Art always keeps one eye on technology, taking the advances of science to make something beautiful, provocative and useless. Artists grabbed cameras almost as soon as they were invented, first for anatomy classes and later to make fine art. They have done the same with film, video, computers and lithography. In about ten years, when the economic bugs have been worked out of virtual-reality devices, you'll be able to slip on a helmet and gloves, plug in an artist's program and zoom off to where no one has gone before.
But often, simpler is better. Aesthetic appreciation sometimes diminishes when there is too much hardware involved. Things as simple as the light spectrum, the sun and the human body enhance three exhibitions now on display at Arizona State University.
In the Memorial Union Fine Arts Lounge, Jane Stevens shows black-and-white photos of trees, probably the most photographed of natural objects. But the technological wrinkle she adds to this cliche is infrared film, which transforms the trees into hallucinatory visions. (She heightens the effect by using a wide-angle lens for most shots.) The mundane natural process of photosynthesis, of leaves feeding on invisible light, becomes something to observe rather than know about, and trees can never look the same again.
With infrared film, trunks and branches become inky black and the leaves look more than white; they give off a shining, shimmering, bleached-out light, as if the life has been drained out of them, when in fact it is pouring in. This ironic effect is compounded by other thoughts tumbling forth, fanning out like the divisions of a palm frond: It takes invisibility to really make me see; trees are more than metaphors for patience and steadiness. They do more than look at God all day. These things make it possible for me to breathe. These things, which quietly stand by while I whiz past in my car, are in fact voraciously sucking up light whenever it's available, leaves spread and straining for every photon. Maybe there's some substance to this rain forest controversy (I am not a tree hugger). And so on.
But these thoughts come while gazing on uncanny, white-leaved totems revealed by drawing back the curtain of the imperceptible. The most photographed object ambushes me with its natural wonder.
So when I left the Memorial Union, I paid close attention to the trees and bushes (I managed not to hug any of them), until I got to Orange Mall, where Dale Eldred's sculpture "Time Gardens" brought me up short.
Eldred uses advances in optics and solar technology in his art. In fact, "Time Gardens" reminds the viewer superficially of solar panels. Three steel-and-concrete columns, about two stories high, support three square panels, side by side like geometric sunflowers. Each panel (ten feet by ten feet) is divided into twenty-five glass units coated with a high-quality industrial-grade diffraction grating that breaks white sunlight into its spectrum.
The panel surfaces face south from the end of the lawn quadrangle. If you walk northbound on the mall, you see how the sculpture "works": Your movement creates the colors of the visible spectrum on each panel, flaming from red to orange to yellow and on to violet, then back to red again. Not only that, but the colors seem to leap from panel to panel. Once again, the invisible raises the hem of its garment, and the effect is breathtaking, a heck of a lot more satisfying than playing with the hologram on your credit card. I found that even small, slow head movements create this effect. In silent effervescence, the colors flow out in crepuscular waves; you can almost see blue giving birth to violet. Even fifty feet away, it's like hovering inches from a rainbow, because the colors are so vivid and sharp; and the phenomenon, after all, takes place behind your eyes. Like the tree photos, Eldred's reflective sculpture encourages other kinds of reflection. For one thing, it brings to center stage another natural object we often take for granted--the sun. We cannot look directly at the sun; ironically, you can see its effects only by turning your back on their source. Thus, in "Time Gardens," you create a moving triangle of observer, sun and sculpture on the rotating earth. And if you stand still long enough, you can see time passing by, whispering red and orange and yellow across the shiny panels. We are indeed fragile beings.
Across the campus from "Time Gardens" is an exhibition that pays homage to the ultimate artist-as-scientist, Leonardo da Vinci. At the Nelson Fine Arts Center, Anthony Panzera is showing "The Leonardo Series," sixty-five drawings based on da Vinci's proportional studies of the human figure. Panzera studied da Vinci's notebooks for ten years, and the collaboration, bridging a gap of five hundred years, reveals the different emphasis each puts on the common object of study, namely us. Our bodies.
Leonardo was more anatomical scientist than artist in this endeavor, whereas Panzera clearly loves to draw the body. Leonardo measured with calipers and dissected corpses; Panzera caresses the paper with sanguine pencil. Each drawing therefore shows whole people or portions of their bodies, done with skill and devotion, laid over with rigid, black, graphlike lines defining distances.
For example, Leonardo noted, "The distance between the centers of the pupils of the eyes is one-third of the face," and, "When a man kneels down, he will diminish by the fourth part of his height." He often used the face or head as a basic measure (we all are about nine heads high). But in a drawing illustrating this concept, Panzera shows a young man with his left arm extended behind him, his face in profile, and his right arm languidly reaching out, forefinger pointing like God in Michelangelo's "Creation of Adam." The grace and dignity of this drawing (titled only "AP 183") are impossible to convey in words. In fact, none of the drawings bears any of the dead weight of "male nude study" books. Their flesh moves and breathes. Coupling the straight black marks with the flowing ocher lines suggests the traditional division of scientist versus artist. They both want to know who we are, but where the scientist reduces us to inches, the artist elevates us to dignity. The scientist seeks knowledge, the artist seeks enlightenment. Each travels a valid but limited path.
When those two paths come together, they enhance each other. Jane Stevens uses a scientific tool to remind us of the special status of trees in our own lives. Dale Eldred makes ethereal time visible with technology. And Anthony Panzera, reaching back to one of the greatest geniuses who ever lived, uses his own genius to show us again that we are the measure of all things.
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Jane Stevens' photographs are on view at the Memorial Union Fine Arts Lounge until October 26; Dale Eldred's "Time Gardens" is a permanent installation on Orange Mall near Hayden Library; Anthony Panzera's "The Leonardo Series" continues until November 4 at Nelson Fine Arts Center; all at Arizona State University, Tempe.
The mundane natural process of photosynthesis, of leaves feeding on invisible light, becomes something to observe.
The effect is breathtaking, a heck of a lot more satisfying than playing with the hologram on your credit card.
Leonardo noted, "The distance between the centers of the pupils of the eyes is one-third of the face.