“Connecting the Dots: exploring chemical evolution through art,” at Spruill Gallery through May 19, is the final outcome of Terri Dilling’s residency at Atlanta’s Center for Chemical Evolution, which researches the chemistry most likely to have been involved in the origins of life.
Making art about science has always been a difficult proposition: it requires finding visually striking examples or emotionally engaging analogies. Because the Center for Chemical Evolution’s work focuses on the emergence of complex molecules through the self-combination of simpler ones, Dilling looked for ways of developing complex visual forms from simpler ones, using rules that limited artistic decision.
Her series of “Visual Chemistry” prints is the most elaborate illustration of this principle. Over the space of a grid that could be elaborated indefinitely, each print has either a color or a visual element in common with the previous print, while it adds or subtracts elements or colors in a process that eventually makes the individual prints quite different from one another. The duo of “Assembly (blue)” and “Assembly (red)” makes the point much more simply: the same two intaglio plates are rotated and printed in different colors to form distinct artworks.
The idea that elementary chemical interactions might grow in complexity to take on a life of their own is communicated more kinetically in the “Common Ancestry” video, showing the evolution of two of Dilling’s paintings, each beginning from the same starting point but growing from there in different visual directions. The paintings, “Yellow Blossom” and “Rocky Road,” hang nearby in the gallery, making the point that a finished object embodies a considerable now-invisible past history.
This kind of analogy-making needs to be anchored in actual science at some point, and in her “Little Worlds” intaglios, Dilling has combined the most visually evocative microscopic details from the research of two CCE researchers (Savannah Johnson and Anthony Bisignano), showing us a bit of what molecular self-assembly looks like. Unlike the visual analogies, these emotionally engaging images are opaque to the layperson; although we can appreciate their beauty, we have no idea what we are looking at.
But sometimes the analogies also become too elaborate to be understood without commentary. Dilling has collaborated with fiber artist Leisa Rich on a number of works, of which “A Line Is a Dot That Went for a Walk” is the most conceptually ambitious. Beginning from Paul Klee’s aphorism as the title, Dilling and Rich create a grid of tondo mixed-media pieces in which the “dot” of the circular panel sprouts linear elements that spill off the support and turn into tendrils or tentacles or otherwise create visual entanglements.
This piece is inspired by the David Lynn Group’s research into how the dots of molecules can turn into tubes or strands in small peptides, but the whimsical-looking artwork itself communicates only the productive possibilities of complication. The shift toward visual wit is startling, but of course molecular structures in themselves are neither humorous nor serious.
Dilling’s and Rich’s similarly witty soft sculpture “Interstellar Interactions,” a fantastical landscape that fills an entire hallway, is intended to evoke movement through space and time. Dilling’s motifs are printed on the wall and on fabric and vinyl, which Rich sewed and stuffed to create an immense variety of objects that visitors are invited to rearrange and attach to one another
The piece induces a concept-related queasiness. Emotional engagement in scientific issues needs to be more than just a subject for grown-ups, but turning the universe into a huge stuffed-toy playscape is disconcerting, and it feels wrong in an exhibition about immensely serious subjects.
Yet levity is not necesarily incongruent. Rich Gere’s mixer beaters as a visual metaphor in the “Warm Little Pond” portfolio –work that Dilling solicited from other artists as responses to general evolutionary issues — is a notable case of wit that doesn’t particularly add to the dialogue but provides a well-designed moment of consciously comic relief from an exceptionally fraught and somber subject.
Visitors are eventually asked to write down their responses to the exhibition, as part of yet another analogy for molecular self-assembly, and by this time, even the least attentive viewer should have understood some part of what the Center for Chemical Evolution is studying. That is, after all, the ultimate purpose of the center’s artist-in-residence program: to use the arts to make science comprehensible to the broadest possible audience.
Spruill Gallery should be commended for hosting this important experiment in science-art collaboration.