WCMA exhibit visualizes mind of matter

The new WCMA exhibit Landscapes of the Mind is at once abstract and technical, profound and grounded, esoteric and accessible. Four contemporary artists offer their approaches to the brain in an exhibition that seeks to inspire dialogue about the connection between art and science. In focusing on the brain, the artists touch on issues that are at once incredibly personal – no two humans are wired the same way – and universally human. On display until May 2, Landscapes of the Mind was organized by Interim Associate Curator Kathryn Price and Professor of Psychology Betty Zimmerberg.

The four artists included in the exhibition, Susan Aldworth, Jessica Rankin, Katy Schimert and Andrew Carnie, use images produced by modern neuroanatomical techniques that can visualize the brain. The exhibition is, in a sense, about as contemporary as one can get – the artists could never have made these works without the modern technology that allows for such accurate and intricate exploration of the brain. “For these artists, the brain is both muse and source of creative output,” write Price and Zimmerberg in the exhibition material.

“This exhibition is really special in that it involves so many talented artists and has caught the imagination of so many of our faculty members and students,” Price saidin an interview. “We are thrilled to have the opportunity to reach out across disciplines and think about art and science in new ways.” Indeed, this exhibition represents a remarkable attempt on WCMA’s part to provide interdisciplinary education by involving multiple departments. The exhibition supplements the gallery and installation with a separate room, where there are pertinent books, computers for further exploration on WCMA’s website and two microscopes that show slices of a rat’s brain. However, the educational component is not as comprehensive and polished as it could be, as the dimly lit room makes reading difficult and the website feels sparse. Upon further investigation, only one of the microscopes was functioning correctly.

All the artists represented here challenge conventional portraiture. Rather than the traditional exterior markers of a person – the nose, mouth or eyes – they are exploring the interior processes of the mind as identities. Simultaneously, the images created are incredibly visceral; the works epitomize the coalescence of art and science. Such coalescence is most evident in Andrew Carnie’s “Magic Forest,” an installation consisting of diaphanous screens that project images of digitally manipulated brain cells, The screens form a “brain cave” of sorts and viewers can walk in between them throughout the cycle. The slides recreate the life cycle of neurons in about twenty minutes, tracking the development, proliferation and organization of the growing brain. At the end of the process, the system collapses (mimicking a stroke) and the neurons disappear, leaving only blackness – then the cycle begins again. As you walk in between the screens, they move slightly, creating a pulsating, or breathing, sensation. Although the piece is largely a successful installation, the layout of the museum prevents the exhibition from flowing smoothly. You need to exit the rotunda and walk through a different gallery in order to reach “Magic Forest.”

Susan Aldworth’s contributions are drawings and etchings based on cerebral angiograms, which map the blood flow of the brain. Her interest in the angiograms began in 1999, when she was taken to Royal London Hospital after collapsing in her studio, and she watched the doctors look “into [her own] brain, in real time, live, on a monitor, while lying on an operating table.” She creates drawings on location, looking at other patients’ angiograms, and later turns these into etchings. Her works seem abstract, with no coherent subject matter – just lines that criss-cross on the page, splotches of color and dissonant shapes – yet there is something very organic in the way she articulates the lines and shapes on the page. The series of her drawings and etchings resonate with each other, echoing a visual pattern that is a product of both the artist’s hand and the patient’s mind. The work is almost disarmingly clinical, and the viewer imagines Aldworth as a diagnostician of sorts.

Meanwhile, Jessica Rankin embroiders large pieces of organdy with text and iconography, creating what she calls “brainscapes.” Her tapestries look fragile and vulnerable, breaking from the craft tradition of weaving for practical or decorative use, both of which require the tapestry to be incredibly durable. “I wanted the work to somehow embody the insistence and solidity of thought. As my work has evolved, the linearity and coherence of the thoughts has disintegrated … More and more, I am trying to make the words and the thoughts reflect their nature – fragmented, blurry, layered, interconnected, meaningful and meaningless,” Rankin said in the script. The fragility of her tapestries reflects the nature of their subject, lending a visual complexity to her works.

Katy Schimert uses another medium, that of sculpture, to address the brain as a topographical landscape, exploring the intersection of body and mind. She wrote of her work: “To me, the brain is a mysterious planet, with two hemispheres, up there in your head, where you cannot reach it or touch. Like the moon, it has strange powers over your body and soul.”

Although Landscapes of the Mind represents a commendable effort on behalf of WCMA to reach across disciplinary lines, the organization of the exhibition itself is dissonant. The works of the artists shown all engage in a dialogue about the brain, true, but they do not seem to engage with each other – each artist works in distinctly different mediums and processes, and the exhibition does not attempt to relate them. There remains a stark, immediately discernible beauty to all the pieces, but the exhibition does not push an artistic connection that would have enhanced the scientific component.