I don’t know much about science, but I know what I like. It’s always interesting to talk to scientists about art and to artists about science. Art and science are a bit yin and yang—they seem opposed, creative invention versus measured analysis, but are actually deeply intertwined.
There’s an element of artistic creativity in how we depict scientific concepts. Susan Murrell, an Oregon-based artist whose exhibition arising from natural inclination is on display at the University of Nevada, Reno’s Sheppard Gallery, points to the atom. Actual atoms are too small for the human eye to see, but anyone who paid attention in their middle school science classes can recall representations of atoms from science textbooks or three-dimensional models made out of wooden tinkertoys.
“I love the look of that,” says Murrell. “It’s not an atom or a molecule, but it is how we understand those concepts.”
Murrell’s exhibition takes that little bit of artistic invention that exists between scientific fact and scientific representation and lets it run wild.
Upon entering, the visitor is greeted by a mass of small aluminum arrows pointing the way deeper into the gallery. The arrows are like a swarm of microbes or egg-hunting sperm. The arrows are examples of what Murrell calls “analytical signifiers,” those signs and symbols that are used to indicate scientific importance. The swarm of arrows leads to a dramatic bar graph that makes an explicit comment on the current financial situation. This piece is called “Indication of Oversight.”
The gallery’s east wall is covered by a sprawling mixed-media piece titled “Test.” There are dozens of small drawings and paintings, each depicting different, fictitious organisms.
“I was inventing my own little life forms,” says Murrell.
Each drawing is connected to a black line that provides a space to name the organisms. In addition to providing a design element that unifies the piece, these black lines provide another “analytic signifier,” in this case, seeming to demand that the viewer complete a scientific exam.
“There is a test anxiety created by encountering these things and not being able to name them,” says Murrell. It’s a feeling familiar to anyone who dreaded their high school microbiology final exam.
The largest piece in the exhibition is “Identify.” Sheets of clear plastic descend from the ceiling to the floor, covered in swirling, brightly colored, abstract shapes of water-based paints. On the floor are similar swirling shapes made from colored sand. It’s like some sort of psychedelic primordial ooze.
On the gallery walls are silhouettes depicting details from the piece. They’re modeled on the silhouettes found on the information panels at zoos and natural history museums.
While living in New York City, Murrell returned again and again to the natural history museums, places she found equally compelling and mystifying.
“Usually, I feel overwhelmed,” she says of her visits to natural history museums, “but I always find weird things I like.”
Let’s get digital
Seven UNR digital media art students will present their senior projects for one night only, on Thursday, Dec. 4, at the under-used California Building in Idlewild Park, 1000 Whitmore Lane. The work ranges from satirical videos to interactive sculptures to the presentation of a fictional pop star. The exhibition, entitled Refulgent, is co-sponsored by the city of Reno. There will be a discussion at 5:30 p.m. and the opening starts at 6:15 p.m. For more information, call 784-6624.