Visual Arts

Color Theory

Can the rigid language of mathematics be used to explain human emotions? Those of us on the "leftright?? since the right brain would control the left side of the body brain/creative" side of the equation balk at the idea. But nonetheless, using scientific means to explain what's often considered irrational is an intriguing proposition.

It was this idea of combining logic with emotion that brought engineer George Sidebotham and Navajo artist Lorenzo Clayton together at a Starbucks in St. Mark's Place in Manhattan's East Village in 2004. Both distinguished professors at The Cooper Union in New York, the unlikely collaborators designed an exhibition that would use Sidebotham's knowledge of mathematical formulas and proofs to visually explain non-scientific concepts like spiritual growth and the impact of relationships on the human psyche.

Basically, Clayton wanted to see if the language of mathematics had the right "words" to describe the inner workings of a human being.

The result is "Inner Equations," an installation exhibition at the Heard Museum. While portions of the show were previously featured at the Jersey City Museum, this is the first time Clayton's vision has been fully realized. It's another bold step for the Heard. The museum has been pigeonholed as a place to see woven tapestries and pottery, but this exhibition reinforces its commitment to bringing innovative, modern art into its central galleries (see "Off the Reservation," April 20, 2006).

The bulk of the exhibition is a single-room installation featuring a series of chalkboards mounted on opposite walls. The left half of the room, where visitors enter, is painted a stark white. White walls. White ceiling. White floor. A large rectangular light fixture hangs above the chalkboards, casting a garish glare on the pale, dusty floor. The setting is eerily reminiscent of early parochial school classrooms, devoid of color except for the muted dark green of the dual chalkboards framed in oak and placed lengthwise next to one another to form a single, larger board. It's chilling.

The focus is on the chalkboard and the energetic scribbles that dance across its surface. At first glance, it looks like the ramblings of a deranged madman, or perhaps the mentally disturbed but brilliant math professor played by Anthony Hopkins in the film adaptation of David Auburn's Proof. A simple scatter chart depicts the ebb and flow of human emotions, from the high peak of euphoria to the low points of devastation and depression. In another corner, a line graph shows how a positive relationship can have a good influence on a person, while a negative relationship can cause strife or co-dependency. The conclusion — "negative relationships always have negative influences" — is scrawled in the negative quadrant of the graph, along with a myriad of thoughts on co-dependency and potential. The sheer number and complexity of the calculations is astounding.

You practically need a Ph.D. to understand even half of what's written.

The bright, paned light is supposed to create an air of warmth and goodness in the "positive" space, but the starkness of the white subdues the effect. It's like snow blindness. Logically, I know that white is a color, or rather, the combination of all colors. But, standing in that sea of white and clinging to my green life raft, the room just feels empty. Barren. Yellow accents or an amber-colored light would have added the positive vibe Clayton was looking for.

On the other hand, the "negative" half of the room accomplishes its mission with ease. Painted entirely black, with a low ceiling and a set of rotting cellar doors placed beneath the chalkboards, the space feels cluttered and claustrophobic. I imagine the doors, if opened, would reveal the kind of musty, dank basement that young children fear. The intensity of the darkness is magnified by the chalkboards, which sport the same wild lettering as the "positive" boards. The messages here read more like warnings: "Not realistic. Excessive over-reliance. Where is humanity?"

The installation was Clayton's brainchild, and his influence is evident in the spiritual questions and thoughts on the boards. However, the majority of the written work seems to have been done by Sidebotham. Clayton has been a lithography professor since the early '90s. He took Best in Show at a National Print Competition at the Barrett House Galleries in Poughkeepsie, New York, and received an Eiteljorg Fellowship for Native American Fine Art. Yet the only pieces of the puzzle that make use of Clayton's expertise as a printmaking instructor are the two framed silkscreens that flank the exhibition's entrance. Both entry pieces combine close-ups of a chalkboard with bold stenciled words like "language," "life" and "artisanship," connected by arrows to varying degrees of stability. The prints were not included in the original New Jersey exhibition, but I think they help prepare the visitor for what's inside.

I was excited to learn that the artists kept a journal during the project — maybe it would help me wade through those muddy equations — but unfortunately it was absent during my visit. According to Heard officials, the book was temporarily removed for scanning and preservation, leaving me without the Rosetta stone I needed to decipher that mathematical jargon.

Damn. My professors always stressed the everyday necessity of algebra, but I never needed that skill until now.

Let's break this exhibition down into the lowest common denominator. Do these equations explain emotions? My mind craves a simple, clear-cut answer, but Clayton and Sidebotham just provide the creative ideas and the formulas. There's nothing to tie the two together; no way for people like me, who barely passed high school geometry, to determine whether the equations have any connection to the emotional statements they're supposed to represent. It's like reading a sign where half the text is in English and the other half is in a language you don't understand. There's no middle ground — no key that would help bridge the gap between the language of mathematics and the language of feeling.

When it comes to emotions, things aren't always black and white. Sometimes, there's room for a little yellow.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Wynter Holden
Contact: Wynter Holden