north bearing snow, we send out plows and hunker down. If they’re sulky and petulant, we grab umbrellas and grumble. If they’re mellow and sweet-tempered, we picnic. Always, we project our own emotions onto these “bodies without surface,” as Leonardo da Vinci once labeled them.
Now with a tug on a switch, we can also light up a cloud and change its mood to suit our own. The “Cloud” in question is a suspended sculpture hovering in a gallery of the Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota. It’s part of a little cloud-themed exhibition, on view through May 22, that includes 19th-century prints, 20th-century paintings and contemporary installations. The show occupies just two galleries and makes you wish for more.
Supported by a steel framework, the “Cloud” sculpture includes 6,000 to 7,000 incandescent light bulbs — even the artists don’t know exactly how many — suspended in a puffy matrix of chicken wire that’s about 16 feet long, 8 feet wide and roughly 5 feet tall. Dozens of cords dangling beneath it look like a cartoonist’s rendition of rain, although with a gentle pull they’ll turn on the 180 LED lights that actually illuminate the thing.
“The viewer is a performer, too,” said Caitlind r.c. Brown, who co-created the sculpture with Wayne Garrett. “It’s about wonder and impromptu moments of collaboration as you stand under it and pull the chains. Often you’re not even aware of the aesthetic effects.”
“It can be extremely bright when all the lights are on, so we encourage people to turn it down,” Garrett added. “Then you get these great shadows on the wall.”
Originally fashioned for a 2012 all-night midsummer festival in Calgary, Alberta, where Brown and Garrett live, their “Cloud” has been seen by more than a million people at festivals in Jerusalem, Moscow and elsewhere. Given its popularity, the artistst have built two other versions of the concept. One is on tour, and another was recently purchased by a new glass museum in Prague.
Clouds have always figured in art, especially traditional European paintings where Christian saints and Greco-Roman deities perched on or cavorted among them.
Scientists didn’t get around to naming the different types — cirrus, cumulus, stratus — until 1802, when an English pharmacist named Luke Howard published an essay that laid the foundation for modern nephology, the study of clouds. Howard’s keen observations also informed the paintings of countryman John Constable, whose big-skied vistas of Hampstead are one of the glories of 19th-century British art.
At the Weisman, Constable’s work is reprised in six exquisite little mezzotint prints, each about 8 by 12 inches, that reinterpret his paintings in black and white.
The show was inspired by two abstractions by American artist Jon Schueler (1916-92) in the museum’s collection. The Milwaukee-born artist spent many of his later years painting the fickle skies of western Scotland. One of his paintings is an effusion of orchid-pink light, the other a haze of taupe-gray.
Additional cloud studies include an 1899 hand-colored photolithograph by William Henry Jackson of the “Sunrise From Pike’s Peak,” three 1936 photos of clouds over Santa Monica, Calif., by Edward Weston, and a 2015 Scotch tape “drawing” of a cloud by Spencer Finch.
The contemporary installations are the show’s high point, however. Besides the charming “Cloud,” there is a complicated interactive piece designed by the Twin Cities performance duo known as Aniccha Arts, aka Maxwell Hoaglund and Pramila Vasudevan. Among other things, it generates random weather-themed phrases and projects them onto a weather balloon when a pillow is compressed by performers or gallery visitors.
Boston-based Yu-Wen Wu has produced a mesmerizing 40-minute video of cloud formations and random sounds ranging from quiet conversations to calliope music and a passing motorcycle. She shot her footage in sunlight and storms, and while standing amid a fast-rising ocean tide. Her images include classic cumulus, stratus, cirus and lenticular clouds that dissolve and expand into one another, roiling and tumbling as she manipulates their speed and scale. Edited so the clouds rise and sink, fill the wall with turbulence or dissolve into puffs of nothingness, Wu’s “Tempo Frieze” is a compelling visual symphony.