"Elizabeth Turk: Sentient Forms" at the Laguna Art Museum: An Intricate Study of Mathematical Principles in the Natural World
By Natalie M. Goldman
The Laguna Art Museum’s Art & Nature Initiative brings an imaginative, scientifically inspired exhibition by mixed-media artist Elizabeth Turk to the museum. Sentient Forms is a poetic dissection culled from the artist’s naturalist observations.
Turk’s exhibition starts with several black and white prints of X-Ray Mandalas displayed on lightboxes. The symmetrical patterns are created by repeated seashells and other natural forms. The patterns are visually alluring, made even more striking by their ethereal backlight. Some of the layering gives an effect of movement, like an Etienne Jules-Marey (1830-1904) photograph. In line with the meditative purpose of a mandala, the X-Rays sharpen one’s attention to pattern, form, and detail, and prepare the viewer for the finite intricacies of the sculptures that follow in the next room.
Turk’s obsession with the golden ratio and mathematical patterns found in the natural world continues with her sculptural Collars series. Turk’s Collars are jaw-droppingly impressive. The carvings are so thin, intricate, and complex that I was certain they were digitally fabricated. They are in fact hand-carved from marble. The Collars combine twisting, repetitive shapes that resemble vertebrate, the DNA double helix, and the ruffles of an Elizabethan collar, among other influences revealed in the exhibition’s back room which delivers a peak into Turk’s process. Most of the Collars are draped like a piece of armor to be placed over one’s shoulders. It is fun to imagine what creature would have a spinal cord or pelvic bone so extravagantly knotted.
In a video of the artist at work, she explains using dental drills and files to create the elaborate formations from the shimmering marble. The mathematical laws of symmetry and pattern found in biological forms are meticulously studied and internalized by Turk. However, when it comes time to create, as described in her video it is not entirely planned. She is often forced to improvise because of a “mistake”, letting the sculpture evolve around a mutation in the design.
I appreciated this approach to scientifically inspired artwork. Turk uses the biological world as her conceptual springboard, but the work is not clinical and is open to her artistic intuition and imagination. After examining the exploded sketchbook in the back room of the exhibition, one can appreciate the sheer amount of biologically inspired forms that are compiled into a single Collar. Her sculptures really are some of the most technically striking and flat-out beautiful pieces I have seen in a long time.
The exhibition also includes video, a new large scale sculpture, and work from Turk’s Cages series in addition to the pieces described above. The Sentient Forms exhibition closes soon - January 18th.