veered science/a vital matrix by terri friedman

Veered Science: Huntington Beach Art Center

A Vital Matrix: Domestic Setting. Los Angeles, CaliforniaAlthough man’s relationship to Nature and Technology is not a new theme and in fact has the danger of being nothing more than the revival of an exhausted theme, two curated exhibitions in Los Angeles examine Nature/Technology with a new added end-of-millennium twist. “A Vital Matrix” at Domestic Setting and “Veered Science” at The Huntington Beach Art Center, investigate relationships between the natural and the virtual. “Overfull” and bursting out the walls of the gallery in a horizontal salon-like fashion (just like foliage in a rain forest), “A Vital Matrix,” organized by Jane Hart with an essay by art critic Tobey Crocket, includes artist whose work is informed by a relationship with nature. “Veered Science,” on the other hand, with a more spacious presentation, organized and including an essay by art historian and curator Marilu Knode, addresses issues dealing with the technological and the “artificial or potential” world.

While it might appear at first glance that the two exhibitions have diverging agendas, they actually engage similar issues. In spite of the traditional Technology vs. Nature debate, commonalties between the two shows are abundant. Whether addressing Nature or Technology, all of the artists included in the two exhibitions through their art form and materials are addressing conceptual constructions between nature, science and technology, and self. The questions that technology or a virtual world present are not dissimilar to questions or reactions one might have to nature. The act of responding to nature can be an act of distancing much like the anonymity of those in the virtual world.

Within the confines of the gallery space, a range of high to low technology is explored. Tim Hawkinson’s Tuva, which skillfully replicates the speech of the Tuva people of Central Asia, is a “low-tech” invention of discarded water bottles (with remnants of the labels still clinging to the surface), I.V.-like clear plastic tubing, a motor, recycled scraps of plastic sheets, and a battered dolly. Hawkinson has simulated through material and motorized movement the guttural sounds of the Tuva People. Unfortunately, because of its size and humble presence, the piece looks a bit misplaced and lost in the gallery, sort of like a Tuva woman might look were she to find herself misplaced in an American art center. Most unlike the other artist in the show, Hawkinson skillfully recycled throwaways to create an anthropomorphized Tuva person. His piece has a spirit of invention and immediacy similar to that which we see in some of the homeless’s functional contraptions or “mobile” homes on the streets of Los Angeles.

In a similarly inventive mode, artists Pauline Sanchez, Laurel Katz, and Michael Joaquin Grey all create physical worlds that are only conceptually possible. Like Mondrian’s rapport with geometry and primary colors, Pauline Sanchez’s This is What My Porn Began to Look Like #2, is a universe of spiraling sheets of white paper with blue fractal or atom-like drawings informed by notions of order and chaos. Occupying a cartoon-like space and movement, her drawings have been visited by a bright yellow Styrofoam form about the size (not shape) of a small cat, that just rests atop her meticulous papers. Also creating a universe unto itself, Michael Joaquin Grey’s Orange Evolution (Bang, Tang, Crush) is based on a photograph taken by Harold Edgerton of a drop of water splashing in a pool of water. Grey takes orange plasticene and recreates in a Plexiglas cubes, 23 (like 23 chromosomes) different configurations of erosion by the Edgerton-influenced drop of water. Like Sanchez, Grey has introduced into his 23 simulated orange worlds one playful stranger-a gray plasticene sputnik that rests atop one of the Plexiglas boxes. Both Grey and Sanchez’s intrigue and pathway through the world of science with all the inherent complexities of the physical world, greatly informs their work. In fact, both artists create constructs of worlds that lie somewhere in between art and science. Similarly, Laurel Katz’s The Spotted Merino/Hooked Beetle SweaterProduction System; Annually Yielding Three Sweaters of Unparalleled Quality, has united in a large History Museum-like fashion a sheep and beetle into mechanized workers. Disturbing in a mutant postnuclear fallout way, the sheep and the beetle greet you as you enter the gallery. It’s as if a scientist’s DNA experiment got out of hand and Pandora’s box was accidentally opened. Of course part of the thrill of work that deals with technology is that it is “material” current and it exists in the very present moment. Unlike bronze or paint, which are culturally timeless, science technology computers, etc., because of their obsolete possibilities, are very timely. Using natural photosynthesis as the means, and algae as the material, artist David Nyzio has developed his own technology as a means to a highly inventive artistic process. Adventures in Articulations I is a large framed photo-like print of the rear view of two statuesque male nudes. Even with not knowing that the green substance on the paper is algae, the piece stands poetically on its own. Also engaged in nontraditional art materials and means are artists Victoria Vesna, Virtual Concrete, and Joseph Santarromana, Ten Printsfrom the Body Landscape Series. Santarromana’s very intimate and autobiographical images are computerized unions of his own figure with manipulated images of landscapes he actually visited in his past. Conceptually related to 1970’s earthwork artists, though diverging through the medium via computer, he redefines his relationship with his own body to the earth’s body. Also exploring the melding of body and computer technology is artist Victoria Vesna. Her Virtual Concrete is an actual concrete walkway (which the viewer is invited to crawl on) with an image of a bionic–like man and woman bonded to the concrete by a very specific computerized process. As the viewer crawls or walks across the surface, sensors are triggered, sound is activated and a camera captures a traveler on a computer that is on the World Wide Web. Thus, the act of moving across the surface of the piece is a worldwide event.

Much of the work in “Veered Science” utilizes, physically and conceptually, current and very timely technologies. The intention of the show is to rehumanize digitalization. The pieces in the exhibition, although more technologically advanced than most artwork, are less technological wonders and more curious and vulnerable ponderings on the relationship between art and technology, body and soul. There is no pretense of cutting-edge technological sophistication or high–powered invention, but instead there are traces of a more quirky, witty, and playful look at humankind’s relationship to that invention through a pathway of inventive means.

The more earnest of the two exhibits, “A Vital Matrix,” assumes, more than questions, our innate mystical and even nostalgic relationship with nature. The work in less interested in addressing how we’ve lost our connection to nature, which is a common end-of-millennium theme, than with addressing how we are “eternally” connected. This is a 19th century romantic perspective. The work attempts to bridge, in a multiplicity of ways, the chasm between our urban day-to-day lives, and the realm of Nature. Symbolic on different levels, the art loosely defines Nature to incorporate technology and our own created realities-including artificially or culturally constructed ideas of Nature as well. The show attempts to embrace and appreciate our personal, theoretical, and constructed relationships to nature rather than critically question or critique those relationships.

Kirsi Mikkola’s Glo, Pansy, Timepiece, Poised, Brownbrains, Balancing stands out as different from the other work in the show. At a first and only superficial glance, her work appears to be artificial and cynical. But when you spend time with her small dwarfed sculpture and the reproduction in the catalogue of the odd environment she creates with her pieces assembled together, a different picture is evoked. Influenced by folklore and fairy tales from Finland, her native country, she creates a disturbing and ironic universe that is foreboding, primal, malevolent, and innocent all at the same time. Her work is deeply informed by fairy tales and her own relationship to Nature and all its forces. Nature is not just sweet, scenic, and nostalgic, but malevolent, aggressive, and devastating as well. Mikkola captures this contradiction in a sickly sweet tenor.

In a similarly ironic way, Don Suggs, through time-elapsed photo collage, captures in Cult of the Regular Polygon crowds of tourist as they as they gasp and gawk at Nature. The deification of a waterfall in what appears to be a state park, possibly in the Western U.S., is apparent. We are all tourists in a state park, unless you’re an opossum or a fawn. His large black and white photo is a collage of images of the same spot taken over a period of time of visitors to this natural wonder. Because of the photographic process, the collaged people in the images are of varying sizes, and are all staring a the site like people might stare at a U.F.O. landing. Even though we cannot see their faces, we know that are in awe of Nature’s majesty.

Mark Dion’s catalogue picture of miners’ trash at the base of a tree in the jungle, jungle Trash, is just another poignant and ironic look at man’s relationship to nature. A world traveler, Dion is like a field researcher. He collects information from his travels. He is a scavenger of sorts gathering and collecting images. His work is both sociological and political in its perspective, addressing disturbing environmental, social issues that examine how our species is surviving urban and rural environments. Matthew Ritchie’s The God Game, on the other hand, is less political and social and more informed by a relationship with metaphysics and spirituality. His floor-to-ceiling poles with different, apparently movable, colored shapes are accompanied by a codex chart on the wall which serves as a point of reference. Like the I-Ching, the codex tempts the viewer to try to make sense or gather meaning out of placement of colors and shapes of the configuration. But like a talmudic or biblical scholar reaching to grasp the meaning of a passage in a text, every configuration in Ritchie’s piece has multiple interpretations. He creates a totally open system that fuses science, art, religion, etc. into his own fictional world. More interested in presenting a map from which the viewer diagrams an experience, he creates cosmology that lies somewhere between game and religion.

An array of painting and 2-D work informed by the universe and our relationship with Nature is also included in exhibition. Maura Bendett and Kymber Holt both create painted abstract universes that are both layered and complex. Actual images or patterns of foliage and flowers interspersed by almost transparent yet recognizable contours of genitalia unfold as you stare Holt’s work. In Bendett’s painting, Wacky Flowers, images of painted flowers and vegetation are glued to the surface of the work. Vija Celmin’s spatial and poetic December depicts the starry night sky one could only see removed from an urban setting. The three foot square image of a very clear star-filled sky is a vastness the could not only never be achieved or perceived in a city, but is also the clarity and openness one could never achieve in one’s own head-with one’s incessant mental chatter and thoughts. In a similar yet serene fashion, Sharon Ellis’s Jupiter captures our deep fascination with the universe and a whirling cosmology that is both macro and microscopic. It could just as easily be far out in space as configuration of a geode.

Not all the artist in “A Vital Matrix” are enamoured with nature. William Radawec’s urban Walking Stick #3, an unfinished wooden dowel with a model train store tree on top, is a contraption to keep him purposely distanced to actually having to experience Nature. The plan is that the stick will suffice as an alternative to actually waling in nature. Instead he can have simulated nature with him whenever he walks. Unlike many of the other artist in the exhibition, Radawec clearly holds no mystical pr nostalgic relationship to nature.

Like Mark Dion’s Jungle Trash, it is evident that our relationship to Nature and Technology is full of complexities and contradictions. Constantly reinventing and redefining ourselves in relationship to Nature and Technology, we are at once engaged with and simultaneously deeply removed from our experiences of both. Within virtual worlds as well as Nature, one can remain anonymous or have multiple or even no personalities. Science, like art—more an act of faith than truth – is just as puzzling, vulnerable, unpredictable, and ever changing as nature. And this is where the two exhibitions converge.

Terri Friedman

Santa Monica, California

1995