When I become curious about something, my first instinct is to try to make it with my hands. This had led to my picking up an odd line-up of crafts over the years, including paint-making, nanoparticle-synthesis, (bad) lens-making, and mirror-making. I fancied myself quite the eccentric until I realized that all these skills fall squarely within the painter’s craft—as it was imagined in the 15th century.
In the minds of 15th century Christian theologians, curiosity was a vice—a passion for knowing unnecessary things, things God meant to remain hidden. Curiosity was thought to be closely related to the sin of pride, the hubristic idea that we humans can perfect God’s creation. Theologians recognized that the first step to subverting the order of creation was to mimic it.
The world these early Christian theologians feared is the world we live in today. The order of the day is transgenic organisms, 3D-printed organs, particle accelerators, and gene-therapy. Certainly it wasn’t paintings of flowers that got us here. Then again, let’s not dismiss the idea so quickly.
As an artist steeped in a tradition of painting obsessed with versimilitude, who makes nanoparticles to mimic structurally colored animals, and who grows artificial skin from microorganisms, I realize how all these practices have a common root in mimesis and in curiosity. And how, given that mimesis is a driving force in biology, mimicry is an expression of our own human biology. I find it fascinating to imagine mimetic painting on a continuum with artificial organs and transgenic organisms.
In this time of accelerated mimesis, how do we know what we are looking at? We are not like fish changing our own bodies to resemble water, or butterflies changing theirs to less resemble the tasty butterflies they are. We are inserting jellyfish genes into zebrafish DNA. We are engineering surfaces that bend light in ways no natural material can bend it, cloaking any object it covers. Is it as the medieval theologians feared: that the logical conclusion of mimicking nature is the overturn of natural order?
I find this tangle of questions fascinating, which is why, as an artist living in 2013, I’m interested in mimesis: its capacity to attract, to seduce, to dissemble; in the desires that drive mimesis and in the visual culture it produces. And in the point at which mimicking something gives way to creating something entirely new—the impossible, the unpaintable, the unknowable.
Any way you look at it, nature cannot be separated from artifice, and science cannot be separated from art.