In 1968 two of mid-century’s most influential designers, Charles and Ray Eames, made a short film called Powers of Ten. In just ten minutes they explored the universe from one end of the scale to the other. A book based on that film was published some years later and had a lasting impression on me. It begins with a view from a billion light-years away and moves in at 1/10th the scale steps until we reach the zero point of this journey—humans having picnic on the grass. The journey then goes micro, diving into a human hand, scaling in by tens. In just 40 steps, we are at the quantum particle level, that uncertain and (still) mysterious world.
That visual rubberbanding became an elemental part of my artistic curiosity. In an early artist statement I referenced that micro to macro slide:
The primary influence on my work is the natural world, from the wide open expanse of space to the microscopic view of cellular structures. For all the time I spend looking at nature, I am not interested in duplicating what I see. Instead I am seeking a way to go beyond the domain of nature as we know it and into the place between what we can see and what we cannot.
The extraordinary domains at either end of the spectrum of this shared reality continue to feed the imagination and the eye. New images from the new and improved Hubble telescope (astrophysicist Sandra Faber says “we had to make the Hubble a new set of spectacles”) are visual stunning, provocative, luminous, haunting. (More about Dr. Faber and the Hubble can be read in this earlier post.)
The other end of the spectrum is explored in a recent piece in the Boston Globe. Talking about the work of Noah Charney, a biologist who is compiling images of invertebrates and their tracks, artist and writer Roger White puts a nice spin on that extraordinary world at the micro level:
As it happens, insects are Modernists. Their work is suffused with abstraction, pattern, and process. They favor bold, all-over compositions that emphasize the physicality of their materials: the rich colors of soil and leaves, the intricate interior structure of wood, the texture of sand and stone. They turn simple actions like chewing, carving, and egg-laying into complex displays of repetition and variation. When it comes to sculpture, insects are born bricoleurs. They fashion ad hoc constructions out of salvaged materials (like the chamber of the caddisfly larva, a casual yet considered arrangement of found rocks and debris) with an intuitive feeling for texture and color that would have made the Catalan architect Gaudí proud.
As a practitioner of the non-representational, I liked White’s quiet defense of that visual orientation:
The irony here is that abstraction, the signal achievement of Western visual art in the 20th century, is still often regarded as a profoundly artificial art form. Abstract art, we’re taught, was symptomatic of a society’s estrangement from the natural world. For some people, the notion that it’s art at all is still up for debate: the popular critique of abstraction – that it doesn’t “look like” anything – has been around as long as the movement has.
The naturalistic argument for abstraction is certainly born out by looking at non-Western, non-pedigree, indigenous art. The painting tradition that began in the 1970s with the introduction of acrylic paints and canvas to aboriginal people in Australia speaks to an aesthetic commonality with the abstraction that emerged in 20th century Western art. The etiology of those similarities are still a hot topic of discussion and not a straight line relationship by any means. But what can be seen is that there is a connection here that is deeper than just style or intention. While I cannot speak to the leafcutter bee’s intention, I can feast on what is left behind.