Art Meets Science Juror and Curator statements
When Art meets Science, what could each hope for from the encounter?
Science might hope for the creative representation of an interesting scientific discovery or of some deep concept like causation. Science would likely welcome an illuminating exploration of the processes of science, such as the deductive reasoning of mathematics or the inductive reasoning of experimental science with its hypothesis generation and testing. Science would be pleased with help from Art in arranging information in vivid ways. Science would be flattered by the use of scientific products or methods in the fabrication of art, as through novel materials or computer simulation.
Art might look to Science to provide a window, if imperfectly clear, into the great questions of life, including the origin of the world, consciousness and life itself. Art would seek from Science discoveries of unexpected relations between phenomena. Art might even hope that Science could provide some insight into the physical basis of the creative process. Certainly Art would expect to draw from Science tools for expanding the artist’s palette.
What both Art and Science should hope is that the encounter would be authentic. One can all too easily envision the parties separated by a plate glass window. Across such a barrier each would serve only as the objects in the other’s curiosity cabinet, the animals in the other’s zoo. Such an inauthentic encounter could be amusing enough for a time, but hardly a source of enduring satisfaction. Without true engagement in the work and thinking of the other, neither Art nor Science would learn much from the encounter. Nor could either contribute new insight of any depth.
One might despair that Art and Science are so disparate that they cannot have an authentic encounter. There is some basis for such concern. After all, when Art meets Science, in what common language do they communicate? Art’s language is form and color. Science’s language is mathematics. Can words serve as the lingua franca? Not very well, it seems, particularly when — for this exhibition — artists were limited to 25 words to describe their scientific inspiration. Perhaps the solution is to be found in people who are bilingual in Art and Science. An interesting proposition that might be tested in this exhibition is whether scientist-artists are more successful than others in identifying and expressing powerful linkages between these realms of insight.
Two questions must be answerable in the affirmative if one is to be optimistic about encounters of Art and Science. Can one present an idea in the form of Art that is profound regarding Science? Can one present an idea in the form of Science that is profound in regard to Art? Fortunately, both questions were answered strongly positively at least as early as the Renaissance. Leonardo da Vinci’s scientific diagrams in the Codex Leicester are scientifically sophisticated and staggeringly beautiful. And the mathematical laws of perspective profoundly enhanced the art of Art. Bolstered by such proofs of concept, one’s challenge now would seem to be to identify contemporary practitioners who can communicate effectively across the boundaries of Art and Science.
In choosing the quilts for this exhibition I focused primarily on three qualities: visual strength, technical mastery and an intellectually interesting representation of a scientific idea or process. The combination of visual strength and masterful needlework has long been the hallmark of quality in the traditional quilt. The art quilt movement, as I see it, has tended to privilege visual strength by removing the traditional constraint of geometric patterning and permitting non-textile image-making techniques. Technical proficiency, on the other hand, has been de-emphasized, as machine quilting has become widely accepted and practiced. So it should be unsurprising that in this competition visual strength dominated the selection. Still, wherever technical mastery was evident from the detailed images, that fact contributed importantly to the selection of quilts for the exhibition.
In judging whether a quilt offered an intellectually interesting representation of a scientific idea or process, I looked for serious engagement with the science. For example, was the concept of randomness portrayed merely as the hit-or-miss arrangement of colored squares or was understanding shown of the insight to be gained from aggregations of random events, as in the Poisson distribution, the random walk, or the randomized controlled trial? Banality was a cause for exclusion, as was the gratuitous inclusion of scientific symbols. On the other hand, poetic attempts to visualize the creative scientific process or to represent the duality of matter at the subatomic level seemed most appropriate.
I hope viewers will join me in finding the chosen set of quilts most engaging, both for their visual impact and through their challenging and varied ways of joining Art and Science.
—David W. Fraser
31 October 2009
David W. Fraser, MD, is a Research Associate at The Textile Museum and a Consulting Scholar in the Asian Section of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. He authored A Guide to Weft Twining and Related Structures with Interacting Wefts, the standard work on what may be the oldest textile structure, and co-authored with Barbara G. Fraser the award-winning Mantles of Merit: Chin Textiles from Myanmar, India, and Bangladesh. He is also an independent consultant with particular interest in epidemiology, international health and education, and material culture. He was President of Swarthmore College from 1982-91 and headed health, education, and housing activities in South Asia and East Africa for the Aga Khan’s Secretariat from 1991-1995, before serving as Executive Director of the International Clinical Epidemiology Network (INCLEN) from 1996-2000.
When looking at university programs, people often wonder why there is a College of Arts and Sciences. It makes perfect sense to me: I am trained in the sciences and I am an artist. Both artists and scientists need to be careful observers of the world around them, from the microscopic scale to the limits of the universe. Both scientists and artists are problem solvers. For scientists, how do you formulate your experiment or process to study an object or build a bridge? For artists, the problem solving can involve structural issues of designing and creating a sculpture with structural integrity. Starting with blank canvas or a stack of fabrics, how do you create an image or design to share your ideas with others? These art quilts show how artists have chosen to explore mathematics, the natural environment, and microbiology in a visual format.
Jill Jensen (www.jilljensenart.com) is a professional artist who creates fiber-based work using paint, printmaking, and stitching. Jensen’s work has been included in national and international juried and invitational exhibitions, and she has had eighteen one-person shows. In addition to exhibiting her artwork, Ms. Jensen has been an artist- in-residence in schools throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia and is the former exhibitions curator at the Academy of Fine Arts in Lynchburg, Virginia. She holds degrees from the College of William and Mary (B.S. Chemistry) and Columbia University (M.S. Metallurgy). Her work is included in numerous public and private collections, including the Taubman Museum of Art, Roanoke, Virginia, Snidow Chapel at Lynchburg College, Centra Health System, Lynchburg, Virginia, and University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Health System, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.