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Inspired Leaps From the Lab to the Studio

In several shows, artists explore science's creative potential from genetics to astronomy.

August 27, 2000|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

Art and science. Or, to put it another way, creativity and systematized knowledge. However those two spheres of human endeavor are defined, they would seem to require entirely different abilities.

Yet artists have always interpreted nature and experimented with scientific observation and study. The most luminous example in the annals of art history is Leonardo da Vinci, the quintessential Renaissance man who not only painted the "Last Supper" and the "Mona Lisa," but also applied his artistic skills and thirst for knowledge to investigations of flying machines, cloud formations and the movement of water. Leonardo's scientific projects may have been faulty, and they may have diverted him from leaving an even greater legacy of paintings, as some critics contend, but he gave future generations of artists permission to venture into seemingly foreign territory.

And they do, as we will see with unusual clarity during the upcoming exhibition season in Southern California. Beginning today with "In the Mind's Sky: Intersections of Art and Science," an exhibition of contemporary art at Scripps College's Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery in Claremont, science will have a large presence on the local art scene.

That show will be followed by "The Universe," a separately organized, collaborative venture of eight cultural institutions in the Pasadena area. Billed as "a multicultural, multimedia exploration of the cosmos as interpreted by artists and scientists throughout the centuries," it will run from September to May.

The ambitious project will encompass a variety of arts events and related educational programs. First up, on Sept. 23, is the inaugural concert in a series, "Music of the Spheres," to be presented by Southwest Chamber Music at the newly renovated auditorium of the Norton Simon Museum.

Next, on Dec. 1, a spate of exhibitions in six museums and galleries will be launched with "Star Struck: One Thousand Years of the Art and Science of Astronomy," at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens. Yet another program, "The Future of the Universe," a series of science-fiction film screenings and symposiums, will begin on Jan. 14 at Caltech.

"The Universe" grew from a smaller collaboration, "Radical Past: Contemporary Art and Music in Pasadena, 1960- 1974," spearheaded by Jay Belloli, director of gallery programs at the Armory Center for the Arts, and presented last year. Belloli, who organized science-themed shows as director of the now-defunct Baxter Art Gallery at Caltech, also has played a leading role in "The Universe."

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The project celebrates the importance of Pasadena as a center for the arts and sciences, but it also comes at a moment when science is an unusually popular subject at art institutions throughout the country. As the exhibition season unfolds, viewers will be confronted with imagery based on everything from medical research to journeys into space.

In the Scripps show, "In the Mind's Sky," many of the works may strike casual visitors as inventive patterns or abstractions, but they were inspired by biological or physical structures. Some subjects are tiny configurations of matter observed through a microscope or mapped inside the body; others are vast galaxies and constellations seen at a distance by the naked eye or brought closer by a telescope.

"My chief interest in doing this show was to look at artists who envision the imagination in terms of enormous or infinitesimal spaces," gallery director Mary Davis MacNaughton said. A Modern art historian who has written and lectured extensively on Abstract Expressionist Adolf Gottlieb, MacNaughton said the show was sparked by her fascination with his "Burst" paintings, which suggest celestial orbs and astral bodies. "They evoke a space that could be an inner space or an outer space. There is no way of measuring it. It has no horizon or benchmarks."

Studying the work of artists who "visualize their own imaginations in unlimited expanses of space" prompted her to question "how that way of seeing might have been shaped in part by science, by images that artists would have seen or read about," MacNaughton said. "For a long time, we have had both a fascination with and a fear of being on the edge of new areas of scientific knowledge. It's exhilarating and terrifying at the same time because we are never sure what it portends for the future in terms of promise and peril.

"And here we are at another frontier with the completion of the human genome project. So I thought it would be interesting to look at artists working today who think in terms of vast spaces--whether they are microscopic or macroscopic--and to see if there are visual affinities between what is hugely vast and vanishingly small." In the artworks she selected, there are "amazing parallels," she said. "The distances are huge at both ends of the imagination."

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