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. Inhabiting these roles asks me 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.
Six years ago, my practice of designing and creating nanomaterials for use in my art began to garner attention because it was novel and futuristic. Yes, my work makes use of an exotic branch of physics, but it’s far less interesting to consider my practice as novel than it is to consider the ways in which it is not. My work draws upon a long tradition of artists who developed their own media and I look for opportunities to embed this larger context into my work. For example, I began integrating Victorian-era mirror-making techniques into my nano work as a way to connect nanoscience to its deep history, and to acknowledge the diverse practitioners—many of them artists and craftsmen—who contributed to its development.
My new project
By exploring parallel anxieties elicited by engineered biological specimens and highly mimetic 15th-, 16th-, and 17th-century paintings, my new oil paintings invite viewers to consider the ways “lifelike” paintings can be thought of as conceptual precursors to synthetic biology. These works depict San Francisco native Xerces blue, the first Northern American butterfly to go extinct due to urban development—and the first to be considered for “de-extinction.”
These paintings suggest an animal liquefied, ready to assume new forms. Ruddy brown tufts morph into metallic technicolor greens, evoking both a painter’s palette and a petri dish growing wing material. Like divination systems that offer glimpses of the future in an inkblot, or in the silty grounds left on the bottom of a coffee cup, what we see in ambiguous images such as these reveals much about our desires and our fears. In them, we see ourselves.
For centuries, painting was widely imagined to be the “mirror of nature.” To the contemporary eye, virtuosic depictions of fruits and butterflies seem tame. Consider that early Christian theologians found these painted doubles deeply menacing. 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. Such powers, they insisted, are reserved to God—not painters. This, of course, echoes common contemporary fears about synthetic biology and nanotechnology. 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. My new series explores this watershed moment in the history of human mimesis through the practice with which this history arguably began—painting.