By Michal Gavish
The two current exhibitions at D.C.'s National Academy of Sciences are rare displays of exquisite aesthetics at the conceptual intersection between art and science. Artists Matthew Shlian and Chris Bathgate approach their art with a scientific-like precision as they plan and construct imaginary technical systems. Beginning with mapping their ideas, they employ meticulous craft skills to manufacture three-dimensional structures of their fictional constructions.
The framed reliefs of Matthew Shlian appear like white fields of geometrically folded paper. Using origami and kirigami techniques Shlian investigates ideas of the microscopic world of atoms and molecules. His elaborate paper models are based on his research with scientists at Ann Arbour University in Michigan that evolve into fantastic patterns. In his models he ponders on biological concepts such as chirality, the molecular "key to life." This idea describes the "handedness" of molecules, like the twist of DNA helices that spiral in a right-handed direction. "Chirality" is the title of his exhibition.
In his unusual approach of non-virtual molecular modeling, Shlian offers the opportunity to concentrate on the delicacy of the rich detail of his fragile paper reliefs. His quiet aesthetics combine the overall abstract quality with intricate realistic components. The white canvases give the sense that their patterns are part of a larger scheme that expands endlessly beyond their frames while retaining the mechanical precision of realistic execution. This elegant production resonates with both old architecture and contemporary installations. It brings to mind Islamic architecture and the carved walls of the Alhambra palace in Spain on the one hand, and contemporary installations by artists like Maya Lynn and Tara Donavon on the other.
The second artist exhibition on view is very different in color and tone from Shlian's. It is a flashy baroque display named "Aesthetic Automation: The Hand Behind the Machine." Here artist Chris Bathgate showcases machine sculptures. While created from scratch, his sculptural forms reference metal hardware, ammunition components, and auto parts reimagined into gaudy three-dimensional objects.
The works embody a fundamental visual contradiction; they are immobile yet look made of moving parts. They seem like a mechanical version of the burnished Brancusi’s bronzes or the dazzling Koons' toys.
Yet, the most fascinating aspect of this show are the prints of the preparatory drawings that curator Ron Labaco introduces behind each sculpture. In this updated adaptation of traditional sketches, Bathgate uses the keyboard to lay out his sculptural plans along with the numerical data involved in their making. He maps his thought process for the viewer in a way that is not meant to be entirely comprehensible. His computer-generated drawings exhibit pristine aesthetics in the schematics of the multi-facet views of the sculptures and their digital planning. The artist shares his enthusiasm and at the same time reveals the complicated process of his sculptural design being confined by the parameters of a computer program. This duality adds to the contradictory charged nature of the show as the viewer imagines the automatic production of the hand-made objects. Viewing the large mechanical prints, there is a sense of intimacy, a sense that the artist is using his most personal diaries to bring out the secret of his inner dreams of strange construction.
The exhibitions "Chirality" by Matthew Shlian and "Aesthetic Automation: The Hand Behind the Machine" by Chris Bathgate, curated by Ron Labaco, are on view now through January 16th and Februray 1st, respectively, at the National Academy of Sciences Building, 2101 Constitution Ave. NW, Washington DC. For more information, visit: http://www.cpnas.org/exhibitions/
All photos courtesy of Michal Gavish.
Visit Gavish's site at: http://michalgavish.com/