Monday, December 23, 2013

Diane Burko: Moving Viewers to Pay Attention

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Grinnell Mt. Gould #1, #2, #3, #4, 2009
Oil on canvas, 88" x 200", © Diane Burko

For over forty years, Diane Burko’s work has focused on monumental and geologic phenomena throughout the world, many of which she has explored and photographed from the air. Her paintings and aerial photographs of “extreme” landscapes are informed by historical and contemporary scientific images yet guided by her intuitive search for the edges of representation and an expression of geologic time. Her ongoing “Politics of Snow Project” places her at the intersection of art and science as she continues to pursue her practice of developing strategies that present the data of climate change through an aesthetic filter.

Burko’s “Glacial Perspectives” is the subject of her current solo exhibition at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Her paintings and photographs will also be featured in two upcoming exhibitions in 2014: one at Tufts University “Seeing Glacial Time: Capturing Climate Change in the Arctic,” where she will also deliver the keynote speech on April 3, 2014. In Philadelphia, she will be part of a collaborative exhibition between American and Icelandic artists “Due North,” which opens at the Crane Arts Building on January 9, 2014.

Diane Burko: Moving Viewers to Pay Attention
By Sue Spaid

With this essay, I aim to tease out the numerous scientific implications of Diane Burko’s paintings and photographs. To demonstrate the scientific value of her paintings, I first discuss how paintings, however mediated and/or distorted, complement ordinary perception in ways that photographs do not. By ordinary perception, I have in mind unmediated cases such as “seeing with the naked eye” or aided perception (using a mirror, telescope, or microscope). I then offer an analogy between Princeton neuroscientist Dr. Uri Hasson’s research, which proves that Hollywood films tend to direct spectators’ attentions to a particular spot on the screen more than other types of moving pictures, and Burko’s paintings, which lure viewers’ attentions to particular details in ways that photographs of like scale and composition cannot.[1] Moreover, photographs tend to mislead spectators, precisely because their believability diffuses viewers’ skeptical/critical faculties. Finally, I discuss her paintings’ tendency to prompt the illusion of motion, a “no-fi” (no film) feature that is unavailable straight photography.

Those who consider Burko’s paintings redundant in light of her own photographs, USGA photographs, NASA satellite photographs, or available data, may be ignoring the way “hottened up” scenes prioritize details that might otherwise go unnoticed. Some philosophers argue that photography’s advantage concerns “viewers’ special background beliefs regarding photography as a type of depictive representation that carries information about an object’s visually accessible properties more accurately than painting does.”[2] By presenting photography alongside painting, Burko exploits photography’s ability to instill beliefs about the landscape under consideration and painting’s capacity to subtly direct spectators’ attentions to particularities, enabling her project to achieve its double effect.

Painting’s Special Edge
The intuition that paintings’ haptic sensibilities make them more compelling than photographs seems to me to be a bit of wishful thinking. The plethora of die-hard photography fans and movie buffs undermines the notion of the human hand as necessarily commanding greater attention. “Photography fans” happily visit photography exhibitions and photo-fairs. Out on the highway, cars tend to capture more attention than hand-painted signs (however gorgeous) occupying drivers’ peripheries! It could be interesting to learn whether street artists’ modified billboards and buildings distract drivers.[3] If they do, it could be difficult to discern the actual cause: the presence of the human hand, some spontaneous response to novelty/absurdity, or being startled by irregularity.

A painter’s ability to render aspects of the composition in a manner that lures viewers’ attentions enables paintings to slyly highlight aspects that relay particular contents. By contrast, photographers who purposely direct spectators’ attentions risk undermining photography’s believability-advantage. The more manipulated photographs look the less neutral they feel, leaving tools that alter foci, crop/ frame images, or direct light/shadow to delimit their scientific value. As mentioned above, neutral-feeling photographs, like documentary films, typically lack particularized focal points, while paintings (and Hollywood films) tend to pin viewers’ attentions to specific focal points.[4]

As most philosophers attest, attention is necessary for consciousness, since attention prioritizes (and thus differentiates) “the sensations according to a subjective standard, through which the sensations-turned-percepts are ‘unified’ or integrated.” As Carolyn Suchy-Dicey remarks, the subjective phenomenon of attending thus appears to involve a shift in one’s experience that is “not reducible to changes in what one experiences."[5] When one shifts one’s attention from one region of a painting to another, one’s experience changes, yet the painting remains the same. Paintings’ capacity to draw viewers’ attentions to particular aspects is what gives painting its edge over neutral photographs. Suchy-Dicey notes that effortlessly captured attentions “mimic pre-attentional changes to the stimulus by enhancing salience.”[6]

Although Hollywood films notoriously direct spectators’ attentions to particular points on the screen, films influence, but do not totally “control” spectators’ reactions, which is why one cannot blame some movie for one’s actions. The phenomenologist Edmund Husserl considers apprehension volitional, since it requires the “willful acceptance or volitional attention (intention towards).”[7] Although Suchy-Dicey differentiates stimulus-driven (exogenous) reactions from participant-driven (endogenous) ones, she finds it difficult to look to spectator behavior to distinguish the two, since “subject-level activity [volitional attention] is just one of the many ‘internal’ drivers of behavior captured by endogeny, which also include emotion, arousal, and associative processing.”[8]

Given attention’s contribution to consciousness, one must admit that some paintings not only cue viewers, but they speed up access to the target or stimulus (a painting’s hot spots) in conjunction with spectator reaction, thereby optimizing selection. In such cases, spectators readily select particular properties that enable them to prioritize certain entities over others.[9] By contrast, the presence of too much information engenders sensory overload, disabling volitional attention. By regulating selective attention, well-executed paintings draw people’s attention to specific points under consideration, inspiring them to action.[10]

Antarctica Quartet, May – July 2013, 2013
Oil on canvas, 50" x 200", © Diane Burko

Photographs: Antarctica Quartet, © Diane Burko

Burko’s Project’s Particular Edge
Those who consider Painting’s capacity to lure spectators reason enough to deny its scientific value overlook the fact that really good paintings are the outcomes of repeated looking, as compared to photographs, which collapse 4-D reality into 2-D snaps. With ordinary perception, looking consists of nonstop saccadic eye movements, a continual process of checking and rechecking, however oblivious one is of one’s repeated glances. With photograph-looking, there’s no way to re-look, unless one is viewing time-elapsed photography, a lengthy sequence of events captured on film. But as philosopher Kendall Walton has pointed out, film lacks the epistemic connection to the world typically accorded the photograph. Scientific photographs may feel neutral, but paintings actually benefit from artists’ keen observational skills, which photographers who rely on photographic lenses need not develop. When photographs tracking climate change over decades exhibit different perspectives, painters tap their keen observational skills and powers of imagination to reorient images, engendering images from parallel perspective. By painting panels that reference multiple time periods, Burko avails changes over decades to viewers.

Even when Burko paints from photographs that were shot by others, her paintings incorporate her firsthand experience with the particular place. Each photograph offers only a single glance, while paintings are the outcomes of hundreds of glances. In addition to having visited glaciers in Canada, Iceland, and the United States; and mountain ranges in France, Switzerland, and the United States; she recently traveled to both poles to witness floating icebergs and melting glaciers. With both expeditions, she was in the company of scientists and science writers, giving her immediate access to the most recent research concerning climate change and glaciers.

Rather than lament Painting’s delusional and deceptive properties, long associated with hyper-realist paintings, its fictional status challenges viewers on levels unavailable documentary films. Paintings trump documentary footage in at least three ways. 1) Admittedly mediated, paintings direct attentions, require focus, and prompt reflective judgment. 2) Paintings can be allegorical; seeming to address a pleasant topic, while actually exposing viewers to foreboding issues. 3) Paintings visualize/contextualize information that enables viewers to perceive changes over time which are unavailable to observers of facts.

While animated films visibly change in real or accelerated/decelerated time, some paintings prompt perceptual illusions of moving imagery. Originally associated with Op Art, this no-fi technique is currently being employed to good effect by numerous landscape painters.[11] Such paintings pulsate, glow, vibrate, and emanate, and thus appear “hottened-up.” Exemplary of this phenomenon, Burko’s paintings relay the effects of expanding glacial lakes (Bear Glacier 2002, 2007, 1984) (2012)), bursting icebergs (Petermann Calving, August 16, 2010 (after NASA) (2012)), burning fires, ember-spewing volcanoes (“Volcanoes: Alaska, Costa Rica, Hawaii, Italy and Russia, (1998-2005), cascading avalanches (Approaching West Ridge, 1963, after Barry Bishop) (July 2010), receding glaciers (Columbia Glacier III (figure 46) (March 2011)), tumbling waterfalls (Godafoss #1-6) (2003), and verdant lakes (Twenty Mile Glacier #1 (1938 after Bradford Washburn) and Twenty Mile Glacier #2 (2005 after David Arnold) (2009). Just as with the paradox of fiction, whereby one recognizes that the fears one feels when aroused by horror flicks are no more real than movies, the paradox of painting concerns how one’s imagination often treats such perceptual illusions as real, even though everyone accepts paint’s static nature.

Bear Glacier 2002, 2007, 1984, 2011
Oil on canvas, 60" x 194", © Diane Burko

Peterman Calving, August 16, 2010 (after NASA), 2012
Oil on canvas, 60" x 72", © Diane Burko

Columbia Triptych II (figure 46): Vertical Aerial 1981 – 1999, A, B, C, after Austin Post and Tad Pfeffer, 2010
Oil on canvas, 76" x 36", © Diane Burko

Painting’s Scientific Edge
When paintings actually enable scientists and the general public to experience information in a new way, should painters be considered scientific collaborators, just as other scientists are seen as collaborators? That is, can artworks help scientists to access information the way other scientists' papers, experiments, and calculations grant them special access to data, theories or experiences, which they have yet to glean themselves? I not only believe this, but have tried to demonstrate Burko’s special role in aiding scientists in their efforts to publicize visual information. This seems to me to be no different than the role played by Early Netherlandish and Flemish Renaissance painters whose centuries-old paintings of flora and fauna still assist biologists in their efforts to classify and track species over the ages. Artists make great collaborators precisely because they have remarkable observational skills, are used to tedious activities and have been especially trained to identify and analyze systems.

Nunatak Glacier 1938, after Bradford Washburn: Nunatek Glacier 2005, after David Arnold, 2010
Oil on canvas, 60" x 134", © Diane Burko

[1] Uri Hasson, Ohad Landesman, Barbara Knappmeyer, Ignacio Vallines, Nava Rubin, and David J. Heeger, “Neurocinematics: The Neuroscience of Films.” Projections: The Journal for Movies and Mind. June 1, 2008. Vol. 2. pp. 1-26.

[2] Sue Spaid, “Refocusing the Photographic Practice: From Taking Pictures to Producing Negatives", unpublished paper, January 2011.

[3] Dozen of artists, such as Gomez-Bueno, have mounted billboards to manipulate them by hand.

[4] Hasson (2008).

[5] Carolyn Suchy-Dicey (2011), Attention, Subject, and World (Ph. D. dissertation), p. 15.

[6] Suchy-Dicey (2011), p. 18.

[7] Suchy-Dicey (2011), p. 22.

[8] Suchy-Dicey (2011), p. 27 and p. 32.

[9] Suchy-Dicey (2011), p. 21 and p. 38.

[10] Suchy-Dicey (2011), p. 39.

[11] While Executive Director at the Contemporary Museum, I was planning the exhibition “Moving Pictures: Activating the Mind’s Eye,” which would present Burko’s paintings alongside dynamic paintings of Arden Bendler Browning, Danielle Bursk, Mary Corse, Sharon Ellis, Terri Friedman, Theresa Hackett, Juri Kim, Andy Moses, Sabina Ott, Bridget Riley, Fred Tomaselli, and Laura Watt.

Having participated since the mid-80s as a collector, curator, art writer, and arts educator, Sue Spaid recently earned a Ph. D. in Philosophy from Temple University for her dissertation Work and World: On the Philosophy of Curatorial Practice. Hailed by Roberta Smith in The New York Times as the "artworld's new image," Sue Spaid Fine Art (1990-1995) gained artworld attention for launching the careers of dozens of Los Angeles artists. Soon after closing her gallery in 1995, she began curating exhibitions for museums. In addition to having curated 100+ exhibitions for institutions and alternative sites, such as the Staten Island Ferry, a Miami hotel pool, and the Pavilion's Grocery Store, she has penned 60+ exhibition essays and has written 100+ critical reviews. She is the author of five exhibition-accompanying books, three of which concern "practical art" (Ecovention:Current Art to Transform Ecologies, A Field Guide to Patricia Johanson's Work: Built, Proposed, Published and Collected, and Green Acres: Artists Farming Fields, Greenhouses and Abandoned Lots).

Monday, December 16, 2013

The American Algorists: Linear Sublime

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Jean-Pierre Hébert, Triptych: Bright Wavelets 1-3, 2008
Inkjet drawing, pigments on paper, 3 panels, each 77" x 38", © Jean-Pierre Hébert

The American Algorists: Linear Sublime
Curated by Grant D. Taylor
SVA Flatiron Gallery, New York, NY
October 26 – November 27, 2013

Presented by the MFA Computer Art Department at the School of Visual Arts in partnership with the New York Digital Salon

by Taney Roniger

If the hallmark of the sublime is the presence of that which transcends our powers of comprehension, it is a force operative on many levels in this provocative exhibition. Titled The American Algorists: Linear Sublime, the show brings together four pioneers of computer-generated algorithmic art whose inordinately complex and intricate abstractions push the bounds of optical sensation while posing profound questions about the nature of creative agency. Composed exclusively of line – that most basic element of mark-making – the work of these artists originates in a process entirely devoid of the human hand, and this looming absence gives rise to a host of challenges to many notions long held sacrosanct in artistic discourse. In keeping with the venerable tradition of the sublime, the cognitive failure occasioned here is as exhilarating as it is unsettling.

Entering the gallery, one is struck first by the extraordinary degree of precision evident in all the work. In each of the twenty pieces on view, which range from works on paper and stretched canvas to a kinetic installation and two screen-based digital works, complex linear forms overlap, intertwine, and otherwise self-interact with humanly impossible perfection, often in mesmerizing densities. While coils, spirals, waves, and irregular fractal-like forms predominate in the works of Jean-Pierre Hébert and Roman Verostko, rectilinear forms and more rigid geometry prevail in the work of Manfred Mohr and Mark Wilson. At times, one could be forgiven for mistaking the works for conventional abstract paintings, as, for example, in the irregularly shaped canvases of Manfred Mohr, whose geometric compositions evoke the austere aesthetic of Minimalism and its Modernist antecedents. But upon close inspection of the surfaces, one always returns to the essential fact at the core of this show: This is machine-generated work, and any reckoning of its content must take this into account.

Manfred Mohr, P511-N, 1997
Computer calculated drawing on acrylic/canvas/wood, 40-3/16" x 66-15/16", © Manfred Mohr

Moving through the gallery, one oscillates between a sense of awe generated by the optical complexity and the equally insistent, if more subtle, question it gives rise to: Why does this work have presence? Why, if the origin of its facture is a machine, does this work exude such life?

On the most immediate level, the emphatic materiality of the work provides one answer. Many of the works on view are presented as conventional drawings or paintings – i.e., as pigment-on-surface objects, sometimes framed and sometimes not, whose tactile qualities elicit our sympathetic response. In Hebért’s large-scale drawing titled Triptych: Bright Wavelets 1-3 (2008), for example, three dense fields of exceedingly delicate blue and yellow lines vibrate against grounds of warm, unframed paper. Each vertical sheet being slightly larger than human scale and scroll-like in format, the work towers above the viewer with a physical presence reminiscent of Rothko. This appeal to the human body is also palpable in Verostko’s drawings, which feature gestural brushstrokes evocative of Asian calligraphy and automatic writing. Created by a special software routine invented by the artist that drives a Chinese brush with a mechanical arm, these simulated strokes induce a somatic effect indistinguishable from that which would be effected by a “real” gesture; in their presence one feels movement, rhythm, vitality, and pulse. Another humanizing factor far from negligible here is the richness of the colors that fill the space. While some of the drawings feature black line on white ground, the majority of the works exhibit a range of sumptuous color that occasionally covers the entire spectrum, such as in Mark Wilson’s optically dazzling, circuitry-inspired triptych, e20808 (2011).

Roman Verostko, Green Cloud: Algorithmic Poetry for a Three Story Wall, video installation, 2011, © Roman Verostko

But perhaps more than the work’s material embodiment, there is something about the forms and patterns inscribed by the lines that suggests a numinous presence, or a kind of hidden order in various stages of self-revelation. This uncanny quality is most evident in what is perhaps the show’s most mysterious work: Hébert’s kinetic sand installation, titled Ryoan-ji (2000). In the center of an elegant, low-lying, wooden table sits a shallow tray of sand, perhaps 18” square, through which a small steel ball slowly rolls. Inching its way through the sand in short, regular spurts, the ball leaves a track that over time forms mandala-like patterns of exquisite beauty and symmetry. With each advance of the ball, part of the previous pattern is “erased” as a new one begins to emerge in a process that could, one supposes, continue indefinitely. The reference to Japanese rock gardens is strong (something that is made explicit by the work’s title), but the deeper import here seems to lie in the question this work so insistently begs – namely, who, or what, is doing the drawing?

Jean-Pierre Hébert, Sand Installation: Ryoan-ji, 2000
Mixed media, 48" x 48" x 1-1/2", Private Collection, © Jean-Pierre Hébert

In fact, the question at the center of Ryoan-ji courses through all the works on view, and it is what gives the show its pervasive sense of mystery. In the case of the sand installation, we might infer that the ball is being guided by some kind of mechanical device beneath the table that has been programmed to make a sequence of discrete moves according to a pre-determined plan. Whether or not this inference is correct, the larger question remains: Who or what is the agent determining the sequence? The answer, it turns out, is far less obvious than we might assume.

Clearly all the works here originate in machine code, or in sets of rules programmed into a computer which instruct an attached mechanical drawing arm (in most but not all cases here, a pen plotter) on how and when to issue what pigment. It is also the case that for these artists, writing their own code is an essential aspect of their work. Indeed, all four belong to a group that, calling itself the Algorists, has as its sole criterion for membership the creation of one’s own algorithms for the purposes of making art. Co-founded in the mid-90s by Hébert and Verostko, this is a group of artists who are all deeply knowledgeable about the inner structure of the computer and its processes, and all are themselves expert programmers. Curiously, however, even this doesn’t settle the matter.

In order to grasp the essence of this work it is important to recall what makes the instrument at its core so remarkable, and so alluring. When we think of the computer, we think not only of its sleek, hard surfaces but also of the binary logic by which it operates. And when we think of logic, we tend to think of fixed rules and inerrant, predictable results. While any machine capable of inhuman accuracy and precision may invoke feelings of the sublime (so radically “other” is it), what sets today’s digital computer apart is the unprecedented capacity of its computational power, which is so vast that millions of operations can be performed in astonishingly little time. As a result, even the most simple sets of rules can produce, after enough iterations, unfathomably complex results. Crucially, the computer is also capable of making genuinely arbitrary and unpredictable decisions by way of random number generators inserted into the code, another capacity well beyond the limits of human intelligence.

By way of the enormous power immanent in their instrument and its capacity to generate randomness[1], the Algorists create forms and patterns that are not only new to us but also wholly unforeseen and unpredicted by the artists themselves. With each new visual configuration that emerges, the Algorists are presented with forms they themselves did not invent. For these artists, then, the computer is a portal into the unknown and the infinite, and this sense of limitless potential imbues the work with a quality that verges on the mystical. Rather than creators per se, the Algorists are essentially seekers – and indeed, as this show so amply demonstrates, finders.

Closing the loop of collaboration, the creative process ends when the artists choose among the configurations generated which are of aesthetic interest, and it is these that become works of art. The act of aesthetic judgment, itself a notoriously inscrutable subject, is no small part of the drama here; as the mathematician Henri Poincare famously noted, all invention is essentially discernment or choice, a subtle operation in which an intuitive faculty unknown to the conscious mind plays a crucial role.[2]

The question of who or what is the ulterior agent behind this work is essentially a metaphysical one – and one that raises challenging epistemological questions. Given that the fundamental link in this collaboration between mind and machine is the common language with which they communicate, one begins to wonder if the ultimate author here might not be code – or information – itself. Located neither inside the mind of the human being who writes it nor inside the machine that enacts its commands, code is essentially immaterial patterns of information whose interrelationships determine (literally inform) the material world. We see evidence of code’s formative power in nature all the time, such as in the leaves, petals, and floret patterns that grow in accord with the Fibonacci Sequence, or in mollusk shells that follow the pattern of the logarithmic spiral. Located nowhere but informing all things, not itself a thing but a process, the ever-mutating pattern-field of information asserts itself as the ghost in the machine.

Mark Wilson, SKEW FF10, 1984
Plotter drawing, 27" x 43", Anne and Michael Spalter Digital Art Collection, © Mark Wilson

In ways that invoke cybernetics and the systems-theoretic thinking of figures such as Gregory Bateson, this show challenges us to consider, ultimately, the locus of Mind – both in the individual and in the larger sense. Lest artists who have no interest in the digital computer take these issues to be irrelevant to them, one might recall how many times we’ve heard claims about some mysterious, seemingly exogenous source responsible for one’s creative insights (“I don’t know where it comes from, but it’s not me.”). If we are willing to concede that our minds extend inwardly beyond our conscious, thinking selves, why should we not also allow for their external extension? In the systems-theoretic understanding of Mind, internal mind cannot be separated from external mind; both are subsystems of the larger whole that is information processing. It follows that if Mind is not strictly located inside the body, the human hand, that hallowed instrument of man’s highest artistic achievements, becomes just another tool among many.

Computer-generated art has long struggled to gain admittance into the Western art historical canon. Indeed, as Grant D. Taylor points out in his catalogue essay, “cold and soulless” are words that have haunted the genre since its arrival on the scene in the 1960s and that continue to influence its reception. Above all else, what this exhibition makes clear is that it is time to grant the computer the right of fecundity within the fine arts and humanities. Whatever its origin, there is nothing cold or soulless about any art that breathes Mind in and between every line. systems.

[1]Technically, it is usually more accurate to call the randomness generated by computers pseudorandomness, since in most cases the sequence of variables selected among set parameters is determined by an initial seed. For most intents and purposes, however, pseudorandomness is considered “random enough,” and what matters most in this case is that compositional choices are being made that are beyond the artists’ control.

[2]Interested readers are referred both to Poincare’s seminal essay "Mathematical Creation" (1908) and to a subsequent book by Jacques Hadamard on the subject, The Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field (1954).

Manfred Mohr, Program 21, 1970
Plotter drawing, 20" x 20", Anne and Michael Spalter Digital Art Collection, © Manfred Mohr

Monday, November 4, 2013

Embodied Fantasies: From Awe to Artifice

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Embodied Fantasies: From Awe to Artifice
Edited by Suzanne Anker and Sabine Flach
Peter Lang AG, International Academic Publishers, Bern 2013

Reviewed by Taney Roniger

Across many domains of discursive knowledge – from philosophy and psychology to medicine and neuroscience – there has been increasing interest in the role of the human body in the ever-mutating architecture of consciousness. Long considered the locus of the senses alone and categorically distinct from the superior faculty of reason, the body is now emerging as the fundamental site of cognition whose structural features and modes of contact with the world actively give shape to our concepts and knowledge. In this climate of growing esteem for the body’s place in productive mentation, it is not surprising that we are also witnessing an increased focus on the arts not as a means of sensual pleasure but as a complex and sophisticated mode of knowledge production. Being fundamentally rooted in the senses, who better than the arts to tell us something about the epistemology of the body? Moreover, the body as a subject has a substantial history within the arts and academia; since its rise in the 1960s, discourse surrounding the body has undergone various permutations, remaining central to much art theory and practice throughout the subsequent decades.

What is the role of the senses in thought and imagination? How are the latter embodied – both internally within the theater of consciousness, and externally as inter-subjectively perceptible images? What is the relationship between imagination and knowledge; between art and world-making? These questions form the core of the first volume in the new book series Art/Knowledge/Theory, edited by artist and theorist Suzanne Anker and arts scholar Sabine Flach. Titled Embodied Fantasies: From Awe to Artifice, Volume I brings together contributions by 19 artists and scholars from the visual arts, art history, architecture, psychology, philosophy, and the history of science that explore the notion of embodiment as it relates to knowledge and imagination, or fantasy (the term comes from Aristotle’s word for the imagination).

In the editors’ introduction, embodied fantasies are defined as “the productive activities of the senses of sight which appear in cognitive and mental faculties,” of which dream imagery, hallucinations, and visual thinking are examples. Each contribution focuses on a particular facet of this theme, ranging in scope from the role of touch in human ideation to the phenomenon of hypnagogia to the creative visions of a world-renowned physicist, drawing throughout on a wide array of artistic and extra-artistic examples. As a whole, the collection makes a substantial claim for the relevance and timeliness of “fantasy study” across all domains of culture. As unprecedented advances in science and technology are swiftly eroding distinctions between fantasy and reality (to a greater extent than ever before, the impossible is becoming possible) understanding the relationship between the inner life and the world has never been more urgent.

Undergirding the book’s thesis is a consistently holistic approach to a host of phenomena that have been historically regarded as autonomous and atomistic. Foremost among these is the body itself, which in our Cartesian inheritance has been viewed as a substance wholly separate from thought but which is here emphatically affirmed to be otherwise. While the various embodiment theories current in today’s discourse have made strides toward correcting this basic epistemological error, the latter’s roots are so deep that as a culture we remain largely captive to it. (One need only think of the bulk of conventional Western medicine, to which news of the “mind-body connection” is still either revelation or anathema.) Another crucial corrective – and one that serves as something of a refrain throughout the book – involves the faculty of perception. Conventionally regarded as the passive, mechanical recording of external givens, perception is now to be understood as an active, fully-embodied process by which sensory data are not just “received” but actively given shape, structure, and sense by the mind. Moreover, it has been amply demonstrated that to a large extent we perceive with and through our previously established concepts (i.e., our stored shapes, patterns, and images), unconsciously imposing them on new percepts in the cognitive process. With memory and the imagination involved in all our encounters with the world, rigid distinctions between what is subjective and what is objective can no longer be easily maintained.

This inextricable link between perception and imagination is clearly illustrated in a contribution by scholar Boris Goesl exploring the history of the modern projection planetarium. Inside a planetarium, the projected astronomical constellations are initially perceived as a random distribution of “stars” in an artificial firmament. As the mind seeks to make sense of the visual complexity, however, it begins to impose shapes on the randomness. Perception and imagination working in tandem, the celestial bodies of the beasts and other figures we learn as mnemonic devices begin to emerge. While in this case the emerging figures have been artificially orchestrated for pedagogical purposes (the connecting lines between stars are drawn for us in light), the example serves to demonstrate what occurs all the time in perception – namely, that visual data without order or sense become, via fantasy, embodied images that we retain for future perceptual “projection.”

Along the same lines of this more fluid and holistic approach to understanding the mechanisms of the mind is the emphasis placed here on the unified nature of sensory experience. It has by now been firmly established that cognition is a function of all our capacities acting in unison, such that no sense organ can be thought to act independently of the others (hence the “senses of sight” in the editors’ introduction). What is perhaps less platitudinous is the emerging acknowledgement of the role of spatial sensation in cognition. The body’s orientation (or disorientation) in space – how it apprehends its surroundings and interacts with the perceptual flux – is the subject of several of the contributions, including art historian Dawna Schuld’s essay “Plato’s Shade: Embodying the Cave in Phenomenal Art.” Using Plato’s allegory of the cave as a point of departure, Schuld examines “the cave experience” as a salient feature of contemporary experiential art, focusing on the work of several artists affiliated with the California Light and Space movement. Here, the experience of being immersed in darkness – an experience in which spatial and perceptual conditions become palpable presences – gives rise to insight into the interconnectedness of self and surround, so that “the cave” becomes a condition for enlightenment rather than, as in Plato’s scheme, one of intellectual darkness. Similarly, the kinesthetic sense – also long excluded from the regal realm of the higher cognitive functions – is exposed as a vital mode of thinking in Alexander Schwan’s “Body Calligraphies: Dance as an Embodied Fantasy of Writing.” Using the concept of the body as writing instrument, Schwan demonstrates that all thought and perception is emphatically both corporeal and spatial.

The relational view of cognition advanced here has its philosophical counterpart in the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, two presences that loom large in these pages. The basic tenet of phenomenology being that embodied human subjectivity and the world exist in a dynamic relationship, each bringing forth and defining the other, knowledge of the inner life becomes inextricable from knowledge of the world. In an essay by sound artist Alex Arteaga titled “Fantasy in a Non-Given World?,” the author draws on a variant of phenomenology with roots in the biological sciences to further explore the relationship between fantasy and reality. Citing extensively from theoretical biologists Francisco Varela and Humberto Maturana, Arteaga elucidates the view that the very structure of the world emerges in the interaction between events “in here” and those “out there.” Fantasy and reality, it turns out, are “functionally intertwined.”

The theoretical model for art that emerges in this volume both reflects and elucidates the new understandings about consciousness, beginning with the complexity of perception. Like perception, art is no longer to be understood as a mere presentation (or re-presentation) of that which exists; rather, it is seen to operate at the dynamic interface between subjective and objective, generating new structures and meanings through the material embodiment of images. In what might be considered a move toward counter-mimesis, much art being produced today shows us not what exists but rather what does not exist, with concepts such as absence, the void, the potentially existent, etc. as recurring themes. In Sabine Flach’s essay on artists Carsten Holler and Matthew Barney, this approach is exemplified by what the author calls the “ongoing subjunctivity” of the work of these two artists. Central to Holler’s and Barney’s work is their sustained immersion in phantasmagoric zones of the “possible but not yet actual” which give rise to new percepts and concepts not encountered before. Similarly, Suzanne Anker’s presentation of her work in “Bio-ethers and Luminous Ores: Welcome to Wonderland” explores the increasingly possible-but-not-yet-actual world of hybrid creatures and other “Wonderland” fantasies that is emerging through advances in bio-engineering. By making sensual and sensible what is not yet but might come to be, art has the capacity not just to show us our future, but, even more significantly, to help us form new concepts with which to navigate it.

The broader cultural implications of this emerging theory of art are sizeable. If art is no longer to be understood as a mirror that reflects back to us what exists or who we are but is acknowledged as having a formative role in how we perceive, art becomes a significant force in shaping consciousness. In a time in which we are still woefully mired in a mechanistic, dualistic epistemology ill-suited for our times, art can, by renouncing mimesis and embracing a new self-understanding, bring forth new ways of being in the world. In her contribution titled “Twilight of the Artworld: From Representation to Ontology in the Work of Matthew Barney,” Thyrza Nichols Goodeve advances just such a model for art as “philosophy that thinks beyond the Cartesian cogito.” Identifying Barney as the mythographer of our new millennium, Goodeve demonstrates how the artist’s work embodies not just fantasies but being itself. By showing us new ontological possibilities that embrace the hybridity and perpetual shape-shifting of postmodern identity and that suggest a cyclical rather than linear conception of time, Barney aligns himself with a host of anti-Cartesian philosophers (e.g., Nietzsche, Georges Bataille, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault) in the clarion call for a radically new form of being human.

Whether or not one subscribes to theories that place primacy on our embodied inherence in the world, the larger worldview advanced in this collection stands as a vital alternative for an epistemological paradigm long exhausted. For what seems incontestable is that we are moving swiftly in the direction of an irreversible globalism, a condition which, being relational by definition, seems to call for more ecological modes of approach in our collective pursuit of knowledge. Toward this end, Embodied Fantasies offers a particularly compelling argument for the value of transdisciplinary dialogue. Respecting their differences, what is common across all cultures and sub-cultures (including those that define the separate disciplines of knowledge) is a fundamental need to understand ourselves and our relationship to the world. By forging new partnerships between the arts and the sciences, we might achieve insights not accessible to any single domain of knowledge alone. Fortified by a renewed appreciation for the formative role of images and the imagination, these new alliances promise to bring forth new models of reality heretofore unimaginable – perhaps even those addressing what scientists call, for self-evident reasons, “the hard problem” (i.e., the how and why of consciousness). In the book’s final contribution, an essay on the somatic effects on viewers of the work of artists Hiroshi Sugimoto and Adolph Mezne, Ellen Esrock concludes with a fitting exhortation: “Our nights as well as our days are rife with phantasms we create in ordinary and extraordinary moments of viewing. This is a time when the sister arts can join with the life sciences to illuminate our phantasmic interconnections with our world.”

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Lin Emery by Philip Palmedo: A review by G.W. Smith

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Lin Emery, Wave, New Orleans Museum of Art, New Orleans, Louisiana

Lin Emery by Philip Palmedo, introduction by John Berendt
A Review by G. W. Smith
©2013 G. W. Smith

Lin Emery (Hudson Hills Press, 2012) is, at one level, the coffee table book which every artist covets as the pinnacle of his or her career. The young artist-in-training will drool over its glossy dust-jacket, its gray cloth covers with "Lin Emery" embossed upon the front in silver (this in anticipation of generations of library shelf wear), its russet end papers, and its one-hundred and twenty-two color plates.

The majority of those plates document the series of works upon which Ms. Emery's reputation rests: architectural-scale assemblages of polished, space-age, aluminum forms, exquisitely articulated upon precision bearings, and nodding night and day to the prevailing winds. Two or three such works might establish an artist's reputation; but in turning the pages of this beautiful book, one is astounded to discover that Emery has executed some thirty-six major architectural commissions – for universities (four); for public buildings (six); for medical centers and religious institutions (six); and for corporations – entities which do not spend tens of thousands of dollars on a whim – no less than twenty-five.

They are to be found from Singapore to Virginia Beach, each typically standing within a dedicated, landscaped space; but even more remarkable – since a static sculpture represents, for the architect, a safer choice – is the fact that they are all (to repeat myself) kinetic; and indeed, one can claim on their evidence that Ms. Emery is the world's foremost kinetic sculptor.

Given the great number of dramatic photographs that this body of work has made possible, the text could have been an afterthought; but author Philip Palmedo has done a masterful job of sketching out a life no less remarkable than the work which has flowed from it, and which life the sensible reviewer will do well to merely summarize with a few strategic glimpses: the young woman who, fleeing a privileged but troubled upbringing in the suburbs of New York City, wanders from university to university and from job to job in the United States, Mexico, and Europe; who, on a lark, walks into the Paris studio of Ossip Zadkine and becomes a sculptor; who plays hooky one afternoon with a traveling companion in Mexico and becomes that day his wife; who, observing water dripping onto a balanced spoon, discovers that she is not just a sculptor, but a kinetic sculptor; and who decides to make New Orleans – that surprisingly mechanical city, and the home of, among other things, the world's oldest, continuously operating streetcar line – her own home, but who thereby exiles herself from the great metropolis of modern art.

Emery welding at the New York Sculpture Center

The last is a mere trifle, is it not? And so we attempt to close this most satisfying coffee table book – frequently the silk-lined coffin of an artistic career; but in our mind's eye it will not stay closed, for Emery is, again, a kinetic sculptor – a master of that art form upon which we depend, without realizing it, to bear our collective psyches into the future, and which, after a gestation of one hundred years, is poised to become the next big thing.

In his role as integrator, the great artist fuses the old and the new, the known and the unknown, the past and the future – but the former can be at first difficult to discern in the work of an artist as technologically astute as Ms. Emery.

She began her career sculpting religious figures for the Catholic churches of south Louisiana, and it is a remarkable experience to come upon one of these figures, as I did recently at a festival in Des Allemands, the original German settlement up-river from New Orleans

Mounted high upon the tan brick facade of a church community center, the slim figure of St. Gertrude (still an immaculate white, though installed more than fifty years ago) looks down and to her left, her left arm also held down, but with the delicate hand open in benediction – the whole a classic gesture of reserve and self-possession; but the most striking feature of the work – classic as well, though perhaps more Romanesque than Greek in inspiration – are the lines formed and repeated by her shoulders and arms, and the folds of her garments.

We know this line; it is in our DNA. It is not the wavering path of a slug upon a rock, but the intelligent curve of a hawk sweeping down upon its prey; and Emery – coming of age at the same time as the space-embracing "gesture" of the Abstract Expressionists – would soon be inspired to impose this line upon her own abstract forms, and cast it back against the sky.

The reader of Moby-Dick emerges from it with a detailed knowledge of the how the great whales were hunted, flayed, and reduced to oil; and although he must resent the page upon page of lore regarding harpoons and flensing knives and roaring furnaces, he will enjoy a secret satisfaction, and without which the great epic loses much of its impact.

So also with an account of Emery's work; but we have the advantage that the process is reversed: we begin with pure, reduced metal, and end up with a living work of art – and one which, in fact, sports itself among the winds.

Some caution is required, however. The contrast between the glorious, finally-completed work of art and the effort required to produce it has become something of an art historical cliche, perfected in Irving Stone's The Agony and the Ecstasy and the 20th Century Fox film adaptation thereof – and so Mr. Palmedo, laboring as well under the constraints of his format, has acknowledged this aspect of Emery's career without dwelling upon it. The reviewer, however, has greater latitude; and this reviewer has also had the privilege of observing the workings of her two studios – the mythic decks, as it were, of the Pequod.

The home studio: a lofty, concrete-block building fronting upon Dominican Street in the Garden District. You enter with great curiosity on this, your first social visit; and as you are ushered through it and thence through the door on its opposite side, you would not be surprised to find yourself emerging into the classrooms and offices of a university physics department rather than an elegant home; for have you not just passed through its well-equipped machine shop, with lathe and band saw and drill press, welding rigs and electric tools, and swelling racks of aluminum alloy?

It is here that Lin and her assistants fabricate the forms themselves. An ungainly sheet is pulled from one of the racks and placed upon a great steel table; an elegant tilde is traced upon it and liberated from the sheet with torch or electric saw; and then three or four such tildes are warped and twisted together edge-to-edge and quickly tack-welded to create the basic three-dimensional form – as light and hollow as a kayak, and also typically pointed at both ends.

Now Lin and her crew can breathe a sigh of relief. This particular whale – although only one of many in the pod – has blossomed into three-dimensional life, and the rest of the work is pure pleasure: the completion of the tack-welding with beautiful, end-to-end seams, built up high enough in the bubbling aluminum that they can be ground down to produce sharp edges, and the grinding and polishing itself – a process of joyful concentration for Emery inasmuch as the sinuous curves which she has had in mind are as yet no more present in the rough seams than the lines of a Michelangelo or an Audubon in the work of a million less talented artists.

But we have now reached the point at which Lin's artistry soars beyond the traditional craft of sculpture. What follows will depend upon a superb sense of atmospherics, balance, and rhythm; which is to say that Ms. Emery is a prodigy of the first order.

It begins with her carrying to the welding table a section of aluminum tubing machined within and without to cylindrical perfection – the female member of the shaft upon which this particular form will rotate. The end to be welded to the form has been cut at a precise angle – one thinks of Queequeg sharpening his harpoon; and one thinks of him again – the harpooner who alone knows where to strike – when Lin, working from a paper model, places that end of the shaft upon the precise spot which it must occupy so that the form will balance itself upon the wind.

The tack-welding is quickly accomplished; and Lin – her magic already performed – will leave its final welding and grinding and polishing to her assistants.

The Apple Street studio: a reclaimed movie theater in one of New Orleans' decaying neighborhoods – but for Lin and her crew it has something of the status of NASA's Vehicle Assembly Building.

One enters through a steel door in the boarded-up front. The steps in the foyer retain their handrails, but the mezzanine is filled with boxes of materiel, and what once must have been the concession stand has been converted to a power tool locker; and so one passes through swinging doors into the theater itself, now stripped bare of seats and screen.

A great, dim room, flanked by exposed air-conditioning ducts which pump cool air into it from a rumbling unit somewhere in its bowels. Draped figures hover in the shadows; step ladders and scaffolds stand here and there; compressed air hoses snake across the floor – and works in various stages of completion climb like strange, aluminum trees into the gloom above.

For the visitor, it is a scene as veiled and romantic as the home studio is brightly-lit and business-like – but not for Ms. Emery.

Here she must exert her engineer-mind to its utmost. A form which is not mounted with perfect balance will hang lifelessly rather than dancing in the wind; and now one understands the full scope of the task, for often one form will be articulated upon another – and these two even upon a third or fourth – before reaching the stability of the aluminum trunk.

Hence the great fascination of the assembly process. A form is passed up the scaffold and mounted upon that male shaft member (itself equipped with precision, weather-proof bearings) for which it has been destined; it is locked in place with a flush, allen-head screw; and then – with Lin watching critically from below – the entire assembly is given a spin.

Her engineer-mind might be satisfied with the result at this point – but perhaps not her artist-mind. Down comes the form, to be re-balanced through some mysterious process; back up it goes; and so on until the entire assembly cavorts with the grace and precision which Emery has pre-ordained for it.

So beautifully crafted are these works – so perfect the harmony achieved between space-age aluminum and park-like setting – that they perhaps do not call sufficient attention to themselves; and so it is no surprise that of her many installations documented in Mr. Palemdo's book, those most appreciated are in Japan.

Lin Emery, Hana, Izumisano Municipal Hospital, Izumisano, Japan

Her two installations there both date from 1997, and both reflect her long friendship with Isamu Noguchi: the twenty-four foot tall Hana in Izumisano, a suburb of Japan's "second city", Osaka; and, in Osaka itself, the 36-foot tall Honoo-no-ki. The former, in response to its hospital setting, is one of her most deeply-rooted and spiritual works. The latter, an invocation of both tree and flaming sun, has been given a place of honor in front of Osaka's main indoor arena – in part, no doubt, because Emery is one of the few artists able to reconcile that building's spaceship-like appearance with the traditional Japanese love of nature; and it was in1998 awarded a "Grand Prize for Public Sculpture" by that city – a signal honor in a country in which the use of every square inch of public space is carefully scrutinized.

She has been honored, of course, in this country as well; and without giving prejudice to our thesis that her reputation rests secure in the hold established by her work on the American landscape – from Oxnard, California in the west, to Lawrence, Kansas in the heartland, to McLean, Virginia in the east; from Chicago in the north, to Houston in the south – one might mention her 1990 Lazlo Aranyi Award of Honor for Public Art (for the Virginia Beach installation); her 2005 Sydney Simon Sculpture Award from the National Academy of Design; and her 2004 Honorary Doctorate from Loyola University of the South.

But here the circumstance which the reviewer, as opposed to the author of the official monograph, is at liberty to acknowledge: Ms. Emery has not enjoyed wide-spread critical acclaim, nor is she represented, in a substantial way, in the collections of any of this country's iconic museums of modern art.

I have already mentioned the tendency of Emery's work to integrate itself into its setting; and, with Mr. Palmedo, I have also previously alluded to her self-exile from the center of critical opinion, which is of course New York – but there is a bit more to be said in regard to the latter topic.

Her exile is not absolute – she is represented by a Manhattan gallery in addition to her principal gallery in New Orleans; and indeed, the question is not so much one of exile as of frame of reference. In gratitude to the city which has made her career possible, Emery has allowed herself to be identified with New Orleans (and even revels in that identity), but with the inevitable result that she is thought of – despite the contrary testimony of her vast network of installations – as a regional artist.

As such, she is easily passed over by the critics and curators; and if there is a lesson to be learned here, it is that the long delayed triumph of kineticism – for which Emery has been a torch-bearer – will not be an art of the great city center, but of the reclaimed warehouses and movie theaters of post-industrial Brooklyn, Detroit, and New Orleans. Take heed, critic: it is from the muck of the last-named city that the splendid lotus of Ms. Emery's oeuvre has emerged.

One must also wonder about the influence of gender. Yes, there are some celebrated female sculptors – Hepworth and Nevelson and Frink – who have worked on a monumental scale, but none of them with the technical audacity on display in Emery's wind sculptures. That a woman has done these things makes them difficult to credit – almost as if they were the work of some Rumplestiltskin. Familiar to us, on the other hand, is the image of the visionary male artist, laboring over his creations with a never-before-seen technical facility; and so one suspects that a man with Emery's body of work to his credit would have been placed, by now, in the near company of Michelangelo and Mondrian.

In the final analysis, however, none of these factors can fully explain the neglect of an artist of Ms. Emery's evident genius and reach. It is, rather, a function of the strange miasma in whose grip the entire art world currently finds itself; a period in which a proud visual tradition – perhaps in response to all-devouring media – has often allowed itself to be reduced to that which can be described in a "sound bite", or as the focus of a lurid subject matter; a time of false prophets and hollow enthusiasms, during which the person of true genius is better off outside the spotlight.

Indeed, we are at present so far off course that Mr. Palmdeo has been inspired to distinguish his book with a final, ground-breaking chapter; one written in veiled language, but which, in the genteel context of the coffee-table format, must be regarded as a bold attack upon the status quo; or, to use a better analogy – since Palmedo is, among many other things, a PhD nuclear physicist – a chapter which amounts to the scholarly equivalent of the stealthy but nonetheless quite effective neutron bomb.

Palmedo has had one overriding concern in this final chapter: to restore to Modernism some sense of trajectory, of forward direction, from which all else will follow; and this he has clearly derived from the inarguable historic role of the fine arts – at least within the Western tradition – as that art form specifically tasked with assimilating the discoveries of science and technology on behalf of a humanity eager to retain its belief in harmony, beauty, playfulness, spontaneity, spirit, stewardship, wonder, and magic – or, in short, transcendence; and in this connection we must note the status of vision as the most advanced and "intellectual" of the senses, and to which sense alone such an appeal can be meaningfully directed.

But – as Mr. Orwell has pointed out – it takes a constant effort to see that which is before our eyes. In this, the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the fine arts have degenerated into anecdote. What has become of the ability of the Greeks to translate anatomical observation and mathematically-derived proportions into stirring, mythic figures; of the Gothic architects to translate their load-bearing flying buttresses into awe-inspiring interior spaces; of the great Renaissance masters to translate geometric and atmospheric perspective into vast, spiritual landscapes; of the Impressionists to translate the discoveries of nineteenth-century optical science and photography into paintings of supreme beauty?

What indeed?; for we observe in all of these art historic examples that quality singularly lacking in modern attempts to join art and technology, but which is abundantly present in the work of Ms. Emery. I refer, of course, to the above-mentioned assimilation: the modern artist either creates clumsy, cargo-cult like tributes to technology (such as the recently displayed wood-and-cardboard mockup of the Lunar Excursion Module); or, veering to the opposite extreme, places on display raw science (i.e., a Van de Graf electrostatic generator) as "art". In cases of extreme frustration, he might even scatter slabs of black felt and loose ball bearings across the gallery floor (as I was astonished to discover at the Whitney circa 1982) – those same bearings which Emery has masterfully integrated into her wind sculptures.

The twentieth century equivalent of Impressionism was, in some sense, Constructivism. Its rallying cry was that the new technologies which had given birth to the dynamo, the automobile, and the aeroplane – in short, the machine – could be likewise endowed with proportion, harmony, and personality; and, at a deeper theoretical level, it followed the scientists in concerning itself with space – both the inner space of the atomic world, and the outer space of the cosmos – and with that phenomenon which has been, since the time of the ancient Greek philosophers, its handmaiden: motion.

It is here that Palmedo has entered the fray, for he opens his critical chapter by identifying Constructivism as the seminal twentieth-century movement – and, by implication (and despite its revolutionary overtones), as that movement which has maintained the central thrust of the great Western tradition; nor would he object to its use as an art historical shorthand to refer to all those artists with similar tendencies: Brancusi, with his piston-like figures and his Bird in Space; Leger, with his cylindrical maidens; and Boccacio, with his polished bronze man gliding through Einsteinian space.

A golden age of the arts (in contrast with our own); but what is the use of a "movement" if it has no future? What, in other words, was the ultimate goal of the Constructivists and their fellow-travelers – a goal perhaps to be seized upon for inspiration in our own dispirited age?

The author of this remarkable chapter implies that it is no less than a consummated marriage between art and the machine; and he accordingly takes us in some detail – culminating with Moholy-Nagy's orphaned Light-Space Modulator – through the early, quite serious but ultimately unrequited attempts to create motorized sculpture.

A bold thesis, indeed; and in further fidelity to it – and as a measure of the serious intent with which he has placed this chapter before us (and which chapter now speeds across the art universe like an electromagnetic pulse) – Palmedo is the first major writer on art and science of whom I am aware to place the great Alexander Calder outside the mainstream of kinetic art history, on the grounds that his mobiles are more optical than mechanical.

Yet the great series of works by Ms. Emery – gracing everywhere the American landscape – are all wind-driven (although she has experimented with motorized pieces); and so Palmedo's focus on the electro-mechanical seems at first curious to us – until we realize the connection which he has all along intended as the final term of his equation, and one which confirms Emery's place among the first rank of contemporary sculptors: the transcendent mechanical art of the Contructivists remains a dream, but the movement itself endures; and Ms. Emery – her polished metal forms and precision bearings engaged in a perpetual dance with space – stands at the head of its avant garde.

Two final notes: Both the editor and designer of such a monograph play critical roles, and Ms. Deborah Thompson and Mr. David Skolkin have done a fabulous job. Much credit is also due to John Berendt, who, in his otherwise gentle introduction, has helped Mr. Palmedo draw his bow by daring to suggest that Ms. Emery is not unknown amidst the busy streets and soaring towers of Manhattan.

[A few sentences from this review were previously published in the essay "From Search Engines to Saxophones: It's the Machine, Stupid!" in On-Verge.]

Notes on the photographs (provided courtesy of Ms. Emery):

14 feet x 15 feet x 22 feet
New Orleans Museum of Art
New Orleans, LA

Lin Emery welding at the New York Sculpture Center
Newspaper photograph "The Sparks Fly"
Sun Times, May 30, 1954

Aluminum and paint,
22 feet, orbit 22 feet
(6.7m, orbit 6.7m).
Izumisano Municipal Hospital
Izumisano, Japan

G. W. Smith is an English Lit major turned systems engineer turned kinetic sculptor, and the holder of two patents in the field of electromechanical display systems. He is also the author of Aesthetic Wilderness: A Brief Personal History of the Meeting Between Art and the Machine (Birds-of-the-Air Press, 2011). He lives with his wife Dianna in New Orleans.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

STEVE MILLER: Crossing the Line

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Signal Relay, 2003, dispersion and silk screen on canvas, 50" x 37.5"

STEVE MILLER ( is a photographer, painter, and sculptor who has been making work at the intersection of art and science for over three decades. In his current exhibition at the National Academy of Sciences titled Crossing the Line, Miller presents a body of work based on his long-term collaboration with Nobel Prize-winning neurobiologist and biophysicist Rod MacKinnon. Curated by Marvin Heiferman, the show expands on an earlier exhibition by the artist that took place at the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University in 2007. For the catalogue for the earlier show, which was curated by Michael Rush and titled Spiraling Inward, an extensive interview was conducted between Heiferman and Miller. What follows is an abbreviated version of that interview prefaced by Heiferman's introductory essay for the current show along with a selection of images from both exhibitions. Concatenations thanks both curator and artist for permitting the republication of the texts here, and the artist for providing such a wealth of images.

Crossing the Line: Paintings by Steve Miller will be on view at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C. through January 13, 2014. The catalogue for the show can be accessed here: Crossing the Line catalogue. The catalogue for the show at the Rose, which contains essays by Michael Rush and Mark Auslander in addition to the full interview, can be found here: Spiraling Inward catalogue.

Factory, 2008, dispersion and silk screen enamel on canvas, 80" x 120"

Crossing the Line: Paintings by Steve Miller 
By Marvin Heiferman

Over the past decade, Steve Miller has made numerous and provocative artworks based upon his collaboration with Rod Mackinnon, a Nobel-Prize winner in Chemistry in 2003. They met at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York, when Miller, interested in advanced imaging, was working with scientists there and MacKinnon was investigating protein structures in order to better understand their functioning. Scientists and artists routinely make and rely upon images to problem solve in the course of their work. And so it was not surprising that Miller became fascinated with the visual nature, vocabulary, and tools of MacKinnon’s work: the graphic quality of his calculations and diagrams, the computer modeling he experimented with to grasp the three dimensionality of proteins, and X-ray crystallography technology itself.

MacKinnon was investigating how potassium ions moved across cell membranes. Miller’s work engages itself with the crossing of borders as well: moving back and forth between photography and painting, shifting from micro to macro scale, combining representational and abstract imagery and what is theorized with what can be seen.

Commenting on his long-standing interest in working with scientists, Miller says, “we’re all asking questions, trying to understand what forces make or shape who we are.” For him, art and science are parallel dialogs about possibility; when they intersect, the context of each changes. What results, as these paintings reveal, can be unexpected, engaging, and powerful.

We Need the Following Qualities, 2007, dispersion and silk screen on canvas, 38.5" x 29"

Every Body a Spectacle: An Interview with Steve Miller
By Marvin Heiferman

Today, electronics and automations make mandatory that everybody adjust to the vast global environment as if it were his little home town. The artist is the only person who does not shrink from this challenge. He exults in the novelties of perception afforded by innovation. The pain that the ordinary person feels in perceiving the confusion is charged with thrills for the artist in the discovery of new boundaries and territories for the human spirit. He glories in the invention of new identities, corporate and private, that for the political and educational establishments, as for domestic life, bring anarchy and despair. — Marshall McLuhan, 1968 [1]

Marvin Heiferman: This quote by Marshall McLuhan, which I find myself returning to often, seems to suggest some ways to start this conversation about your work. In the past, you and I have talked about artists’ contributions to the visual language and their responses to the technology of their time. What is the visual language at work in your work.

Steve Miller: Visual language today is complex; I don’t think we can really say it is one thing or another. At first, I responded to McLuhan’s claim, that artists are the only people who don’t shrink from the challenge of facing up to novel perceptions, by saying, “Oh, yeah. Absolutely right.” But now that I’m thinking about it—and about Google, YouTube, and MySpace—it seems like everyone today is more comfortable communicating with and through technology, which I think is the point of the exhibition, in a way. What used to be considered specialty languages no longer are.

People understand that information, image, and language systems can change and change quickly. Every artist I know uses Photoshop, and so does everyone else. Anyone can capture and manipulate images—adjust, annotate, and distribute their snapshots, animations, and home movies. Today, visual culture is much less specialized than when I started out.

MH: When was that, and what kinds of ideas, images, and issues interested you then?

SM: In the early 1980s, I started to use computers to manipulate and translate images. I became increasingly interested in what happened when an image was reprocessed. Back then, you could put an image onto a computer and digitize it, have it automatically morph into another form of visual language, which seemed advanced at that time. You went to specialty studios and worked for hours on what can now be accomplished by pressing a single button on a home computer. But what was important to me was the notion that you could take an image, put it through a translation system, and automatically code it.

MH: If we’re talking about the visual language of culture at a specific time, can you talk about the images and specialized visual vocabularies of the time that you wanted to explore?

SM: My interest in the visual language of science and technology grew out of my growing disenchantment with painting. The habitual gestures of making paintings had become frustrating and were feeling meaningless. But because I like making paintings, I was caught in a contradiction. I was bored and frustrated, but I was still looking for new ways to bring some energy into the work. I started looking at Rorschach blots because they gave me a preexisting image to work with—somebody else’s piece of paint, not my own. In the course of appropriating those forms, I inherited their content. Since I didn’t want to paint Rorschach blots, I scanned images of them on a computer, made silk screens of them, and began to print them on canvas. By not being responsible for the image, by not being responsible for physically and traditionally painting an image, by having the meaning taken out of my hands, I found a perfect way to keep painting going for myself.

MH: But, then, what was left for you to do?

SM: What I started to appreciate was that inkblots tested for a kind of content I hadn’t been thinking about when I started this work. I was using images from science that were used to test, on some level, someone else’s psychic energy. Rorschach blots, from what I understand, while no longer used much, had once been thought useful in revealing pathology. Because the pathological aspects of culture fascinate me, I began to think about what else would constitute literal images of pathology. I started looking at medical textbooks, at images of viruses and cancers. I was interested in them both for what they were and what they looked like—completely abstract images as seen through an electron microscope. This was in 1987, when images like these weren’t widely reproduced. Looking at them was like being under water in a coral sea, or being on the moon surrounded by lunar rocks. All of a sudden, I realized there was a whole other world that couldn’t be seen by the eye but could be visualized through new technology. And the content of the images was really powerful, even if not very directly, at first, for a lay viewer.

MH: What interests me about images, all images, is that different communities make images for specific purposes and understand and use them differently, depending on their need, knowledge, and perspective. What was it like for you, a visual artist, to throw yourself into this new visual language of medical and scientific imagery?

SM: The beauty of these images, to me, is they are the biological, technological, scientific equivalents of the Rorschach blots. I didn’t know what these images meant; neither would anybody who wasn’t a scientist. So, to answer your question, a scientist might look at an image and see technical information. (“This is the virus.” “This is the cancer cell.” “This is the healthy cell.” “This is the cell in the bloodstream.”) A contemporary art observer, looking at the same image, sees something perhaps closer to surrealism, a crazy juxtaposition of unknown things. What became interesting to me about the work was that, in an art context, images that were literal and useful to some became abstract and useful in another way to others. Unless I specifically name the images, you don’t know what they are. So, viewers have the possibility of looking at paintings in a state of fantasy, of projecting onto them, or, at some point, going deeper and finding out what the images actually are of and about.

MH: How important is it, to you, that people know what they’re looking at?

SM: At one level, not important at all. I think art, especially painting, has to sustain viewing and work off of a certain level of visual interest. That has to do with aspects of surface, size, composition—all the technical, formal aspects of making a picture. Then, there’s that other aspect of engagement, when an artwork starts making you ask questions. In the case of my work, it’s logical to ask, “What is that? What am I looking at?” And if you do, that takes you to the next level of involvement. In the case of the work in this exhibition, if the wall label references my collaboration with Rod MacKinnon, who is a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, that might lead you to ask some questions about painting or art history, about medicine and technology, or even, quite literally, about the meaning of life.

MH: Let’s talk about people’s fascination with, and fear of, scientific images that seem to require a specialist’s knowledge to understand.

SM: Since most people know little about molecular biology, this kind of specialized imagery can put viewers in a defensive position; it reminds them of how they struggled in high school math or chemistry. On the other hand, there are many ways to enter the work—other than dredging up memories of a set of equations on the chalkboard.

MH: You talked earlier about your disenchantment with painting and about people’s willingness to look at abstract images and test out something that’s not clear to them. Photography seems to help ease that transition and helps make people feel grounded in what they’re looking at. Photographic imagery plays a big role in your work; can you talk a bit about that?

SM: All of my work is photo-based. That’s interesting to me because, while it’s photo-based, you look at images that are microscopic, technical, and graspable, and yet there are no references in them to what looks like the real world. If you’re sitting in front of the painting, in this exhibition, called Potassium Channel, it looks pretty abstract. People have commented that it looks like “a landscape,” an “aerial view,” or “a satellite view of the world.” In fact, the painting features a detail of the X-ray crystallography machines that Rod uses at Brookhaven National Laboratory to image his protein structure, so he can understand their function. The photograph, then, is both literal and abstract, and that’s the part of photography that I love. What I also like about photography is that it’s a quick way to get an image; one click and you’ve got it.

Potassium Channel, 2007, dispersion and silk screen on canvas, 80.5" x 81"

MH: Yet, the work is far from what you’d characterize as photographic. You’re painting and drawing on top of and around images all the time.

SM: I would say that ninety percent of my practice is drawing, which I love because I can work through ideas quickly. Painting is different, slower and more process-oriented. And, then, there’s another visual language at work here—the texts and notations that come directly from Rod’s notebooks, which I’ve photographed, and that introduce a whole other kind of mark-making and meaning.

MH: Rod’s texts suggest graffiti, which, historically, has played an interesting and sometimes controversial role in painting.

SM: All that text is a record of touch; it’s about human presence, which I like in the midst of all this technical imagery and information. The human touch and presence is important in this body of work; it reflects part of the process of a scientific discovery that’s important because it helps explain how we function physiologically, biologically, and on a molecular level. The images and the text in this work are metaphors for the process of inquiry, of looking inside of the work we have to do.

MH: Meaning?

SM: Meaning, scientists are looking for something, looking for meaning, but so am I. So are you. So are most thinking people. We’re all asking questions, trying to understand what forces make or shape who we are. Lots of people talk about that as being the job and a goal of both art and science.

MH: One of the things I like to talk about with both scientists and artists is their appreciation of, and fascination with, the process of searching and dealing with their work when things do or do not fall into place. You’ve spent a lot of time with scientists. What’s similar about the ways artists and scientists work, about how they visualize and find their way through problems?

SM: For painters, for instance, part of the beauty of a painting is knowing when to stop. There’s a famous Monet quote: “The difference between me and any others is I know when to stop.” If you overwork a painting, you kill it. With science, you keep going, no matter what. You keep exploring. And scientists keep looking, too, but the process is different; they work with very specific tools. The freedom in art is that you can let anything happen. When I talk to scientists, they never feel like they have that freedom to play. When I work with scientists and we start using the equipment, they always want to get everything in focus, to make everything work, to get me a certain kind of image. And I tend to say, “No. I want just the opposite of that. Do something you’ve never done before. Make it out of focus.” They love to do that, but the equipment is so expensive and their tools are so rare, they feel they can’t waste time and have to be efficient. The freedom of art is something scientists appreciate and, even, envy. One of the reasons I’ve been successful in working with scientists is because I give them the opportunity to play on someone else’s dime.

MH: A quality of the work in this exhibition that interests me is how, in the process of exploring the way that science is presented in imagery, there’s a sense of spectacle and of the spectacular at work. The work is big. The images have an explosive quality about them. There’s a sense of special effects at work. There’s a sense of friction and excitement in the constant juxtaposition of language and image, the drawn versus the photographic. The work suggests that every body, every cell, literally and figuratively, is a spectacle, that something big is going on and needs to be looked at. And that something even bigger is yet to come.

If They Exist, 2007, dispersion and silk screen on canvas, 80" x 81"

SM: I never thought about it that way until now, but the body is spectacular and the notion of spectacle is a big part of art and of culture. I’ve always been interested in work by artists like Jack Goldstein, who painted images of fireworks, volcanoes, and airplanes with contrails flying through the skies, dropping bombs. In work like that, there’s a sense of watching a spectacle from a distance. In my work, the spectacle is just as big, but it takes place close by and on a much smaller and more intimate scale. What Rod MacKinnon does in his work is astounding. He figured out how a positively charged ion moves across a cell membrane, from a protein to a cell, at a rate of a hundred thousand to a million ions per second. That’s a spectacle I never thought about as I was representing it, but when I step back and look at it, it is spectacular, on a macro-micro level. His work and the images it generates are cosmic in a sense; the ions he studies interconnect all of the electricity in the body so we can communicate with each other. Those are pretty incredible notions.

There’s another level of spectacle at work, too: the massive amounts of money being spent on this research. Drug companies stand to make huge profits when they find the specific protein that targets a specific cell that’s diseased. Which adds yet another level of complexity to the work: Science cures disease and makes money. The image of a virus or a protein that might kill or sidetrack disease looks beautiful in a painting. In that sense, the work mirrors the complexity of what’s going on in the world today.

MH: Since you’ve brought up macro-micro issues, let’s end by addressing the issue of scale in this work.

Liquid Wrap, 2006, spray enamel, dispersion, and silk screen on canvas, 57" x 39.5"

SM: Conventionally, scientists see their images reproduced small scale, in the lab or when they’re published in journals. An image might get blown up in a PowerPoint presentation, but this kind of imagery is seldom seen on a large scale, or in a context removed from everyday work and the laboratory. When art and science intersect, it changes the context, beefs up the scale, and alters responses to imagery in unexpected ways. Images of the smallest of things become images you can get lost in. Scientists may not need or necessarily want that kind of scale or distraction. They’re making science; they’re looking for specific solutions. I’m making art and trying to communicate with a different audience, and scale is just one of the ways I try to do that.

What’s ultimately important about all of this is that things and events minute in scale are monumental in terms of meaning and impact. Images are central to that process. Rod’s work employs image-making for its function. Art is about function, too, but of a different kind. My job is to use specific kinds of images to grapple with the experiences of life and of culture, and to engage viewers in a dialogue about possibilities.

[1] Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, War and Peace in the Global Village (San Francisco: Hardwired, 1997), 12.

Curator and writer Marvin Heiferman organizes projects about photography and visual culture for institutions that include the Museum of Modern Art, Smithsonian Institution, International Center of Photography, Whitney Museum of American Art, and the New Museum.  A contributing editor to Art in America, Heiferman has also written for The New York Times, Artforum, Bookforum, Mousse, ArtNews, Aperture, and BOMB.  His most recent book is Photography Changes Everything (Aperture, 2012), and new entries to Heiferman’s Twitter-based project, WHY WE LOOK (@whywelook) are posted daily.

The Chicken and the Egg Problem, 2007, dispersion and silk screen on canvas, 80" x 60"

Definitely Tested, 2007, dispersion and silk screen on canvas, 80" x 80"

Left: Protein #299, 2003, inkjet, pencil, and silk screen on paper, 19" x 13"; Right: Protein #395, 2004, pencil, enamel, and silk screen on paper, 19" x 13"

Soap Opera, the Second Season, 2005, dispersion and silk screen on canvas, 51" x 40"