Science Vocabulary = Better Art - repost

(This week I'm reposting some of the posts from the past 4 years I consider noteworthy.  Yesterday, "Inspiration and Drugs". Today, here is a post from July 2009.)


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Today in keeping with the general discussion of evolution culture (see Goldstein's article) and evopunk (see badassRenaissance Oaf) I thought I would re-post a piece I originally wrote for Alternate Reality Existence back in May 2009. 

(The painting Symbiosis was at one time, my personal benchmark as a painting so I threw it in there.) 

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An Increase In Our Allegorical Vocabulary
 

Realism in painting has a long history, from the linear narratives of the ancient world to the shattered realities of the Twentieth Century. For the lay-gallery-goer, the artwork of the Renaissance Masters, Symbolists, and the Surrealists captures the viewer's gaze through the feat of technical ability. Immediately recognizable figures surrounded by unfamiliar objects help the viewer to enter the unusual world by connecting through the shared human experience. 


In my own painting, this is the sort of challenge I place in front of myself. The recognizable objects are the hook: the less-familiar organisms are the mystery that invites people to look further. Science, paleontology and biology have always figured into my work. The natural world is full of a staggering variety of forms to challenge a representational artist. 


About a dozen years ago, I had a gallery show that encouraged me to pursue this path with renewed vigor. This oil painting, entitled Symbiosis, was garnering a fair bit of attention from friends and visitors attending the show's opening. A coffee-shop colleague and zoology-major stopped me and asked, "Ok -if this makes no sense to you, forget it- but is that a tardigrade?" I smiled and replied that it was, and she grinned, "Oh I could tell. They have those distinctive hooked feet!" 

That was inspiring. Art for scientists who get it. Symbiosis, about the microbes in our ecosystem and in our guts. In these scientifically exciting times, why not stretch the public perception and appeal to everyone's curiosity? Why not delight scientists in their myriad disciplines? 


When Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion debuted, I was excited, having enjoyed his previous books. In it, he held a challenge for every artist. If you are interested in science -atheist, agnostic, Bright, or not- take the time to consider this artistic call-to-arms: 


"If history had worked out differently, and Michelangelo had been commissioned to paint a ceiling for a giant Museum of Science, mightn't he have produced something at least as inspirational as as the Sistine Chapel? How sad that we shall never hear Beethoven's Mesozoic Symphony, or Mozart's opera The Expanding Universe." 
(Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, p 86-87) 

Will we see a scientifically-inspired artistic genius of that stature this century? It is my sincere hope that we we will. The world deserves to be that inspired, and to experience the wonder scientists engage in our universe. 


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Original artwork on The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow

My atheist billboard












The Freedom from Religion Foundation has a fast, neat little application to make your own atheist billboard.  Mine's above and you can see more of them here. I learned about it from radio-show host Mike Haubrich.

When thinking about a quote, I thought about how a lot of people will possibly reference science or morality for these quotes (you can see them all here).  As an artist and an atheist, I thought I would try to sum-up some of the feelings I wrote about it in this post two years ago: Gift from God? I don't think so.

In the post, addressing the 'compliment' of artistic ability being a 'gift', I said;
Just because something is hard to understand, just because complicated processes occurred that you did not witness, does not mean it was caused by a benevolent mythical being who hands out aptitudes like Santa with presents...
...That was studying. That was attempts at keen observation. That was making countless mistakes I attempted to learn from. Feedback. Crits and criticisms. Learning from indifference. Trying new materials. Replicating happy accidents. Sharing techniques. 

I received a lot of support in the comments. When I re-posted it at my RedBubble (online store) account, I ended up with concern trolls.

Far too many artists believe in the divine - probably more in New Age nonsense than organized religion, though there are plenty of those types too. "Meant to be" is the cause of many happy accidents to many artists, when in fact, happy accidents have a lot more in common with Richard Dawkins' ratcheting up Mount Improbable: you hang on to the successes, duplicate them as close as you can and eliminate the artistic attempts that fail in your eyes. Developing a skill, technique and style in art has a lot in common with natural selection. 

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Original artwork on The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow

Classic trilobite: referencing, gazing and Mitochondrial Eve

[Originally posted September 21st, 2008.  Hat tip to Jeska Corena for quoting the post.]

This week, I've been thinking a lot about social-consciousness in art. Y'know, being political and having a message for the public sphere.

There's some reasons for my preoccupation.

Tyler Handley at The Edger wondered how to classify atheist art. Jessica Palmer at Bioephemera shows the tension between illustration/photojournalism and fine art, and how poorly played it can both enhance and upset a career. Coturnix at A Blog Around the Clock has an interesting round-up of articles about art about science; I'm struck by how many are about global warming, but not surprised.

Social activism and controversies are always a part of the fine artists' agenda. It's not surprising. And it's a good thing the global warming crisis is a part of the agenda! I remember in university about 10 years ago, some wag put up a list of "10 images to be an art hack" too high up on a support pillar to take down. On it were things like, "Coca-Cola logo" (to signify evil corporations), "Kate Moss" (to signify male-controlled body image), "fetus" (to signify the abortion debate).

My friends and I used the term, "shake and bake" for this type of art; by putting an image on canvas of say, Kate Moss you were automatically addressing bulimia, women's body image, the perpetuation of the male-gaze in art, heroin chic (Trainspotting was a big movie when I was in Uni) and being "ironic" and "conflicted" by both showing her and "referencing" her. Ooo, edgy, a half-naked painting of a photo of Kate Moss.

Referencing was a big buzz word in Fine Art back then. It meant copying something, or including it in there. It was supposed to be a dialogue, while perhaps being vague on what you were saying.

It meant you didn't have to come up or reveal a new conflict to the viewer, you simply added to the dialogue. Shale and bake. Truly new conflicts were hard to smash through with. In my own small way, I tried. After reading River Out of Eden by Richard Dawkins over and over, I tried numerous pieces about the Mitochondrial Eve concept. It enthralled me that we could figure out things like this bottleneck in our prehistory. But it wasn't new of the day, so it was hard to spread the wonderment. Frustrating.

Here is that painting, Mitochondrial Eve:



Not perhaps my strongest work back then, and I've almost painted over it a few times. This one was painted on an antique wood panel to prevent warping, using traditional materials (rabbit-skin glue....eewwww) so it will likely look at me with it's not-up-to-my-standards look for quite some time.
I had roommates also in the Fine Arts, one majoring in dance, one in theatre. We'd joke a bit that in both their disciplines, collaboration is essential; whereas in visual art, you're expected to stand smoking in the corner saying, "They're all hacks, no one understands my genius. puff".





But back to social messages. Are they all shake and bake? All instantly microwaveable into some sort of painting/sculpture/installation that everyone brings their own political/social/media-savvy background to?


No. There can be something strong enough to break through and galvanise people. But I think the world of visual Fine Art is tough. We are surrounded by astounding images every day, so standing still and letting a painting perform long enough to affect one's mindset as it unravels and wraps up a viewer is a difficult thing. I try it from time to time.


And once, I was so overcome, I simply sat down in the middle of the gallery, on the floor. I stretched my legs out, and just enjoyed the still oil painting on the wall and let it affect me. Security didn't mind this gothy-punk just sitting there; I was causing no harm and others could walk around me. And the painting was marvelous. I consider it now my very favourite. Science and myth thrown together on a canvas. John Atkins Grimshaw's Iris. (The science comes from the part you cannot see in a photo: thin glazes of oil forming a rainbow following the tragic arch of Iris's body).


Try it. Find an image about a current issue like global warming. Perhaps it's a block of ice in a gallery kept at temperatures cool enough to drip only slowly, or tiny plastic polar bears on the floor of the gallery. Perhaps something on the computer screen, something from antiquity, something in your local museum or art gallery or a book.


Ponder it slowly.


Be unafraid to find it shallow.


Be unafraid to say, "that's it?"


Be willing to enjoy the art of the small message for its small message.


And keep moving on, and slowing down to look until one commands your gaze. Let it mesmerise you with its memes and forms. My hope is that it will provide a rallying point for rationality in its beauty.


[Comments on original post here.]
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Art Monday: sketches of Richard Dawkins











Various dates, pencil on bristol.

I haven't been able to fully capture a decent portrait of Richard Dawkins -yet- despite a few attempts. With the top drawing, I tried a technique I had read about and accidentally killed the whole thing. I drew the image on paper able to take oil (Fabriano's Pittura) and coated it in clear gesso, so that if I made an error, I could scrape and wipe with solvent and start over (2nd image). Didn't work.

Instead, these days I scan the pencil image, and print it out on Fredrix canvas paper (which takes ink jet so well, I wish they'd advertise that it does!). Then if I muck up the painting, I can just print out a fresh one.

No other author about evolutionary biology has fired my imagination than Richard Dawkins, starting with when I first read River Out of Eden.

Hopefully when I go freelance at the end of the summer, this could be one of my side projects. Now, I'm kind of seeing a combination of these drawings as a painted portrait: 3/4 view,
DNA-Candle on his head, looking down, open-smile.

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Being an atheist insomniac

Next week on Facebook, the "A" Week begins, asking atheists and freethinkers to display the scarlet "A" on their profiles. There are a lot of people who don't believe in the supernatural out there, and still many who feel somewhat alone in their community.

There are a lot of positives on abandoning superstition and religion in life - how you regard each day as a treasure can be one - but there are also downsides. I want to discus
s one aspect of being an atheist that has caused me sleepless nights and how that turned around. With the help of Star Wars.

Recognizing that there is no evidence for an afterlife (and that mainstream religions' claims are flimsy appeals to a sense of comfort) is not comforting.
Recognizing, as Richard Dawkins eloquently wrote,
"After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with colour, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn't it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked -- as I am surprisingly often -- why I bother to get up in the mornings. To put it the other way round, isn't it sad to go to your grave without ever wondering why you were born? Who, with such a thought, would not spring from bed, eager to resume discovering the world and rejoicing to be a part of it?"
This is wonderful, and most days I do feel it. However, many nights I can't escape an existential angst so primal I cannot sleep. I feel silly; I feel like I'm failing; yet I cannot shake the feeling I am one day going to die, and sometimes later no one will ever remember me - there may be no one to remember me. I know I have an ego that drives me to be remembered.

I'm an artist, I seek to create things which will be exalted or at least pique interest beyond my numbered days. The street-artist Banksy once said, "
The holy grail is to spend less time making the picture than it takes people to look at it." I don't delude myself into thinking people when spend 20+ hours pouring over trilobites with fanciful wings, but I hope more hours will aggregate looking over those paintings over many years than it took to create them.

Simply: many nights I cannot sleep. I feel anxiety over dying. Over things not finished. Over beauty in the world I've heard of and never seen. Of leaving my wife and family behind. I lay awake, freaked out that one day I won't be here. Sometimes I have to get out of bed and pace a little, or play video games to distract myself.

Having moderate persistent asthma doesn't help. Wheezing, tight-chested, thinking about mortality. It's where this painting comes from
.

Asthma Incubus:

Once, I was informed by a (well-meaning, I'm sure) atheist Buddhist transhumanist that my fear of dying was not a very mature response that I would have to come to terms with. It surprised me people could come to terms with it: how to do it so you aren't just ignoring it?

A couple of years ago, when the sleep-loss was becoming a particularly acute pro
blem, I read my way through book after book, hoping for some sort of atheism-based mental anaesthetic to help me sleep. Didn't find it.

Until I re-read one of my favourite Star Wars series. Star Wars came out when I was 3 years old. My lifelong artistic fascination with creating living things that don't exist is hugely influenced by Star Wars and the artists like Ralph McQuarrie (and so many more!) who breathed life into ideas.

I was re-reading the X-Wing series by Michael Stackpole and Aaron Allston (cover art by the awesome Paul Youll.) The series doesn't focus too much on Jedi and the Force, instead it focuses on the pilots that won the war, and are continuing to fight while dealing with attrition in their unit.

I got to Aaron Allston's first book in the series, Wraith Squadron, one sleepless night. I came to a part where the unit's commander, Wedge Antilles was in the uncomfortable position of writing a letter to a deceased pilot's family about her death.

I read this (p 242):
"I no longer believe that the momentum of a life headed in a worthwhile direction ends when that life does...(the pilot) shot down five enemies, all of whom served evil men. Had she not done so, their actions would have led to further evil, but her actions take their place instead, broadening like a firebreak into the future theirs would have occupied...I will never know how much good surrounding me is a legacy of Jesmin's life. Her future will be invisible to me. But invisible is not the same as nonexistent. I will know that her deeds and accomplishments still move among us, phantoms..."

I feel asleep, pondering this immortality.

I still turn to this passage on occasion when the silly, primitive part of my mind looks at the dark of night and sleep and feels fear. I know some of the comfort comes from it being part of a childhood fable I remember fondly.

But that idea, that whatever actions I take may ripple outward into the future, hopefully for the better gives me comfort enough to sleep. As Dawkins pointed out, I have existed, and I'm lucky to rise from the bed, to do good work and enjoy the universe. Allston's writing points out to me that my existence can never be removed the history of the universe.

*zzzz-zzzzz*


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Original artwork on The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow
under Creative Commons Licence.

Flying Trilobite Gallery
*** Flying Trilobite Reproduction Shop ***

Star Wars: X-Wing: Wraith Squadron, by Aaron Allston is published by
Bantam Books and may be purchased here.
The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins is published by Bantam books
and may be purchased here.

Help me with my homework

This term, I'm taking a new studio course that looks gruelling in the best possible way. To start it off, we were paired with another student alphabetically, and we each separately need to come up with a favourite quote which will fire the trajectory of the term.

So, why not a poll, I thought immediately. But I gotta hurry. Poll closes Tuesday morning at 5:30 am.

Help! Please vote on the poll in the sidebar, and be a part of my art. You can pick multiple answers.

(This is the last class of my Bachelor of Fine Arts Honours degree. Can't wait. All those times I'll be at the opera, and the stage manager comes rushing out, "is there an artist in the house?!" and I'll coolly take out a ballpoint pen and perform emergency blow-painting with ink all over their backdrop.)

Here are the quotes I am nominating:

1) "-no frogs called, no insects sang, the tree branches stood silent, and no breath disturbed the motionless air."
-the last line of The Stress of Her Regard by Tim Powers

2) "The word transformed the land surface of the planet from a dusty hell to a verdant paradise."
-from Genome: the autobiography of a species in 23 chapters by Matt Ridley

3) "I no longer believe that the momentum of a life headed in a worthwhile direction ends when that life does."
-from Star Wars: X-Wing - Wraith Squadron by Aaron Allston

4) "Science is spectrum analysis. Art is photosynthesis."
-from Half-Truths and One-And-A-Half-Truths by Karl Krauss

5) "This may be because they are forest animals, and the leaf litter of forest floors is not friendly to fossils."
-from The Ancestor's Tale: a pilgrimage to the dawn of life by Richard Dawkins

6) "The strawberry was too old to remember anyone. By this time the hedgerows were filled with bones."
-from the poem, A Child's Garden of Strawberries, from Selected Strawberries and other poems by Susan Musgrave

Vote! Oh, and keep in mind we have been encouraged to draw and paint with unusual materials.


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Original artwork on The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow
under Creative Commons Licence.

Flying Trilobite Gallery *** Flying Trilobite Reproduction Shop ***

Art Monday: Lights portrait series

This is the series Lights I began for my drawing course at York. Our project was to draw between 5 and 30 heads. The idea and compositions I set for myself are fairly simple. Draw portraits of living biologists, each with a light source on their heads, and incorporating a double helix form.

I've shown Richard Dawkins and Craig Venter before here, and Jane Goodall here. This time I've included Eugenie Scott and Jerry Coyne.

Jerry Coyne.Eugenie Scott.
Jane Goodall.
Craig Venter & Richard Dawkins. (I couldn't resist one of my DNA Candles on Dawkins!)

I think of these more as sketches now. All I can see are their flaws.
-Richard Dawkins needs to be re-done, with his head turned to a three-quarter view.

-I made Craig Venter's face too interesting (though it was by far the most popular with my class.)
-Eugenie Scott's hair looks too dark. I tried to use the books to show education and poise.
-I think I need to re-work all of Jerry Coyne's piece. I like the firefly, kinda. The rendering is too rough.
-Jane Goodall's I am happy with the portrait - very happy - but it's hard to make out the helix-gorilla looking down behind her.


Damn, it was an arrogant thing to sit down and expect myself to polish off decent portraits (of people I admire!) in a couple of weeks, in my spare time. Not sure what I was thinking. It wasn't until the last one that I realized this was kind of a folly.


I'm posting these perhaps as some insight into my thought processes. The York University motto is "The way must be tried."


So, um, there.

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Original artwork on The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow
under Creative Commons Licence.

Flying Trilobite Gallery *** Flying Trilobite Reproduction Shop ***

Quick glance: Venter & Dawkins

A quick glance at two of the (hopefully) six portraits I'm doing for my drawing class at York U.

Left, J. Craig Venter, right, Richard Dawkins. Click-y to enlarge-y.
I'm thinking about calling the series, "Lights". I'm planning next to do Jane Goodall, Rosalind Franklin, Eugenie Scott and mmmmaaaybe, Carl Sagan.

Quality is somewhat sacrificed for time, but I suppose they're passable.

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Original artwork on The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow
under Creative Commons Licence.

Flying Trilobite Gallery *** Flying Trilobite Reproduction Shop ***

Art Monday: science vocabulary = better art

Today in keeping with the general discussion of evolution culture (see Goldstein's article) and evopunk (see badass Renaissance Oaf) I thought I would re-post a piece I originally wrote for Alternate Reality Existence back in May.

(The painting Symbiosis was at one time, my personal benchmark as a painting so I threw it in there.)

- - - -
An Increase In Our Allegorical Vocabulary


Realism in painting has a long history, from the linear narratives of the ancient world to the shattered realities of the Twentieth Century. For the lay-gallery-goer, the artwork of the Renaissance Masters, Symbolists, and the Surrealists captures the viewer's gaze through the feat of technical ability. Immediately recognizable figures surrounded by unfamiliar objects help the viewer to enter the unusual world by connecting through the shared human experience.


In my own painting, this is the sort of challenge I place in front of myself. The recognizable objects are the hook: the less-familiar organisms are the mystery that invites people to look further. Science, paleontology and biology have always figured into my work. The natural world is full of a staggering variety of forms to challenge a representational artist.


About a dozen years ago, I had a gallery show that encouraged me to pursue this path with renewed vigor. This oil painting, entitled Symbiosis, was garnering a fair bit of attention from friends and visitors attending the show's opening. A coffee-shop colleague and zoology-major stopped me and asked, "Ok -if this makes no sense to you, forget it- but is that a tardigrade?" I smiled and replied that it was, and she grinned, "Oh I could tell. They have those distinctive hooked feet!"

That was inspiring. Art for scientists who get it. Symbiosis, about the microbes in our ecosystem and in our guts. In these scientifically exciting times, why not stretch the public perception and appeal to everyone's curiosity? Why not delight scientists in their myriad disciplines?


When Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion debuted, I was excited, having enjoyed his previous books. In it, he held a challenge for every artist. If you are interested in science -atheist, agnostic, Bright, or not- take the time to consider this artistic call-to-arms:


"If history had worked out differently, and Michelangelo had been commissioned to paint a ceiling for a giant Museum of Science, mightn't he have produced something at least as inspirational as as the Sistine Chapel? How sad that we shall never hear Beethoven's Mesozoic Symphony, or Mozart's opera The Expanding Universe."
(Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, p 86-87)

Will we see a scientifically-inspired artistic genius of that stature this century? It is my sincere hope that we we will. The world deserves to be that inspired, and to experience the wonder scientists engage in our universe.


- - - - - - - -

Original artwork on The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow
under Creative Commons Licence.

Flying Trilobite Gallery
*** Flying Trilobite Reproduction Shop ***