in the works
Untitled. Oil on panel. 22 x 22 inches, 2016.
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.