During the 2020 lockdown, the New York-born, Los Angeles-based artist David Orr was gifted a telescope, which he began using to capture images of the moon from his backyard. Shortly after, he started sharing them with friends via an email list, wanting to “uplift the spirit of friends and family” during a difficult time. He didn’t realize then that these images would become the raw material for Mandala Lunae—one of three series of abstract mandalas featured in his most recent exhibition, Radiance + Reflection: Perfect Vessels and Moon Mandalas, hosted at New York City’s Tibet House.

“Tibetan Buddhism already revels in the visual, which is appealing to any artist,” Orr writes in the exhibit’s catalog, “but the connection for me goes far deeper.” Mandala Lunae—along with Perfect Vessels and Illumined, the other two series in the exhibition—was inspired by the traditional form of the mandala (Skt., literally “circle”). They contain complex geometric patterns circling a blank, void-like reflective space at the center of the aluminum disk. To view these pieces is to experience the Heart Sutra’s principle that “emptiness is form, form is emptiness.”

david orr mandalas
Perfect Vessel [Geza Uirmeny / male, 80], 2014
david orr mandalas
Moon Mandala N° 3: 9/20/2021, 2021
Perfect Vessel [Ettore Malinpieris, m, – (Sailor; died of fractured vertebral column)]

The Flower Garland Sutra, which describes “untold moons” emitting “untold beams of light” as they emanate from the body of the Buddha, was another inspiration for Orr’s Mandala Lunae. In the sutra, “a cosmos of infinite realms upon realms mutually [contain] each other.”

To view these pieces is to experience the Heart Sutra’s principle that “emptiness is form, form is emptiness.”

Perfect Vessels is a series of photographs of human skulls originally shot at the Mütter Museum of Pathology in Philadelphia. Orr digitally reconstructed the photographs to give the skulls, marked by disease and imperfection, a symmetrical appearance. “I liked the idea that, simply by repeating these ‘imperfections,’ I achieved results closer to perfection,” Orr writes.

The third series, Illumined, was created using images of sacred manuscripts, texts, and sutras that Orr accessed during a residency at the Los Angeles–based Philosophical Research Society—including a silk-paneled Prajnaparamita Sutra manuscript and an 1834 Lotus Sutra manuscript from the collection of a Japanese priest.

The Lotus Sutra, 2017
Prajnaparamita Sutras (The Perfection of Wisdom), 2017

While Buddhism is an ongoing serious interest of Orr’s, he takes a playful approach to his study and practice, valuing creative inspiration and exploration over mastery. He finds meaning in the process itself: “I’m always fascinated by the concept of ‘be here now’ because… I’m never ‘here now,’” Orr told me at the exhibition’s opening.

the wisdom of trauma

Moon Mandala N° 8: 10/25/2021, 2021

the wisdom of trauma

Perfect Vessel [Unknown / N° 1006.80 ], 2014

Moon Mandala N° 28: 3/14/2022, 2022

Perfect Vessel [ Unknown / N° 1161.01 ], 2014

Moon Mandala N° 11: 11/15/21, 2021

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