Visual Arts

Art Finds Its Scientific Roots at Xavier College Prep

Math, in its root word form, simply means "learning." A polymath is a person who excels at or is learned in many fields or subjects. We call these people Renaissance men, after polymathic rock star Leonardo da Vinci. Of course, there are many others, like John James Audubon and Charles Darwin. Scientists who worked without today's ubiquitous digital technology relied not just on literal field notes but also on their own artistic renderings. Their art informed their science, much as science informed their art. Playwright Tom Stoppard marries thermodynamics and Romantic poetry in his play Arcadia. Last year, Alan Alda wrote a play about Marie Curie's passion and tenacity. Writer Lydia Davis (who won a MacArthur "Genius" Grant) writes about her, too, in a haunting short story, "Marie Curie, So Honorable Woman."

It's not a chicken/egg argument. Science begets art.

It's fitting that when Xavier College Prep, a private girls school, made plans to host an open house designed to encourage middle school girls to seek careers in science, technology, engineering, and math, the school's art teachers got involved. Teacher (and artist) Alison Dunn curated the current exhibit, "Science/Sense," choosing artists Susan Beiner, Naomi Marine, and Zac Zetterberg "because," she says, "though they work in contrasting mediums, their work references science through biological forms and processes and is, at the same time, strongly appealing to the senses."

She's right.

Arizona native Marine's two mixed-media installations are as different as can be. They don't seem to work in tandem or conversation or cooperation. Yet they both capture what weather might look like if you trapped it and nailed it to a wall. The billowy navy blue, royal blue, grays, and whites of her 2012 fabric, thread, and filament installation, fata morgana, spill onto the floor from the wall on which most of it hangs. There's a lot going on here — it's a flag, it's a ball gown, it's a mirage. Literally, fata morgana is a type of superior mirage, a temperature inversion, really, in which the mirage above the object morphs the object (road, mountain, water, object on the water) on which it is based. Light rays bend down instead of up, as in the mirages of the old Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner cartoons. The flaggy ball gown on the floor is the distorted image; what hangs on the wall — a huge, beautiful flatworm in those same shades of blue and gray — is all mirage.

Marine's wire sculpture, Dry Echo II, conjures the elements, too. Find shapes in the curly clouds here. They cast shadows, like the cursive in da Vinci's journals, on the wall from which the sculpture both protrudes and into which it pensively recedes somehow.

Beiner's ceramics are more playful. She constructed her Urban Garden from pine two-by-fours and filled it with a garden of ceramic and stitched foam flora that's more Sylvester McMonkey McBean than Martha Stewart Living. Urban gardening is all the rage. Is Beiner mocking us or cheering us? She's sewn foam into cone-like, hollyhock blossoms, stitched petal to petal in what must be a most exhausting and painstaking process, and left the excess thread to sort of float like atmosphere around the ceramic stalks of her foam blossoms and ceramic sea urchins, artichoke flowers, and coral. The effect is soft and jagged at once. You want to touch it (the sign warns you not to) but feel afraid to as you notice the giant screws embedded cleverly throughout the garden.

Beiner's Yellow Mountain II hangs nearby. As in her raised bed rendering, she's doing more than mimicking nature. In fact, Beiner's work here deals more with overtly representing the organic as synthetic, as if the supermarket has called our attention to the fact that much of what it's selling is genetically modified. If you've found yourself buying only corn chips that bear the non-GMO label, Beiner's weird work should speak to you. Obviously, science can engineer "nature," and Beiner's work pokes us here with its pointy screw tips to explore our own awareness.

Zetterberg's paintings and drawings work in a different way. Not much to see here, I thought as I walked into this tiny square gallery. An hour later, I still was studying Zetterberg's 10 gold and graphite drawings. We're not really sure what we're looking at, and titles like Big Brain Rides the 'H.M.S. Steampunk' and Cinderella Pants don't help explain. Like Beiner, Zetterberg conjures the organic — there are animal and plant shapes here, or parts of animals and plants — but he does so in unexpected ways. Aspects of Cinderella Pants are distinctly cactus-like and Court of Versailles — how can that be? — at the same time. Each drawing is a distinct creation, a reference to what Zetterberg calls his "Cabinet of Curiosities," a library of documentation and visuals that serve as his inspiration. One drawing, Lake Gleak Leak, is of a bulging black plastic trash bag, or maybe Santa's sack, atop which layers of — daisies? — wilt or melt. Maybe that sack is a platypus or a sort of feminine Jabba the Hut.

His wee paintings on the west wall are meditative and lovely, even though one wonders whether they're lovely meditations of something gross or deadly on a glass slide magnified by a microscope. The paintings are all biologic, corpuscles and bones and strange plants. Stare at them like Rorschach images and watch the tiniest details — hairs, lines, follicles, unfurling leaves of a fern, dots, dots within dots, the teeniest pin prick of color — appear.

If you're not one of the 1,160 female polymaths who attend Xavier College Prep, you might never stumble into this hidden space, which is a shame. It just might be a stop in the ongoing human quest to comprehend anything at all.

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Tricia Parker
Contact: Tricia Parker