The beauty of symmetry

By Cherie Winner
September 22, 2015

Leaves shimmer in the light of a distant campfire or, perhaps, the setting sun, in the moment before it dips below the horizon. In the foreground, slender trees lean toward each other on either side of a narrow pond dappled with bright reflections.

There’s something oddly symmetrical about the picture, but the closer you look, the more complex the image becomes.

“I’m taking artistic license to play with your mind, and to make you look and figure things out,” says Kevin Reilly, the photographer who created the image. Then he laughs. “I’m trying to deceive you. I’m trying to play with what your vision sees.”

The picture is part of Reilly’s Master of Fine Arts thesis project and one of more than 30 images in Random Symmetree, a show that will be on display at the Zoller Gallery the week of Sept. 28.

Randomness and order

The show explores the splendor of forests and the damage done to them by humans. It features complex compositions with varying levels of symmetry and saturated colors. Some images have a stained-glass quality to them. Some include bits of black humor. In one piece, a billboard obscures a patch of woods. Reilly added a small sign to the billboard: “Block Your View Signs, Inc. 1-800-NO-TREES.”

It took a while for Reilly to discover both his theme and the techniques to express it. He first thought he’d focus on rural Americana such as paintings on the sides of barns, but while driving the back roads of central Pennsylvania looking for good examples to shoot, he kept getting sidetracked by pretty trees. For Reilly, who grew up in State College but had worked as a commercial photographer in Philadelphia for 25 years, the draw was irresistible.

“That’s one of the reasons I moved back here, was the love of Mother Nature,” he says. “There wasn’t a tree on my block in the city, and I missed it. So I started shooting trees, and then trees just grew on me, so to speak.”

But pictures of trees, even especially pretty ones, wouldn’t add up to a thesis exhibit; and pictures of groups of trees, whole forests, just didn’t say what Reilly was trying to express. Then he came across the adage “beauty is symmetry,” and everything clicked. He would use symmetry and replication to convey the feeling of wonder the woods evoked in him.

“You know that vastness when you go out into the woods, and all of a sudden you realize, ‘I don’t know where my car is? Which direction I’m heading?’ That’s what I’m trying to get across—the immenseness that you cannot capture in a single frame,” he says. “It’s like I’m using the multiplicity to exaggerate the beauty. There’s randomness there, but I make it organized by making it symmetrical.”

That is not just a matter of running a photo through a mirroring program. Reilly’s images can’t be reduced to a recipe. Even with a long, close look, it’s hard to tell how many times one of his pictures is mirrored and in what plane(s). Some have just one level of symmetry, which he calls “2-up;” others have 4, 6, or more. He’ll insert small areas of symmetry into a larger image, often so subtly that they’re hard to detect—but they still affect how we see and respond to the image.

Reilly says his images resemble Rorschach ink-blots, simple (2-up) mirror images, in that everybody sees something different in them.

“Out near the border it’s very realistic, but as you go into the center you start seeing objects—faces, skulls, different crazy things,” he says.



Guerrilla art

Many on campus have already seen Reilly’s images, although they may not be aware he was their creator. Last February, tired of drab skies and yearning for a little color in his surroundings, Reilly staged what he calls a “guerrilla exhibit” on campus—no advertising, no publicity, just the sudden appearance of vivid art in an unexpected place. He asked Graeme Sullivan, director of the School of Visual Arts, for permission to mount a large print on a tree outside the Zoller Gallery.

“I told him, ‘I want to brighten up the winter.’ Graeme goes, ‘No. I want you to do three like this.’ ”

Reilly ended up posting seven images, four of them wrapping the large columns at the entrance to the Patterson Building. The photos on the outermost columns were 2-ups and those closest to the door were more complex 4-ups.

“As you got closer to the building, you got even more creative,” says Reilly. “That’s how I felt every time I was walking through the doors—I was ready for my mind to be blown artistically, in Patterson.”

Reilly started the MFA program in his late 40s, after a successful career as a commercial photographer, and he clearly didn’t need further technical training when he returned to school. He came back for two main reasons: to understand the academic environment, with an eye toward someday getting a faculty job teaching photography; and to learn more about art, its theoretical and philosophic underpinnings. Before his graduate training, Reilly could create artistic images but couldn’t easily articulate his intentions or the thinking behind them.

“When I first came here, if you got me to talk about this type of work, I’d have been, ‘Oh, well, uh…’ But through my studies, I’ve gotten the confidence to talk about it in ways I couldn’t have done before.”

He also clarified for himself the difference between the work he did earlier, for clients, and the work he’s doing now, for himself and (he hopes) for aficionados.

“Commercial photography, you try and get one message across as fast as possible,” he says. “Artistic photography, you’re trying to make a piece that’s open to many interpretations, to be looked at and pondered upon for a long period of time.”



Random Symmetree opens at the Zoller Gallery at 10 a.m. on Monday, Sept. 28 and runs through Friday, Oct. 2. An opening reception with the artist will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. on Sept. 28.

  • autumn leaves mirrored

    Reilly favors saturated colors and intricate patterns that are accentuated by symmetry in at least one plane.

    IMAGE: Kevin Reilly

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated July 28, 2017