Exhibitions Curated: Quintessence

Quintessence installation

Quintessence exhibition, Nanaimo Art Gallery 2004. Curated by Lisa MacLean and Catherine Stewart

quintessence n. 1. The pure, highly concentrated essence of a thing.
2. The purest or most typical instance. 3. In ancient and medieval
philosophy, the fifth and highest essence after the four elements of
earth, air, fire, and water, thought to be the substance of the heavenly
bodies and latent in all things.

Often art and science are seen as occupying opposites sides of a great intellectual or cultural divide. However, throughout history, many artists have derived inspiration from the materials and disciplines of science. Quintessence brings together five print artists who, like their counterparts in the world of science, have explored a particular “essense” of reality. The exhibition represents an opportunity to “bridge the gap”, if only briefly, between the disciplines of art and science.

m melancholia & melanomata

Barbara McGill Balfour, m. melancholia & melanomata

Barbara McGill Balfour’s lithographic floor installation m melancholia & melanomata brings together the psychological and somatic states of skin cancer and melancholy, linked etymologically to the word melanin. Melanoma is characterized by the potentially malignant presence of this substance, whereas black bile, one of the four humours, was once considered the cause of sadness. Depression, distinguishing marks, and mortality are intersecting vectors in this print/installation. As noted by Kim Sawchuk, the prints, sequestered beneath glass, reference cell slides. Balfour’s use of glass makes evident the way in which optical interventions affect viewing: when put under the microscope, human cells are flattened for better viewing and the expansive surface of the skin is broken into manageable rectangular segments to better observe the distribution of disease. In m. melancholia & melanomata Balfour transforms our relationship to this skin, just as medicine alters our view of the body: by enlarging its contours and highlighting its patterns we behold the small made very large. As spectators, Sawchuk suggests, we are engaged in the experience of being miniaturized in relationship to our own self-image, our sense of scale inverted as we look at the surface at our feet. We are at once brought closer to the body and made more distant. The work’s elegance belies the disturbing experience of depression and the threat of serious illness that underlies the work.

Ecorche and Correspondence

Linda Carreiro, Ecorche and Correspondence

Linda Carreiro draws on her experience as a teacher of human anatomy and morphology. In each of the works presented, she addresses ideas about the body as a text which can be inscribed and thus read in various ways. Archive, Ecorche and Correspondence each consists of images within containment systems – drawers, boxes and envelopes – which themselves recall the conventions of cataloguing and taxonomy associated with scientific research, particularly in the biological sciences. Carreiro’s fragments of the human body and its viscera allow the viewer to explore ideas of memory, history and biography, and consider the ways in which we catalogue human experience. The tongue initially appeared, as the artist notes, as a charred engraving within the drawers of Archive and became a central image/object in each subsequent piece. As the only exposed muscle in the human body, the tongue mediates between interior and exterior worlds, pronouncing words that echo in both public and private spheres. The tongue also signifies both a site of intellect, in its articulation of language, and of sensuality, in its visceral and erotic qualities. In each of these works Carreiro plays with ideas of language and communication, emphasing the body’s role as both text and author.

H Gerritzen

Helen Gerritzen, Installation view

Helen Gerritzen’s mixed media works convey a sense of materiality that is at once tangible and ephemeral. They play upon creating a tension between the dematerialized body (the body as a product of representational practices, language and knowledge) and the insistently physical, mortal body (one of disease, desire and involuntary states of being). Gerritzen sees human identities as often having been shaped by systems, categorizations and technology and, in her work, presents identity instead as palpable and physical, while referencing and questioning the body’s long history as a repository of social, cultural, sexual, medical and religious meanings. Her imagery uses drawings, diagrams and text from various cultural and historical periods which are placed in a relationship with made and found forms that are universally familiar (cups, balls, funnels). These forms become metaphors for the body through shape, scale, materiality and surface (wood, paper, gelatin, metal). The shapes and surfaces of her images, so precisely and delicately rendered, seem as though they have been subjected to processes of degradation or natural disintegration. The medieval practice of alchemy, the precursor to chemistry, comes to mind when viewing these mysterious and evocative images.

Lisa MacLean installation view

Lisa MacLean, Installation view

Lisa MacLean’s work reveals her fascination with the human body and the ways in which it has been represented historically in both anatomical art and medical science. The picture of humanity that emerges from a study of bodily representation is one of fantasy and pathos. While actual human bodies are subject to disease, dissolution and death, we continue to try to overcome the limitations of biology in fantasies of transcendence, whether these be predicated on more and more extreme medical interventions into the human body or on developing virtual bodies which might allow us to become undying gods. Upon seeing the reclining wax anatomical models of Clemente Susini located in Florence’s La Specola museum, MacLean was very taken by the pathos and fragility of the human body as there represented. In these life size wax figures, with their ivory or flayed skin, carefully arranged hair or veined baldness, and seductive recumbent poses, every detail of the human body has been painstakingly recreated. So compellingly realistic are these human surrogates that they almost seem to breathe and live. They are, however, merely material and, in so being, provide an opportunity for detailed anatomical instruction. In their mute materiality they also provide an intriguing screen on which to project various images of human subjectivity. Her work combines photographs of these anatomical models with images of herself and other living beings.

Catherine Stewart, installation view

Catherine Stewart, Installation view

Catherine Stewart’s interest in the history and philosophy of science informs her series of photo-etchings entitled Copernican Notes and Elements of Grace. In two volumes of the English translation of Newton’s Principia Mathematica, Stewart discovered several pages of diagrams, which illustrated the theorems and propositions within. These delicately engraved images, she felt, somehow captured the elegance of Newton’s elaborate mathematical investigations into the motion of bodies. Struck with their beauty, Stewart wanted to try combining some of these 18th century diagrams with photo-details of her then fifteen year old daughter (eyes, ear, hands, foot, etc.). She discovered that, although the two types of images are so different in subject matter and graphic character, when brought together, they seem to relate to each other both formally and metaphorically. Conceptually, in the resulting works Elements of Grace the eternal (Platonic) forms of the human body are visually linked to the eternal forces of nature. In Copernican Notes Stewart has combined pages from the manuscript of 16th century astronomer Nicholas Copernicus’s On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres with photo-images of her teen-aged daughter moving. In so doing, she suggests that the transition from childhood to adulthood can be likened to a Copernican paradigm shift. The change in perspective that accompanies adolescence can be seen to parallel the shift in Western consciousness that occurred when Copernicus established that the sun, not the earth, was the centre of planetary motion.

February 2004
Catherine Stewart and Lisa MacLean

Quintessence catalogue

Article in Preview magazine

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