Saturday, October 4, 2008

More Art and Science

Last June we went to see the Getty Center exhibition, "Maria Sibylla Merian & Daughters: Women of Art and Science". Merian was an artist and entomologist, with a special talent for natural history illustration and printmaking. I have an interest in artists with scientific or technical backgrounds such as Jess and Jo Baer, or artists that understand how to use technology as well as Larry Bell does. Last night I saw Susan Murrell's exhibit at galleryHomeland, in Portland. Murrell recreates the effect of scientific illustration and museum display without the actual science. She fabricates displays and specimen boxes of fantastic faux creatures. She paints multi-layered abstracts on transparent acetate that hint at purposeful geological renderings and maps. The whole presentation is tied together by call out label leader lines, installation style with tape applied directly to the wall. It's similar to installations and sculpture that reference without being informed by architecture. Eric Zimmerman is one of many young artists taking architecture and doing installations and drawings similar to what Murrell does with biology or geology. (See and Art Lies, Issue 58.)

This forces me to think about my own pursuit of art grounded in math. In my work I use programming, simple math, elementary algebra, trigonometry, and Euclidean geometry. Yet, the closest I've come to actually practicing math was with my project on a generalization of the golden ratio formula. So, what's the point in mimicking, paralleling, or otherwise borrowing from math, science, and architecture to create art? I've noticed that many artists want to separate themselves from the technical. They blatantly use technical imagery while distancing themselves from the technology. Both Robert Mangold and Mel Bochner de-emphasized the math in their art. Susan Murrell takes this much further. Joel Courtney said of Murrell in the 6/20/2008 Las Cruces Bulletin, "Even though science is a large influence, Murrell goes out of her way to avoid studying the sciences further so as not to cloud over the messages of her artwork with the particulars of the technical world." Murrell was quoted, "My ignorance (of natural science) is part of the equation in a way. The abstraction does dumb it down a bit, but it allows my work to explain it to others."

In contrast, I prefer the technical illustration of Merian to the parody. This inspires me to renew my efforts toward taking a stand opposite to mimicry and parody. Merian used artistic talent to advance science. Can we use math or computer science to advance art without trivializing the technical aspect? Mel Bochner said,
"Mathematical thinking is generally considered the antithesis of artistic thinking, but it is not. The two aspects of mathematical thinking that interest me are its clarity and rigor. These are also the characteristics of the best art." Mel Bochner — in his “ICA Lecture”, 1971. [Reprinted in Bochner, Solar System & Rest Rooms, Writings and Interviews, 1965-2007, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, ISBN 978-0-262-02631-4. Page 90-92.]
So Bochner seems to say that art should be precise and valid like mathematical thinking, but I think there's much more opportunity here than Bochner's statement implies. I think twentieth century art opened up possibilities for artists to use materials, skills, and techniques from all professions. I hate to see artists stuck within the limitations of pre-twentieth century art simply mimicking other professions when they could employ the techniques and knowledge of those professions to make a new art.

I'm sure there are other artists with a technical background and a portfolio of work that advances rather than parodies science in art. In Portland we have Julian Voss-Andreae who studied physics at the universities of Berlin and Edinburgh and did graduate research in quantum physics. Also, there's Stephan Soihl (B.A. in Physics) of Mt. Hood Community College and Blackfish Gallery. Coincidentally, Soihl also does botanically accurate watercolors.

Here's a second version of a drawing from my Small Programs project.

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