Category Archives: Visual Art

Fractal imagery (from nature or from art or from mathematics) soothes

Jackson Pollock’s work is often cited when fractal art is discussed. I think it’s largely because he likely produced the art without knowing about the concept.

No. 5, 1948 (Jackson Pollock, downloaded from Wikipedia essay about No. 5, 1948)

Richard Taylor, a professor of physics at the University of Oregon, provides more information about how fractals affect us and how this is relevant to his work with retinal implants in a March 30, 2017 essay for The Conversation (h/t Mar. 31, 2017 news item on phys.org), Note: Links have been removed),

Humans are visual creatures. Objects we call “beautiful” or “aesthetic” are a crucial part of our humanity. Even the oldest known examples of rock and cave art served aesthetic rather than utilitarian roles. Although aesthetics is often regarded as an ill-defined vague quality, research groups like mine are using sophisticated techniques to quantify it – and its impact on the observer.

We’re finding that aesthetic images can induce staggering changes to the body, including radical reductions in the observer’s stress levels. Job stress alone is estimated to cost American businesses many billions of dollars annually, so studying aesthetics holds a huge potential benefit to society.

Researchers are untangling just what makes particular works of art or natural scenes visually appealing and stress-relieving – and one crucial factor is the presence of the repetitive patterns called fractals.

When it comes to aesthetics, who better to study than famous artists? They are, after all, the visual experts. My research group took this approach with Jackson Pollock, who rose to the peak of modern art in the late 1940s by pouring paint directly from a can onto horizontal canvases laid across his studio floor. Although battles raged among Pollock scholars regarding the meaning of his splattered patterns, many agreed they had an organic, natural feel to them.

My scientific curiosity was stirred when I learned that many of nature’s objects are fractal, featuring patterns that repeat at increasingly fine magnifications. For example, think of a tree. First you see the big branches growing out of the trunk. Then you see smaller versions growing out of each big branch. As you keep zooming in, finer and finer branches appear, all the way down to the smallest twigs. Other examples of nature’s fractals include clouds, rivers, coastlines and mountains.

In 1999, my group used computer pattern analysis techniques to show that Pollock’s paintings are as fractal as patterns found in natural scenery. Since then, more than 10 different groups have performed various forms of fractal analysis on his paintings. Pollock’s ability to express nature’s fractal aesthetics helps explain the enduring popularity of his work.

The impact of nature’s aesthetics is surprisingly powerful. In the 1980s, architects found that patients recovered more quickly from surgery when given hospital rooms with windows looking out on nature. Other studies since then have demonstrated that just looking at pictures of natural scenes can change the way a person’s autonomic nervous system responds to stress.

Are fractals the secret to some soothing natural scenes? Ronan, CC BY-NC-ND

For me, this raises the same question I’d asked of Pollock: Are fractals responsible? Collaborating with psychologists and neuroscientists, we measured people’s responses to fractals found in nature (using photos of natural scenes), art (Pollock’s paintings) and mathematics (computer generated images) and discovered a universal effect we labeled “fractal fluency.”

Through exposure to nature’s fractal scenery, people’s visual systems have adapted to efficiently process fractals with ease. We found that this adaptation occurs at many stages of the visual system, from the way our eyes move to which regions of the brain get activated. This fluency puts us in a comfort zone and so we enjoy looking at fractals. Crucially, we used EEG to record the brain’s electrical activity and skin conductance techniques to show that this aesthetic experience is accompanied by stress reduction of 60 percent – a surprisingly large effect for a nonmedicinal treatment. This physiological change even accelerates post-surgical recovery rates.

Pollock’s motivation for continually increasing the complexity of his fractal patterns became apparent recently when I studied the fractal properties of Rorschach inkblots. These abstract blots are famous because people see imaginary forms (figures and animals) in them. I explained this process in terms of the fractal fluency effect, which enhances people’s pattern recognition processes. The low complexity fractal inkblots made this process trigger-happy, fooling observers into seeing images that aren’t there.

Pollock disliked the idea that viewers of his paintings were distracted by such imaginary figures, which he called “extra cargo.” He intuitively increased the complexity of his works to prevent this phenomenon.

Pollock’s abstract expressionist colleague, Willem De Kooning, also painted fractals. When he was diagnosed with dementia, some art scholars called for his retirement amid concerns that that it would reduce the nurture component of his work. Yet, although they predicted a deterioration in his paintings, his later works conveyed a peacefulness missing from his earlier pieces. Recently, the fractal complexity of his paintings was shown to drop steadily as he slipped into dementia. The study focused on seven artists with different neurological conditions and highlighted the potential of using art works as a new tool for studying these diseases. To me, the most inspiring message is that, when fighting these diseases, artists can still create beautiful artworks.

Recognizing how looking at fractals reduces stress means it’s possible to create retinal implants that mimic the mechanism. Nautilus image via www.shutterstock.com.

My main research focuses on developing retinal implants to restore vision to victims of retinal diseases. At first glance, this goal seems a long way from Pollock’s art. Yet, it was his work that gave me the first clue to fractal fluency and the role nature’s fractals can play in keeping people’s stress levels in check. To make sure my bio-inspired implants induce the same stress reduction when looking at nature’s fractals as normal eyes do, they closely mimic the retina’s design.

When I started my Pollock research, I never imagined it would inform artificial eye designs. This, though, is the power of interdisciplinary endeavors – thinking “out of the box” leads to unexpected but potentially revolutionary ideas.

Fabulous essay, eh?

I have previously featured Jackson Pollock in a June 30, 2011 posting titled: Jackson Pollock’s physics and and briefly mentioned him in a May 11, 2010 visual arts commentary titled: Rennie Collection’s latest: Richard Jackson, Georges Seurat & Jackson Pollock, guns, the act of painting, and women (scroll down about 45% of the way).

Solange Knowles and the Rennie Museum in Vancouver, Canada on April 27 and 28, 2017

Tickets ($35 CAD?) were sold out in less than an hour. Drat! On the upside, the Rennie Museum (formerly the Rennie Collection) is one of nine venues in nine cities hosting Solange Knowles’ music tour of art museums. (Not my usual topic but I have covered shows at the Rennie many times throughout the years.) This tour is discussed in Emilia Petrarca’s April 24, 2017 article for W magazine,

While Knowles isn’t formally touring for A Seat at the Table, she will continue on the festival circuit and is also working on a performance art-inspired “museum tour,” which she’ll perform at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art as well as the Guggenheim Museum in May [2017].

On wanting to be more than just a singer:

“Singer is probably at the bottom of the barrel in terms of what I’m trying to achieve as an artist. Visually, through many mediums—through dance, through art direction, through color theory—there are so many things that I’ve dabbled in that I’ve yet to immerse myself in fully. But I think right now, I’m creating the live show and music composition, production, and creating from the ground up is when I feel the most at home.”

On her history as a dancer:

“I used to want to be a modern dancer when I was younger and go to Juilliard and do the whole thing, but I had a knee injury when I was 15. I was actually dancing for Destiny’s Child. And that was how I started to write, because I thought I was going to be an [Alvin] Ailey girl [emphasis mine] somewhere.”

On styling the costumes for her festival shows and museum tour:

“I’m touring two shows this spring/summer/fall, and one takes place in museum lobbies. For me, Donald Judd’s idea that we take on our surroundings as a part of the art itself really, really punctured me in the way that I look at performance art. It’s really rare that an artist gets to perform in daylight, unless it’s at a festival. So I really wanted to play with creating a strong color palette. I’ve been playing around with a lot of neutral tones since the record came out and Issey Miyake has been a huge influence. We’re also wearing a lot of Phillip Lim and really comfortable, moveable fabrics. On stage, I’ve really been empowered by the color red. I think it’s associated, especially with women, as this fiery, super volatile, and strong-willed color. Almost stubborn, if you will. So we’re wearing all-red for our festival shows and playing with the lighting for all the moods red can express. Color theory is this really nerdy side of me that I’ve been wanting to explore more of.”

It’s impossible to emphasize Alvin Ailey’s impact enough. Prior to him, there were no African American dancers in dance It was thought African Americans had the wrong body type until Alvin Ailey proved them wrong. (The topic of body type and dance is bizarre to an outsider, especially where ballet is concerned. It lends itself to racism but is rampant throughout the world of modern dance and ballet. I followed the topic for a number of years.)

Getting back to Solange Knowles, Tavi Gevinson’s Sept. 30, 2016 article for W explores her then new album ‘A Seat at the Table’,

Solange’s new album, A Seat at the Table, is so many things at once: an antidote to hate, a celebration of blackness, an expression of the right to feel it all. After a move to Louisiana and period of self-reflection, the artist joined forces with a range of collaborators to put her new discoveries to music. Hearing it for the very first time, my heart went in and out of slow motion: swelled at a layered vocal, stopped at a painfully apt choice of words, sped up with a perfect bass-line. Mostly I was struck by A Seat at the Table as a nurturing force among the trauma of anti-blackness; a further exploration of questions posed by Solange on her Twitter, last summer: “Where can we be safe? Where can we be free? Where can we be black?”

So much of your album explicitly discusses racism and celebrating blackness, and one of the interludes talks about taking all the anger and metabolizing it through the work. Does that start with you through the lyrics or the sounds?

The writing process of this album was not more unique than any of my other processes, in that it typically starts with the melody idea and the words evolve based off of what I listen back to. Nine times out of ten, you’re freestyling, but you’re piecing the puzzle pieces together after you settle on a melody that you like. I definitely had concepts I wanted to explore. I knew that I wanted to make a song experiencing and communicating the exhaustion, the feeling of being weary and tired and energetically drained. I knew that I wanted to discuss this idea of the “angry black woman” in society, and dissect a conversation that I’ve had one too many times. I knew I had these concepts that I wanted to communicate, but I was resistant to letting them lead the creative process. So the first layer of making the album, I just jammed in a room with some incredible musicians. It was a great energy in the room, because it was not so much like, ‘I’m going to make this album about this specific thing. It was just music-making. Then, I took that music and I went to New Iberia for that time, and I needed that insular time to break down what I was saying, what I was going to communicate and how I was going to do that. From there, I spent that summer writing lyrics. It was an interesting process because I’m a mother and I had to balance making an album and raising a preteen. And having my hands in all these different pots, so it was either all or nothing to me. I spent three months in New Iberia, and I recorded some of the album in Ghana and Jamaica. I had to have these isolated experiences creatively in order to turn off and listen to myself.

For all of the continued awareness of systemic violence and oppression, there isn’t a lot of talk about that psychological toll of racism, at least in white circles and white media. That is so heavy in the album, and I’m really excited for people to have that to turn to.

That is such an ignored part of the conversation. I feel there were a lot of traumas that I had to experience during this creative process, that I didn’t identify as traumas until I realized just how much weight and how many triggers [there are] like constantly seeing the images of young black people lifeless in the street, and how many cries of mothers that you’re constantly hearing on a daily basis. Outside of those traumas, just the nuances that you have to navigate through everyday as a black person living in this country. It absolutely has a psychological effect on you. There are clinical and scientific studies that show the brain dealing with the same type of PTSD that we know of in other traumatic instances and experiences, but society has not yet come to terms with applying it to race. But I have a lot of optimism in the fact that we’re even able to have this conversation now. This isn’t something that my mom and one of her white friends would be discussing in their time. It’s not always easy, and it’s not always comfortable, and the person leading it usually gets a lot of shit for it, but that’s with any revolution.

Here’s a little information about the upcoming Vancouver show from an April 21, 2017 news item on the Georgia Straight (Note: Links have been removed),

Solange Knowles, woke artist, activist, feminist, and producer of one of 2016’s most critically acclaimed albums, has announced that she will be playing a show at Vancouver’s Rennie Museum (51 East Pender Street) on April 27.

The singer published an image to her Instagram page yesterday (April 20), revealing that Vancouver is one of nine cities she will be stopping in over the next two months. Shortly after, the Rennie Collection, one of the country’s largest collections of contemporary art exhibited at the Wing Sang building in Chinatown, shared on its social media pages that Knowles will be conducting a “special performance”.

“Her album [A Seat at the Table] is very artistic,” Wendy Chang, director at the Rennie, tells the Straight by phone. “She’s on the West Coast this week and, because she has nothing planned for Vancouver at all, we thought we’d take advantage of that and have her perform and have all proceeds go to a charity.”

Chang reveals that the “very small, very intimate” performance will benefit the Atira Women’s Resource Society, a DTES–based nonprofit that provides safe housing and support for women and children affected by violence.

Not much else has been confirmed about the last-minute show, though given the venue and the sold-out act Knowles plans to present at New York’s Guggenheim Museum in May, fans can expect an interdisciplinary set that explores blackness, prejudice, and womanhood both visually and sonically.

In March, Knowles also debuted “Scales”, a performance project “examining protest as meditation through movement and experimentation of unique compositions and arrangements from A Seat at the Table”, at Houston’s Menil Collection. More recently, she appeared at the Pérez Art Museum Miami.

In addition to Vancouver, Knowles is making stops in cities such as San Francisco, Mayer, Arizona, and Boston between now and June [2017].

I did find a review for Knowles’ April 21, 2017 show in Portland, Oregon (from  Emerson Malone’s April 22, 2017 review for DailyEmerald.com,

The unsinkable Solange Knowles played the headlining slot for Soul’d Out Music Fest, a soul and R&B music festival based in multiple venues around Portland, on Friday, April 21, at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. The festival’s events from April 19–23 have included Travis Scott (who brought Drake out to get cozy in the crowd); Giorgio Moroder, The Ohio Players and Cory Henry and the Funk Apostles.

One of the most admirable elements of Solange’s live show is the impeccable choreography. It’s so precisely designed that every subtle movement, every head nod and jazz hand-wave, was on cue. At times the group would form a tight chorus line and sway back and forth in unison, with everyone (save the trombonists) continuing to play.

When she demanded that everyone dance during the bubblegum-pop hit “Losing You” from her 2012 EP “True,” the entire hall erupted at her behest. The encore performance “Don’t Touch My Hair” — Solange’s exhortation of the casual fetishization of black women  — was phenomenal. She turned her back to the audience and acted as conductor, commanding the musicians with loud, grandiose gestures. As the drummer smashed the cymbals, she mirrored him, thrashed her limbs and windmilled her arms.

Following the show, even one of the Arlene’s security guards — who just spent the last hour dancing — was quietly weeping and speechlessly shaking her head in awe. Solange isn’t just a firebrand individual, and her show isn’t just an opulent, elegant triumph of performance art. She is a puppet master; we’re marionettes.

Unfortunately, the Solange Knowles’ Vancouver show sold out within minutes (yes, I know I’m repeating it but it was heartbreaking) and I gather from the folks at the Rennie Museum that they had very little notice about the show which is being organized solely by Knowles’ people in response to my somewhat grumbling email. Ah well, them’s the breaks. In any event, there are only 100 tickets per performance available so for those who did get a ticket, you are going to have an intimate experience with the artist  and given the venue, this will be a performance art experience rather than a music show such as the one in Portland, Oregon. There will be three performances in Vancouver,. one on Thursday, April 27, 2017 and two on Friday, April 28, 2017 (you can see the listing here). Enjoy!

ArtSci salon at the University of Toronto opens its Cabinet Project on April 6, 2017

I announced The Cabinet Project in a Sept. 1, 2016 posting,

The ArtSci Salon; A Hub for the Arts & Science communities in Toronto and Beyond is soliciting proposals for ‘The Cabinet Project; An artsci exhibition about cabinets‘ to be held *March 30 – May 1* 2017 at the University of Toronto in a series of ‘science cabinets’ found around campus,

Despite being in full sight, many cabinets and showcases at universities and scientific institutions lie empty or underutilized. Located at the entrance of science departments, in proximity of laboratories, or in busy areas of transition, some contain outdated posters, or dusty scientific objects that have been forgotten there for years. Others lie empty, like old furniture on the curb after a move, waiting for a lucky passer-by in need. The ceaseless flow of bodies walking past these cabinets – some running to meetings, some checking their schedule, some immersed in their thoughts – rarely pay attention to them.

My colleague and I made a submission, which was not accepted (drat). In any event, I was somewhat curious as to which proposals had been successfu. Here they are in a March 24, 2017 ArtSci Salon notice (received via email),

Join us to the opening of
The Cabinet Project
on April 6, 2017

* 4:00 PM Introduction and dry reception -THE FIELDS INSTITUTE FOR
RESEARCH IN MATHEMATICAL SCIENCES

* 4:30 – 6:30 Tour of the Exhibition with the artists
* 6:30 – 9:00 Reception at VICTORIA COLLEGE

All Welcome
You can join at any time during the tour

More information can be found at
http://artscisalon.com/the-cabinet-project

RSVP Here

About The Cabinet Project

The Cabinet Project is a distributed exhibition bringing to life historical, anecdotal and imagined stories evoked by scientific objects, their surrounding spaces and the individuals inhabiting them. The goal is to make the intense creativity existing inside science laboratories visible, and to suggest potential interactions between the sciences and the arts. to achieve this goal, 12 artists have turned 10 cabinets across the University of Toronto  into art installations.

Featuring works by: Catherine Beaudette; Nina Czegledy; Dave Kemp & Jonathon Anderson; Joel Ong & Mick Lorusso; Microcollection;  Nicole Clouston; Nicole Liao;  Rick Hyslop;  Stefan Herda; Stefanie Kuzmiski

You can find out about the project, the artists, the program, and more on The Cabinet Project webpage here.

Saving modern art with 3D-printed artwork

I first wrote about the NanoRestART project in an April 4. 2016 post highlighting work which focuses on a problem unique to modern and contemporary art, the rapid deterioration of the plastics and synthetic materials used to create the art and the lack of conservation techniques for preserving those materials. A Dec. 22, 2016 news item on phys.org provides an update on the project,

Many contemporary artworks are endangered due to their extremely fast degradation processes. NANORESTART—a project developing nanomaterials to protect and restore this cultural heritage—has created a 3-D printed artwork with a view to testing restoration methods.

The 3D printed sculpture was designed by engineer-artist Tom Lomax – a UK-based sculptor and painter specialised in 3D-printed colour sculpture. Drawing inspiration from the aesthetic of early 20th century artworks, the sculpture was made using state-of-the-art 3D printing processes and can be downloaded for free. [I believe the downloadable files are available at the end of the paper in Heritage Science in the section titled: Additional files, just prior to the References {see below for citation and link to the paper}

Fig. 1
Images of the RP artwork “Out of the Cauldron” designed by Tom Lomax produced with the most common RP Technologies: (1) stereolithography (SLA®) (2) polyjet (3) 3D printing (3DP) (4) selective laser sintering (SLS). Before (above) and after (below) photodegradation
Courtesy: Heritage Science

A Dec. 21, 2016 Cordis press release, which originated the news item, provides more information about the artist and his 3D printed sculpture,

‘As an artist I previously had little idea of the conservation threat facing contemporary art – preferring to leave these issues for conservators and focus on the creative process. But while working on this project with UCL [University College of London] I began to realise that artists themselves have a crucial role to play,’ Lomax explains.

The structure has been printed using the most common rapid prototyping (RP) technologies, which are gaining popularity among designers and artists. It will be a key tool for the project team to test how these structures degrade and come up with solutions to better preserve them.

As Caroline Coon, researcher at the UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage, notes, ‘Art is being transformed by fast-changing new technologies and it is therefore vital to preempt conservation issues, rather than react to them, if we are to preserve our best contemporary works for future generations. This research project will benefit both artists and academics alike – but ultimately it is in the best interests of the public that art and science combine to preserve works.’

The NANORESTART team subjected the artwork to accelerated testing, discovering that many 3D-printing technologies use materials that degrade particularly rapidly. It is particularly true for polymers, whose only-recently achieved cultural heritage status also means that conservation experience is almost inexistent.

Preserving or not: an intricate question for artists

The experiments were part of a UCL paper entitled ‘Preserving Rapid Prototypes: A Review’, published in late November in Heritage Science. In this review, Caroline Coon and her team have critically assessed the most commonly used technologies used to tackle the degradation of materials, noting that ‘to conserve RP artworks it is necessary to have an understanding of the process of creation, the different technologies involved, the materials used as well as their chemical and mechanical properties.’

Besides technical concerns, the paper also voices those of artists, in particular the importance of the original artefact and the debate around the appropriateness of preventing the degradation process of artworks. Whilst digital conservation of these artworks would prevent degradation and allow designs to be printed on-demand, some artists argue that the original artefact is actually the one with artistic value as it references a specific time and place. On the other hand, some artists actually embrace and accept the natural degradation of their art as part of its charm.

With two more years to go before its completion, NANORESTART will undoubtedly bring valuable results, resources and reflexions to both conservators and artists. The nanomaterials it aims to develop will bring the EU at the forefront of a conservation market estimated at some EUR 5 billion per year.

Here`s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Preserving rapid prototypes: a review by Carolien Coon, Boris Pretzel, Tom Lomax, and Matija Strlič. Heritage Science 2016 4:40 DOI: 10.1186/s40494-016-0097-y Published: 22 November 2016

©  The Author(s) 2016

This paper is open access.

FrogHeart presents: Steep (1) A digital poetry of gold nanoparticles on Nov. 17, 2016 in Vancouver (Canada)

For anyone who has wanted to hear about the videopoem or poetryfilm, Steep (1): A digital poetry of gold nanoparticles, that I presented at the 2015 International Symposium on Electronic Arts (ISEA) in Vancouver, your wait is over. From the Canadian Academy of Independent Scholars Nov. 7, 2016 announcement (received via email),

Date:  Thursday, November 17th, 2016
Time:  7:30 pm
Place:  Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, BC Campus, 515 West Hastings Street (between Seymour and Richards Streets) in the Diamond Lounge
Speaker:  Maryse de la Giroday
Topic:  A digital poetry of gold nanoparticles: a Steep art/science project

Outline:

An object of desire, the stuff of myth and legend, and a cross-cultural icon, gold is now being perceived in a whole new way at the nanoscale where its properties and colour undergo a change. Increasingly used as a component in biomedical applications, gold nanoparticles are entering the environment (air, soil, and water).  ‘Steep (1): A digital poetry of gold nanoparticles’ is a short videopoem exploring the good and the bad about gold at the macroscale and at the nanoscale.

Presented at the 2015 International Symposium on Electronic Arts, the Steep (1) videopoem is an art/sci collaboration between Maryse de la Giroday (science writer and poet) from Canada and Raewyn Turner (video artist) from New Zealand. In addition to a look at the video, the presentation offers an inside perspective on incorporating science, poetry, and video in an art/sci piece. As well, there’ll be some discussion regarding one or more of Maryse’s and Raewyn’s current art/sci projects.

Brief Biography:
Maryse de la Giroday writes and publishes the largest, independent, science blog in Canada. Her main focus is nanotechnology (the Canadian kind when she can find it). She has also written several pieces for local visual arts magazine, Preview. Maryse holds an undergraduate Communications (honours) degree from Simon Fraser University and a Master’s degree (Creative Writing and New Media) from De Montfort University (UK). (Unfortunately, Raewyn will either be in New Zealand or on the US East Coast and unable to attend.)

You can preview the video here at steep.nz or here on Vimeo.

Sniffing for art conservation

The American Chemical Society (ACS) has produced a video titled, “How that ‘old book smell’ could save priceless artifacts” according to their Sept. 6, 2016 news release on EurekAlert,

Odor-detecting devices like Breathalyzers have been used for years to determine blood-alcohol levels in drunk drivers. Now, researchers are using a similar method to sniff out the rate of decay in historic art and artifacts. By tracking the chemicals in “old book smell” and similar odors, conservators can react quickly to preserve priceless art and artifacts at the first signs of decay. In this Speaking of Chemistry, Sarah Everts explains how cultural-heritage science uses the chemistry of odors to save books, vintage jewelry and even early Legos. …

Here’s the video,

Heritage Smells, the UK project mentioned in the video, is now completed but it was hosted by the University of Strathclyde and more project information can be found here.

The Cabinet Project: a call for proposals from Canada’s ArtSci Salon

Thanks to my colleague, Raewyn Turner (artist, New Zealand) for information about this call for proposals. BTW, she and I are talking about putting our own proposal forward but the deadline is Sept. 30, 2016, which isn’t all that far away.

The ArtSci Salon; A Hub for the Arts & Science communities in Toronto and Beyond is soliciting proposals for ‘The Cabinet Project; An artsci exhibition about cabinets‘ to be held *March 30 – May 1* 2017 at the University of Toronto in a series of ‘science cabinets’ found around campus,

Despite being in full sight, many cabinets and showcases at universities and scientific institutions lie empty or underutilized. Located at the entrance of science departments, in proximity of laboratories, or in busy areas of transition, some contain outdated posters, or dusty scientific objects that have been forgotten there for years. Others lie empty, like old furniture on the curb after a move, waiting for a lucky passer-by in need. The ceaseless flow of bodies walking past these cabinets – some running to meetings, some checking their schedule, some immersed in their thoughts – rarely pay attention to them.

The neglect of these cabinets seems to confirm well-established ideas about science institutions as recluse spaces where secrecy reigns, and communication with the outside world is either underappreciated or prohibited. But at a closer look, this is not the case: those seemingly ignored and neglected cabinets have fascinating and compelling stories that speak to their mobility, their past uses and their owners; laboratories in their proximity burst of excitement and boredom, frustration and euphoria, their machineries being constantly fabricated, rethought, dismantled or replaced; in these laboratories, individuals, objects and instruments come to life in complicated ways. These objects, human relations and stories are forming complex ecologies that are very much alive.

Here are the objectives (from the Project page),

The Cabinet project seeks to explore and to bring to life historical, anecdotal and imagined stories evoked by scientific objects, their surrounding space and the individuals that inhabit them. The goal is to reflect on, and reverse the stereotypical assumptions about science as inaccessible and secretive, to make the intense creativity existing inside science laboratories visible, and to suggest potential interactions between the sciences and the arts.

We invite artists, scientists and other creative individuals to turn a select number of cabinets across the University of Toronto into small-scale installations. Interventions can use a variety of media and material and engage with a number of disciplines.

The resulting distributed exhibition ( March 2017) will feature dialogues between art and science that engage with objects and instruments created in nearby science labs.

Before you send your proposal, make sure to check the location/size of the cabinets, as well as the UTSIC collection.
Please come back often as more cabinets are added

There’s also the Call for Proposals (from the Project page),

Artists are invited to populate a variety of cabinets around the St. George Campus at the University of Toronto with artworks that

  • interact with objects and instruments that have been fabricated or used in the labs nearby;
  • engage with the history of the cabinets (how they got there, who donated them, what was their initial purpose etc..);
  • narrate imaginary or science fictional stories about the cabinets, the labs in their proximity and the mysterious objects they have produced in the past or are currently producing.

Of course, these are only suggested scenarios. Please, contact us if you have a particular request or idea.

We request that you fill in the online proposal below with a 250 words MAX description, accompanied by 3-4 images that meaningfully describe your work. Please, specify your goals, how you plan to interact with certain objects or a particular environment, and how you plan to install your work, using which media etc..  This project assumes that a meaningful interaction with the surrounding context is established.

The application form is here. Don’t forget to go to the Project page for a list of cabinets and the deadline is Sept. 30, 2016. Good luck to us all!

*’March’ replaced by ‘March 30 – May 1’ on S.1.16 at 1420 PDT.

The science behind a hidden portrait by Edgar Degas

Rebecca Morelle’s Aug. 4, 2016 article for BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) News online describes an intriguing piece of research into artists and how they work,

A hidden portrait by the French Impressionist painter Edgar Degas has been revealed by scientists.

Researchers in Australia used powerful X-rays to bring to light the painting of a young woman concealed beneath a work called Portrait of a Woman.

The researchers believe the subject is Emma Dobigny, who appeared in other Degas paintings.

Dr Daryl Howard, a co-author of the study, told BBC News: “I think what is really exciting is that we have now been able to add one more Degas artwork for the world to see.”

Edgar Degas, French, 1834–1917, Portrait of a Woman (Portrait de Femme), c. 1876–80, oil on canvas, 46.3 × 38.2 cm, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Felton Bequest, 1937. (a) Visible light image. The boxed region highlights the XRF scan area. (b) X-radiograph. The obscured portrait is rotated 180 degrees relative to the upper portrait. The face and ear of the obscured sitter are the primary source of contrast. (c) Reflected infrared image (detail). A partial outline of the obscured sitter’s face is indicated with a dotted line. The extensive use of highly infrared-absorbing black paint in the final composition provides a limited view of the underlying figure. Courtesy: National Gallery of Victoria, Australia

Edgar Degas, French, 1834–1917, Portrait of a Woman (Portrait de Femme), c. 1876–80, oil on canvas, 46.3 × 38.2 cm, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Felton Bequest, 1937. (a) Visible light image. The boxed region highlights the XRF scan area. (b) X-radiograph. The obscured portrait is rotated 180 degrees relative to the upper portrait. The face and ear of the obscured sitter are the primary source of contrast. (c) Reflected infrared image (detail). A partial outline of the obscured sitter’s face is indicated with a dotted line. The extensive use of highly infrared-absorbing black paint in the final composition provides a limited view of the underlying figure. Courtesy: National Gallery of Victoria, Australia

Morelle describes how the second portrait deteriorated such that a previous painting on the canvas was becoming perceptible and how scientists were able to ‘peel’ back the original to see what lay beneath,

It had long been known that Degas’ portrait of a woman wearing a black bonnet and dress, which he painted in the late 1870s, covered an earlier painting.

A ghostly impression of the composition appears as a dark stain on the sitter’s face, and over the years has become more prominent as the oil paint thinned.

Conventional X-rays revealed the outline of another image was lurking beneath, but without scraping away the outer painting, the researchers required a much more powerful technique to show any detail.

For that, they used the Australian Synchrotron, a huge accelerator that generates more powerful X-rays, to peer beneath the top layers of paint.

They were able to detect the metallic elements in the pigments that Degas had used in his underlying artwork.

Dr Howard, from the Australian Synchrotron, said: “Each element has its own unique signature, and so that gets collected.

“And what we do is analyse that data and build up these ‘elemental maps’. And that allows us to image all the different pigments used in the painting.”

Through this they were able to see in colour and in remarkable detail Degas’ hidden work: a portrait of a woman with auburn hair.

False colour reconstruction of Degas’ hidden portrait (detail). The image was created from the X-ray fluorescence microscopy elemental maps. (Edgar Degas, French, 1834–1917, Portrait of a Woman (Portrait de femme) c. 1876–80, oil on canvas, 46.3 × 38.2 cm, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Felton Bequest, 1937).

False colour reconstruction of Degas’ hidden portrait (detail). The image was created from the X-ray fluorescence microscopy elemental maps. (Edgar Degas, French, 1834–1917, Portrait of a Woman (Portrait de femme) c. 1876–80, oil on canvas, 46.3 × 38.2 cm, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Felton Bequest, 1937).

Apparently, Degas had a tendency, in his early paintings, to give his models pixie-like (longish and pointed) ears. Unusually, he has incorporated some of the features of the first painting into the second painting.

Getting back to the science, the technique used to ‘uncover’ the first painting is nondestructive (many techniques used in conservation are destructive as scrapings are required) and more powerful than previous x-ray techniques used to uncover artists’ secrets.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

A Hidden Portrait by Edgar Degas by David Thurrowgood, David Paterson, Martin D. de Jonge, Robin Kirkham, Saul Thurrowgood, & Daryl L. Howard. Scientific Reports 6, Article number: 29594 (2016) doi:10.1038/srep29594 Published online: 04 August 2016

This paper is open access but for anyone who doesn’t have the time to read it, here’s a bit from the paper’s Discussion section (Note: Links have been removed),

We are not aware of any other current analytical technique that could have achieved such an imaging outcome for this painting. The data generated by this study has provided a better understanding of the artist’s technique. The 60 μm [micrometre] spatial resolution allows us to observe with confidence that a majority of the hidden sitter’s face has been achieved as one action. However the disproportionate and blurred form of the ears is indicative of several attempts to achieve the final proportions and features. Degas is reported as having painted “pixie” like ears at about this period46. By examining single elemental maps of the painting it is possible to observe such a “pixie” like ear shape (e.g., Mn and Fe, Fig. 3) which appears to have been reworked to a more conventional form (e.g., Co and Hg, Fig. 3). Careful study of the data reveals numerous intricacies of painting technique and brush stroke direction of the underpainting. It reveals stylistic information and elemental composition information that is unlikely to be reproducible by persons attempting to copy a work, and the technique has strong potential for application in authentication studies4,5.

Consideration has been given to the properties of synchrotron radiation, and the research group used visible and chemical observation to look for radiation-induced change in preliminary experiments. Pigment binder matrices were studied by Fourier Transform Infrared (FTIR) spectroscopy before and after extended X-ray exposure at the XFM beamline, and spectroscopic changes were not detected. No evidence for any chemical or physical change was observed for radiation doses 10,000 times that reported for this study, which is in accord with recent findings by other research groups using intense radiation sources47,48.

This study has successfully demonstrated a virtual reconstruction of a hidden portrait by Edgar Degas and has delivered a better understanding of his work and artistic practices. The authors propose that the unfolding technological developments for examining artwork using synchrotron radiation-based techniques will significantly impact the ways cultural heritage is studied for authentication, preservation and scholarly purposes. We anticipate that the high quality outcome presented here and the propagation of the rapid-scanning XRF detector technology used will further stimulate growing interest in the better understanding of our cultural assets. Parallel work using portable XRF systems7 is demonstrating that a version of the technique is becoming viable (at substantially reduced spatial resolution and increased data collection time) outside of a synchrotron facility, raising a strong likelihood that precedents being set at synchrotron facilities will directly influence emerging field-based technologies. Until recently XRF large area scanning facilities were built in-house, and this had limited the technique’s availability. With the introduction of commercial large scanning area instruments on the market49, the technique has the potential to expand rapidly.

And here’s just a bit from the paper’s Methods section (Note: Links have been removed),

The scanning XRF mapping of the painting Portrait of a Woman was performed at the X-ray fluorescence microscopy (XFM) beamline of the Australian Synchrotron31. The X-ray fluorescence was acquired with the Maia 384A detector array, which integrates the sample stage motion with continuous fly scanning, leading to zero data readout overhead50,51. An incident excitation beam energy of 12.6 keV was used to circumvent intense fluorescence from the Pb L absorption edges, which would originate primarily from the painting’s Pb-based ground layer and thereby limit detection sensitivity to other elements in the pictorial paint layers. The low-energy sensitivity of the detector is limited to approximately 4 keV, thus Pb-M fluorescence (~2.3 keV) was not detectable for example. The energy resolution of the detector is 375 eV at Mn Kα.

The artwork was fitted to a custom manufactured cradle for scanning. The painting was placed approximately 13 mm from Maia detector rather than the optimal distance of 10 mm, since the painting was not perfectly flat. The painting is shown mounted at the XFM beamline in Supplementary Material Fig. S1. A 426 × 267 mm2 area was raster-scanned at 16.4 mm s−1, providing a dwell time of approximately 3.7 ms per 60 × 60 μm2 pixel and yielded a 31.6 megapixel data set in 33 h. Given the 10 × 10 μm2 incident beam size used, the average time an area of the painting was in the beam was 0.6 ms. The average incident flux on the painting was 1.5 × 109 photons s−1.

For art historians, conservationists, scientists, and people like me (the curious), this is pretty exciting stuff.

I recommend reading Morelle’s piece for anyone who finds the science a little hard going as she does an excellent job of describing the science and the art.

Georgina Lohan, Bharti Kher, and Pablo Picasso: the beauty and the beastliness of art (in Vancouver)

Georgina Lohan

Vancouver (Canada) artist Georgina Lohan’s latest show was a departure of sorts. Better known for her tableware and jewelry, her art exhibit showcased ceramic sculptures ranging in height from 16 inches to over seven feet and incorporating concepts from biology, species evolution, mythology, philosophy, sociology, and archaeology to convey imagery associated with the primordial world.

Perhaps one of the most striking elements of Lohan’s work is its beauty. This is not a quality one often sees in contemporary art. If she were fish, Lohan could be seen as swimming against the tide.

Origins II 62" x 24" Porcelain, steel 2016

Origins II 62″ x 24″ Porcelain, steel 2016 Courtesy: Georgina Lohan

Within a context that encompasses beauty and the primordial ooze, she is representing many of the disturbing themes seen in contemporary art: fragmentation, loss, destruction, and, indirectly, war.

The artist deliberately exploits the structural fragility of her pieces (four of them had to be anchored to the walls of the gallery).  From Lohan’s own writings about the show,

The repetitive nature of loss and destruction when working with a fragile medium has consolidated my tactic of collage porcelain debris as well as a consideration of the fragment as signifier for a larger totality.

The heat of the kiln is equivalent to an acceleration of time. Gravity becomes a critical force at these high temperatures and strategies of support become more and more necessary the larger and heavier the pieces become. Glazes liquefy, boil and bubble before smoothing out, colour change, the work expands and shrinks, moving and changing it molecular structure, growing crystals and other phenomena. The results can unpredictable and there is a high level of risk, but there are also those alchemical moments when base metals have turned to gold.

Sadly, the show ended Aug. 11, 2016 but Lohan has plans for future shows. You can find out more at her website.

Bharti Kher

The Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) is showcasing UK-born, New Delhi-based artist Bharti Kher in North America’s first 20 year retrospective of her work, titled ‘Matter’, from July 9, 2016 to Oct. 10, 2016.

I saw the show on a Tuesday (Aug. 16, 2016) which features entry by donation from 5 pm. Depending on how you feel about crowds, you may want to get there early for the lineup. (The Picasso show which is also happening is quite the attraction, more about Picasso: The Artist and His Muses later in this post.

There is a lot to this show so I’m concentrating on  elements of special interest to me: the goddess sculptures, the ‘fabric pieces’, and one of the bindi pieces.

The sculptures of the women incorporating animal pelts, fragile teacups, and/or antlers fascinated me. I was particularly intrigued by ‘And all the while the benevolent slept’ (2008).

Bharti Kher's And all the while the benevolent slept, 2008 Guillaume Ziccarelli

Bharti Kher’s And all the while the benevolent slept, 2008. Credit: Guillaume Ziccarelli

Here’s what Kher is doing with this goddess according to a June 28, 2016 VAG news release,

Through her use of a particular body type or character, Kher’s sculptures make reference to iconic figures from mythology and history. And all the while the benevolent slept (2008) references Chinnamasta, an Indian goddess Kali who, in traditional iconography, holds her own detached head in her hand, blood gushing from her neck, while she stands on top of a copulating couple. Through her self-sacrifice she awakens the awareness of spiritual energy while at the same time incarnating sexual energy

Kher’s ‘Chinnamasta’ stands on a tree stump and has branches growing out of her neck rather than pouring blood. For someone from a province where forestry is a major industry, this piece lends itself to a political/ecological reading, as well as, as a reading of the feminine which is so much a part of Kher’s work. The skull does not seem wholly human.

The artist does not explain the piece beyond noting its origins in traditional Indian iconography. Here’s more about Chinnamasta from its Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

Chhinnamasta (Sanskrit: छिन्नमस्ता, Chinnamastā, “She whose head is severed”), often spelled Chinnamasta, and also called Chhinnamastika and Prachanda Chandika, is one of the Mahavidyas, ten Tantric goddesses and a ferocious aspect of Devi, the Hindu Divine Mother. Chhinnamasta can be easily identified by her unusual iconography. The nude self-decapitated goddess, usually standing or seated on a copulating couple, holds her own severed head in one hand, a scimitar in another. Three jets of blood spurt out of her bleeding neck and are drunk by her severed head and two attendants.

Chhinnamasta is a goddess of contradictions. She symbolises both aspects of Devi: a life-giver and a life-taker. She is considered both a symbol of sexual self-control and an embodiment of sexual energy, depending upon interpretation. She represents death, temporality, and destruction as well as life, immortality, and recreation. The goddess conveys spiritual self-realization and the awakening of the kundalini – spiritual energy. The legends of Chhinnamasta emphasise her self-sacrifice – sometimes coupled with a maternal element – sexual dominance, and self-destructive fury.

In reading more about Chinnamasta, the piece grows in intrigue.

Moving on to the ‘fabric pieces, there’s this from the June 28, 2016 VAG news release,

Bharti Kher’s furniture and sari sculptures speaks to socially constructed ideals of femininity and domesticity. Any utilitarian function has been rendered useless, and instead these pieces of furniture become proxies for a body. The sari-draped chairs in Absence (2011) introduces the possibility of domestic narratives filled with mothers, daughters, wives and lovers, whose bodiless garments preserve a former presence. In The day they met (2011), vibrant and richly patterned saris are decisively placed on a staircase, effectively embalming the ritual act of sari unwrapping.

Bharti Kerr, Absence, 2011, sari, resin, wooden chair. Private Collection Courtesy of the Artist and Galerie Peerotin, Photo Guillaume Ziccarelli

Bharti Kher, Absence, 2011, sari, resin, wooden chair. Private Collection Courtesy of the Artist and Galerie Peerotin, Photo Guillaume Ziccarelli

The saris appear on various pieces of furniture and sometimes appear as twisted, long rolls that could be said to resemble snakes. The fabrics are beautiful and they call to mind Lohan’s work and also ‘women’s work’.

Now for the bindis. For anyone not familiar with bindis, there’s this from its Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

A bindi (Hindi: बिंदी, from Sanskrit bindu, meaning “point, drop, dot or small particle”) is a red dot worn on the center of the forehead, commonly by Hindu and Jain women. The word Bindu dates back to the hymn of creation known as Nasadiya Sukta in Rig Veda.[1] Bindu is considered the point at which creation begins and may become unity. It is also described as “the sacred symbol of the cosmos in its unmanifested state”.[2][3] Bindi is a bright dot of red colour applied in the center of the forehead close to the eyebrow worn in Indian Subcontinent (particularly amongst Hindus in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka)[2] and Southeast Asia among Bali and Javanese Hindus. Bindi in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism is associated with Ajna Chakra and Bindu[4] is known as the third eye chakra. Bindu is the point or dot around which the mandala is created, representing the universe.[3][5] Bindi has historical and cultural presence in the region of Greater India.[6][7]

The first piece you see in the Matter show is Virus VII (2016). It is comprised of bindis, blues ones rather than the traditional red, painstakingly overlapped in a spiral that extends several feet in height and width and affixed to the wall. The piece is accompanied by a wooden box with a plaque and containing sheets of blue bindis,

Matter exhibition at Vancouver Art Gallery, July 9 - Oct. 10, 2016 Bharti Kher, Virus VII, 2016, Photo: Megan Hill-Carol Vancouver Art Gallery

Matter exhibition at Vancouver Art Gallery, July 9 – Oct. 10, 2016 Bharti Kher, Virus VII, 2016, Photo: Megan Hill-Carol Vancouver Art Gallery

It is a stunning piece that almost seems to vibrate and is a fitting and sensual entry to the show.

For an alternative experience of the Kher show, there’s Robin Laurence’s July 6, 2016 preview titled: Bharti Kher’s hybrid vision merges humans with animals to address politics, sociology, and love for the Georgia Straight. Unexpectedly (for me), the first piece she sees is the heart,

The first artwork visitors will see when they enter Bharti Kher’s thoughtful and provocative exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery is a life-size sculpture of the heart of a blue sperm whale. The largest creature that now exists on our planet, the blue whale possesses a heart that is also the biggest in the world—the size, the artist says, of a small car. Kher’s realistic, cast-resin depiction of the organ’s two massive chambers, enormous aorta, and branching blood vessels is a work of weird grandeur.

To some, it might suggest an environmental message, a monument to a creature slaughtered by the hundreds of thousands in the 19th century and threatened in our own age by pollution and rising ocean temperatures. The artist, however, says the work is about the nature of love, and its title, An Absence of Assignable Cause, evokes the irrationality of that most vaunted and lamented emotion.

“More things have been written about love and all the ways around it,” she says. “I thought it would be interesting to talk about it using an animal as a metaphor.”

Picasso: The Artist and His Muses

Never having been a big fan of Pablo Picasso’s, I wouldn’t have made a special effort to see the VAG’s Picasso: The Artist and His Muses exhibition (June 11 – Oct. 2, 2016) but since I was already on premise for the Kher exhibit, it seemed to foolish to pass up the opportunity.

The show focuses on six women, his relationship with them, and how his art was affected by those relationships.

His most widely known images of women are those with the distorted features and extra or missing eyes and ears such as this,

Pablo Picasso Bust of a Woman (Dora Maar), 1938 oil on canvas Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn, 1966 © Picasso Estate/SODRAC (2016) Photo: Cathy Carver

Pablo Picasso
Bust of a Woman (Dora Maar), 1938
oil on canvas
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn, 1966
© Picasso Estate/SODRAC (2016)
Photo: Cathy Carver

These images have always left me cold. Seeing them in real life didn’t make that big a difference although I hadn’t fully appreciated their vibrancy having previously seen reproductions only. I did say I’m not a fan and that is especially true of the images of women most often seen. The surprise in this show, are the naturalistic studies where one can appreciate his extraordinary technique even if one is inclined to shun his distorted women.

I mention this show only because its subject, women, has been the direct and indirect focus of this commentary. For an even more jaundiced view of this show, you can read Robin Laurence’s June 10, 2016 preview of the VAG exhibition,

Muse is such a curiously antiquated term. Divine woman breathing inspiration into the mind of the creative male? Really? Still, Picasso: The Artist and His Muses has a more visitor-friendly sound to it than “Picasso and the Women He Fucked and Painted”. Not that visitor-friendly titles are a necessity where Pablo Picasso exhibitions are concerned.

The mere name of the man—easily the most famous artist of the 20th century, whose personal myth is built as much on his prodigious womanizing as on his protean art-making—guarantees attendance. Irrespective of what’s on view. Irrespective, too, of the challenges his work might pose to contemporary critics.

Organized with Art Centre Basel in Switzerland, the Vancouver Art Gallery’s big-draw summer show includes some 60 paintings, drawings, sculptures, and prints ranging across the years 1905 to 1971. Borrowed from an international array of public and private collections, it is the most ambitious exhibition of Picasso works ever shown in Western Canada.

I recommend reading both of Laurence’s pieces before going to the exhibit.

Final words

It seems when it comes to contemporary art, beauty is transgressive. The distortions with which Picasso experimented seem to have taken root and, like bamboo, taken over. So, an artist risks being shunned if his/her works are intrinsically beautiful (Lohan). Alternatively, an artist can include it by stealth (Kher) so viewers do not experience it as the primary impression.

All of these artists’ exhibitions have in one fashion or another focused on women. Lohan’s material of choice, porcelain, referenced women’s work indirectly and resonated in a fascinating way with Kher’s teacup bearing goddess. While Lohan and Kher are interested in women’s experiences (dressing/undressing and ornamentation (Kher), women’s roles in society (Lohan), meanwhile, Picasso seems to have considered women as raw material for his work.

Online art/science exhibit on stem cells and Canadians, Dr. Jim Till and Dr. Ernest McCulloch

Before getting to the exhibit, here’s some background information from Stacey Johnson’s July 22, 2016 posting on the Signals blog (Note: Links have been removed),

You would be hard-pressed to find a Canadian stem cell scientist who doesn’t know that Drs. Jim Till and Ernest McCulloch advanced medical research across the globe with their discovery, in 1961, of blood stem cells at Toronto’s Princess Margaret Hospital, today the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre.

Recently, a group of artists, doctors, scientists and educators launched an art exhibit based on Till and McCulloch. The group, NASCENT Art Science Collective, created portraits of the two men, produced drawings and designed banners to honour these pioneers and their ground-breaking work.

You can find the show, The Protean SELF here. Before clicking on the link I encourage you to read Johnson’s piece in its entirety. Whether you choose to read it further or not, I highly (!) recommend that you scroll down the exhibit page or click on Interpretive Guide for Museum of Health Care before when viewing the images and text otherwise it will seem a hodgepodge. The guide was for the real life exhibit, which is over.

The guide won’t answer all your questions but will help greatly to contextualize the images and the text. For example,

Hanging in the main windows are two banners by Elizabeth Greisman. Elizabeth has been extending her work on stem cells, their discovery by Dr. James Till and the importance of “ah hah’ moments to the field of dance. Elizabeth has worked with the National Ballet – cross fertilization through this work has expanded her understanding of the two defining features of stem cells – the ability to regenerate and the ability to differentiate.

That description applies to this image (I believe),

Artist: Elizabeth Greisman

Artist: Elizabeth Greisman

It’s also very helpful for understanding why there’s a fair chunk text devoted to open access,

On entering the museum, you will find a banner with an original written piece by Dr. James Till, produced for this show. Dr. Till has become a tireless advocate for Open Access. His words speak for themselves.

Artist: Dr. James Till. Formatted by Wendy Wobeser

Artist: Dr. James Till. Formatted by Wendy Wobeser

Enjoy!