Artists are a lot like scientists: They observe and collect, question and describe, experiment and record. They interpret what they’ve gathered, creating solutions to problems or theories that pose more questions — in physical, visual form.
This concept was the impetus for the current exhibition Form from Form: Art from Discovery at the University of Cincinnati’s Phillip M. Meyers Jr. Memorial Gallery. The eight-artist show is fabulous and thought-provoking.
The show is part of UC’s larger celebration of the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, which revolutionized the way the world sees nature and, in turn, humankind itself. The show’s curator, Mary Heider, writes in her description of the exhibition, “As Darwin studied variations in natural forms, so do artists strive to explore change … that provides alternative perspectives on forms, including those in nature.”
A couple of the works in the show approach the subject literally. Steve Geddes has carved a wooden bust of Darwin ensconced in orchids, and Thomas Towhey’s painting “Essences of the Man” depicts Darwin surrounded by the accoutrements of his life’s work, such as birds, orchids, worms and amorphous creatures that appear to be in the middle of transformation. It’s nice to see the famous naturalist’s face amidst the other artists’ more conceptual responses to Darwin’s work.
And what wonderful responses they are.
Another work by Geddes shows the evolution of a dinosaur into a bird through 10 wood-carved sculptures. Gary Gaffney’s piece, “God and Darwin Resolve the Conflict,” combines drawing and collage to explore the intersections of religious and scientific thought like a flowchart of intelligent design and evolution. Rhonda Gushee presents what she calls “could-be monstrosities” — ceramic sculptures portraying infant heads juxtaposed upon organic forms like barnacles and leaves, hybrids that represent shifts in future evolutionary processes.
Ana England’s eight-piece ceramic installation covers a wall with gracefully curving forms influenced by segmented antennae. They generate a life of their own, enlarged and isolated from the insects’ bodies. In her artist statement, England writes, “Darwin considered morphology to be the ‘very soul’ of natural selection. For me, it is the mysterious heart of connection.”
Anthony Becker explores not-so-natural selection in “Death Toll 2009,” floating files that hold the records of birds Becker has found killed by automobiles. Becker sketches each bird, documents each species and files the drawings under the day he recorded them. Viewers can pore through the files, discovering that some days contain no drawings, while others contain as many as three or more. It’s a tragic display that reminds us of the human intrusion into the workings of nature.
Lisa Merida-Paytes’ “Spine Series” appears at first elegant and lovely, but carries a subversive edge. Influenced by her childhood among her father’s taxidermy and slaughterhouse business, these wire and ceramic wall sculptures are disturbing yet strangely beautiful. They echo so many natural forms, from the networks of dendrites in the nervous system, to flayed skin and empty, hanging carcasses.
Ink paintings by the late January Marx Knoop inspired Heider to curate Form from Form. When painting, Knoop allowed ink to bleed through to a sheet of paper beneath it, creating his next drawing based on the remnants of the one before it. The result was the extraordinary 100-piece series “Metamorphosis,” which is represented by a selection of framed works with the last 50 works looped on a video monitor, revealing the transformations between paintings.
“This series makes your mind work through new possibilities for ‘what is,’ ” Heider says. Knoop’s work may have provided the seed for the exhibition, but in its entirety the show offers an exploration of evolution driven by imagination.
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