MY PRACTICE IN A NUTSHELL
When I am centrifuging nanoparticles in a lab, collecting dead sea creatures at low tide, or weighing salts to feed a bacterial culture, I am digging deeply into painting’s past in order to tease out its future. My work is inspired by the diverse practices that have comprised the painter’s vocation over the centuries—the painter as chemist, as mirror-maker, optical engineer, and creator of skins. These roles have their basis in history, but, in my practice, they function as platforms from which to reimagine what painting can be. Essentially, I’ve come to realize that it’s the archaic ideas about what a painter does that strike me as most charged with possibility, as most volatile and likely to produce something new and unexpected.
My work draws upon a long tradition of painters who developed their own media. This history inspired my artist-in-residency in the Alivisatos nanoscience lab at University of California Berkeley, in which I created metal nanoparticles for use in my paintings and sculptures. Manipulating matter at the nanoscale, smaller than wavelengths of visible light, allows me to generate non-pigmental color. The historical context that inspired this work has become its subject. Much of my work explores the intertwined histories of mirror-making, painting, and nanoscience.
MY NEW PROJECT
My new project, as yet untitled, invites viewers to consider the ways “lifelike” paintings can be thought of as conceptual precursors to synthetic biology. On its face, the subject of my new paintings is two butterflies—one that scientists are working to bring back from extinction, and another that other scientists have engineered to alter its wings’ patterning.
Now, I’ve only just begun, but I’m interested in the way these new paintings suggest an animal liquefied, ready to assume new forms. Some evoke a painter’s palette; others, a petri dish growing wing material. Their round shape also suggests lenses. I’m trying to draw parallels between the distortion and displacement that accompanies focus, whether it’s optical focus or zeroing in on specific passages in genetic code. I’m thinking about the ways in which lensing is analogous to the ways scientists and engineers zero in on a desirable quality of a material, or trait of an organism. They study this trait, they replicate it, and they displace it from its original context. And, in doing so, they create something new.
For centuries, painting was widely thought of as the “mirror of nature.” To the contemporary eye, virtuosic depictions of fruits and butterflies seem tame. Consider that early Christian theologians found lifelike paintings deeply troubling. These theologians warned that the ability to mimic is closely bound up in the power to create and destroy, the capability to topple existing order and to produce new order. Thus, painter closely depicting a lifeform was thought to be dangerously close to participating in the act of creation.
This echoes common contemporary fears about synthetic biology and nanotechnology: that scientists’ creating and modifying life-forms threatens to overturn natural order. We now live in the topsy-turvy world these early theologians feared—one populated by animals and plants brought into being, in part, through our efforts to copy nature, and in part by human imagination. Did lifelike paintings set us on the path to transgenic, glowing mice? That might be a bit of a reach. But what I find interesting here is the way these early paintings did set in motion a passionate, contentious conversation about the desires that drive mimesis and the anxieties it produces, which is a conversation that continues today—and which is a very important conversation to be having.
My new series explores this watershed moment in the history of human mimesis through the practice that set this conversation in motion—painting.