The Abstract Universe: Microcosm/Macrocosm Reveals Art Inspired by Science—Part I

The Abstract Universe: Microcosm/Macrocosm Reveals Art Inspired by Science—Part I

On January 23, 2012, over 200 people gathered to celebrate the opening of the new exhibition,
The Abstract Universe: Microcosm/Macrocosm, which reveals how contemporary abstract artists are inspired by scientific ideas, images and theories in the creation of their art. In this and future posts, I will highlight the images of the art in the exhibition and some of the ideas behind each piece as discussed by the artists themselves.

Inspired by various aspects of biology, Richard L. Dana, Michele Fraichard, and Valerie Huhn have been integrating cellular images and events into their artworks. Dana, whose acrylic on wood painting is called, Le Voyage Fantastique (The Fantastic Voyage), incorporates cellular images into this piece.

Richard Dana, Le Voyage Fantastique, 2010, Acrylic on wood

He writes, “I can make no claim to being a scientist, but I am an artist layman who omnivorously, if somewhat randomly, devours texts addressing the evolution of science, both past and present. Many of the texts which I devour are accompanied by illustrations. These combinations of text and illustration frequently serve as inspiration for the imagery found in my art…but more often my imagery reflects a subconscious transformation of text and illustration into visual object. Unlike a scientist I am making no effort to arrive at an objective truth, but like a scientist I embrace the wonder and mystery of reality. Le Voyage Fantastique, is from a series of paintings entitled Sequence. A formal interest of mine is the exploration of forms for visual narration; these paintings break the pictorial plane into bands of separate but related imagery, so collectively the bands create an abstract narrative. With these paintings, much of the imagery in the bands is inspired by scientific illustrations and/or ideas, whether microscopic, macroscopic, or somewhere in between.

Two paintings, Broken Waters and Liquid Birth I by California artist, Michelle Fraichard, also reveal primitive and cellular forms.

Michele Fraichard, Broken Waters, 2011, Oil on canvas

Fraichard remarks about these and other works in this series, “My current work centers around biology, geometry and the ethereal, combining those concepts to weave a pattern of connectedness and glimpses into the divine intelligence that pulses throughout existence. This direction was born from a fascination with the initial ‘spark’ that lies deep within those first movements, before form, description or purpose takes on shape.

Michele Fraichard, Liquid Birth I, 2011, Mixed media on canvas

She continues,”Many of the works center around Protists, early life forms, which for me represent beginnings; a metaphor for that raw state wherein a multitude of potential lies. Alas, they are my ponderings about creation and an examination of how science parallels heaven. The layers, transparencies, colors, textures and luminosity are all metaphors that seek to convey both the correlations, as well as the transient states continually cycled.”

Michele Fraichard, Liquid Birth I, 2011, Mixed media on canvas

New York based photographer and video artist Valerie Huhn designed a sculptural attachment for a TV monitor through which we see a constantly changing group of images that reference cells, molecules, prisms, and abstracted biological forms as well as much larger forms. Here is a still from this Untitled work:

Huhn notes, “The video piece is extracted from a larger study of water I have been engaged in for the last ten years. It deals with nature being contained or restructured by man in some artificial way. All of the imagery is of water reconfigured in the shape of public fountains, retaining walls, jetties or landscaped creeks—water in an unnatural or artificial environment. It seems, in conscious and unconscious ways, a reflection of humanity’s desire to surround ourselves with water—no matter how unnatural the setting. Koi ponds and golf courses in the desert, cement fountains and reflecting pools in the city. All of which once again raises the question—what is artificial, and what is real?

Valerie Huhn, Still image from Untitled, 2011/12, DVD

Questions—What entices you about cellular and molecular structures? Do you know other artworks that focus on these small organic shapes to create abstract work? I look forward to your answers.
Virginia Fabbri Butera, Ph.D.

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Is There a Difference between Art and Craft?

Recent artistic encounters have once again raised issues of whether or not non-traditional materials make certain objects craft rather than art, and is there, or should there be, a difference? Do intellectual ideas suggested by an object, despite its material, make it an object of art? Or is it enough for an object to provoke an aesthetic, not necessarily an intellectual, response in a person for that object to be considered art?
For the Maloney Art Gallery show, Traditional Traces in Contemporary Native American Art (through May 24, 2010), Lynne Allen has lent several bags, moccasins and a knife sheath she has made. The bags and knife sheath are created out of 19th century land grant documents on vellum with porcupine quills, buttons, clasps and/or other materials. They reference earlier animal skin bags and knife sheaths that are part of Native American traditional arts. And the use of porcupine quills as a material for art and decoration has a long history as part of traditional native arts.
The moccasins in the exhibition allude to the functional shoes of animal skin that Native Americans made and wore. However, moccasins were often highly decorated with bead work, considered as art work and could be worn ceremonially. Allen’s moccasins are sculpture and not meant for wear. Writing and images of nature cover one 2005 pair, Moccasin #3 made from handmade paper, etching, linen thread and handwork. A second pair, Excuse me while I disappear (red moccasins), with the image of a Native American man on the top of the moccasins, is more metaphorically poignant, alluding to the decimation of Native American tribes, homelands, and culture when they were forced by the U.S. government to move, often by walking hundreds of miles, to reservations far from their original homelands. Here, the intersection of function, decoration, history, sewing, etching and sculpture amplifies the meaning of this art. For Native Americans, art and craft were/are completely intertwined and there was no hierarchy of art forms as had been established by Italian, French and English art academies beginning in the 16th century.
But those are exactly the hierarchies that have been at work for centuries suppressing the label of art for any objects made out of materials other than paint or ink on paper or canvas, or bronze, wood, or stone for sculpture. Traditionally and historically, in western culture, objects that were functional and/or made out of other materials, fell into the realm of craft and decorative, and therefore non-intellectual, arts. In other cultures around the world, this division did/does not exist. In the 1850s in England, William Morris began to challenge this hierarchy with his Arts and Crafts movement which tried to merge so-called fine and decorative arts onto the same object. Many movements and artistic groups have taken up this challenge. Beginning in the 1970s, with a push from the Feminist movement, women and men have been successfully trying to dispel these prejudices. Widespread knowledge and acceptance of world-wide aesthetic practices has also helped.

Materials such as balloons and thread used by Ula Einstein ( in her sculptural installation, Pulse, which was featured in the Maloney Art Gallery exhibition, Line, Gesture, Space, reveal that materials no longer define/confine art and creativity. 
During a recent trip to the Brooklyn Museum with the students in my American Art course, I was again able to study in detail Judy Chicago’s, The Dinner Party, a monumental sculpture from 1974-79, which celebrates the contribution of western women to the history of the world ( The triangular shaped sculpture, conceptualized and designed by Chicago, was created by hundreds of women volunteers in ceramic sculpture and woven, hand embroidered and sewn fabrics, all traditional “craft” materials. The work is a permanent installation in the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. Also temporarily on view there is Kiki Smith’s ( multi room mixed media installation, Sojourn. Here large scale drawings of women are surrounded by fancifully decorated light bulbs, aluminum sculptures, wooden coffins with blown glass daisies, among other objects, which create a powerful meditation on Smith’s themes of birth, creativity and death in the life of a woman (
In all of the above instances, these artists chose to use materials, some of which have references to the materials of women’s traditional craft work, to comment in a profound way about the human condition. These pieces are beautiful, stirring, disturbing and enlightening.

What have your aesthetic experiences been with objects in various materials? How do you view “craft” materials used in art that asks us to consider many areas of aesthetic and intellectual thought?–Virginia Fabbri Butera, Ph.D., Director of the Therese A. Maloney Art Gallery

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The Importance of Figurative Art in the Western Tradition

During a recent trip to Italy I was able to study many works of art which revolve around the figure and the human face. The way artists use both body and visage to convey personality and emotion is pertinent to works in our last exhibition, New Classicism, and to the next two exhibitions, Senior Art Major Exhibition (March 19 – 30, 2010) and Who We Are: Contemporary Portraits (June 10 – August 15, 2010).

Hellenistic Sculptor, The Seated Boxer, 3rd century BCE, Bronze

At the Museo Nazionale Romano at the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme in Rome (, I came upon the life-size portrait of a boxer, post-fight, seated and grimacing. The intensity of pain and exhaustion on the gouged and bleeding face and trembling body of this late Hellenistic Greek sculpture (3rd -2nd century BCE), was palpable. It is one of the most famous bronze statues from ancient times, and rightly so. Although I had never seen it before, I was overwhelmed by the transformation of pain into bronze, a parallel of recent photos of our contemporary Olympic athletes after their strenuous competitions ( Ancient Romans loved ancient Greek statues and amassed large private collections of them.

Detail of Hellenistic Sculptor, The Seated Boxer, 3rd century BCE, Bronze

Ancient Greek and Roman sculptures were a fundamental influence on Italian Renaissance artists such as Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael and their contemporaries. The revival and rebirth of classical philosophy, art and ideals propelled Raphael, for example, as he developed his monumental fresco, The School of Athens (1509 – 1511), commissioned by Pope Julius II, for the Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican apartments. While I did not visit the fresco this trip, I did study the unbelievable drawing/cartoon (cartone) that, against all odds, was saved and now hangs in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan.

Raphael, The School of Athens, c. 1509, Drawing

A working drawing used to transfer the lines of Raphael’s image onto the wet plaster for painting, the drawing still conveys the hand of the master and his unique conception of each figure assembled for philosophical debate. ( indistinctly visible above, in this reduction of the gigantic drawing (approximately 10 x 25 feet), dozens of smaller drawings have been glued to create the whole project for the fresco. Raphael was indebted to the realism of ancient Greek and Roman sculpture for the various physical and emotional attitudes of the philosophers and students who make up this homage to ancient Greek thinkers, most prominently Plato and Aristotle who are centered at the top of the steps.

Reid, Battle over the Body of Patroclus, Oil on canvas

In turn, a drawing/fresco like this is a reference point for thousands of artists including James Patrick Reid whose works, including Battle over the Body of Patroclus, were recently included in our New Classicism exhibition. Psychological states are manifested not only through facial expression but also through the body language of each figure.

Baroque innovator, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, turned the conventions of ancient as well as Renaissance art upside down even as he had mastered them. Last week at the Caravaggio exhibition at the Scuderie al Quirinale in Rome (, I saw for the first time, The Taking of Christ (1602). Now on loan to the National Gallery of Dublin ( from Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) in Dublin, Ireland, it had been rediscovered in 1990 and was the subject of a 2005 book by Jonathan Harr, The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece.

As Jesus accepts his fate and the embrace and betrayal by his disciple Judas, their faces, hands, and body positions convey what words never can. To the left, another disciple screams in horror. But the most innovative passages of the oil painting feature the long black shiny armored arm of the arresting Roman soldier, the central focus of work. We see only his nose under the helmet, the barest fraction of the eye of the bearded soldier behind him, and the slit of an eye in the next soldier. But the full profile of the soldier on the far right of the composition, identified as Caravaggio himself, here holds up a lamp, both the internal light source for the chiaroscuro passages and the metaphor of the stark reality of betrayal and certain death. The faceless anonymity of military force (perhaps on Caravaggio’s mind since he had been sentenced to death by Roman law for the murder of a man) is the equal subject matter of this intense moment in the life of Christ.

Caravaggio, The Taking of Christ, c. 1602, Oil on Canvas

Two works by New Jersey teacher and painter Neal Korn will be part of our summer exhibition, Who We Are: Contemporary Portraits. In these new portraits, Korn adopts radical viewpoints to revamp the notion of what a portrait is, similar to the way that Caravaggio created visual synecdoches, using a tiny part of the face to suggest the whole. Sometimes the isolated part of a face or a body is able to convey anonymity (as in the soldiers) or suggest the many sides of human personality as in the Korn images.

Korn, Ily, 2009, Photograph and pencil drawing

What is your favorite portrait and figure where personality is conveyed by a small part of the whole?
–Virginia Fabbri Butera, PhD, Director of the Therese A. Maloney Art Gallery

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Welcome to the Maloney Art Gallery Blog!

March 5, 2010

Welcome to the Therese A. Maloney Art Gallery Interactive Blog. We are launching the blog so that we can engage in dialogue about art, culture and humanistic ideas with our visitors to the web/blog site as well as the actual Art Gallery on the campus of the College of Saint Elizabeth in Morristown, New Jersey. Please feel free to respond with your ideas and questions about our blog postings, Gallery exhibitions, cultural programs and events by writing a comment at the bottom of the blog.

When the idea of having an art gallery was first developed for the new building (Annunciation Center) the College was designing to house the Art, Music, Philosophy and Theology Departments, the Center for Spiritual and Theological Development, and the Holocaust Education Resource Center, I was trying to decide how I could position our Art Gallery to have a distinct profile among the many wonderful museums, art centers and college/university art galleries in New Jersey. The Gallery’s mission, therefore, reflects that of the College, with the goal of educating our very diverse audiences, helping them to discover art that speaks to them and changes the way they see and think about the world.

“The mission of the Therese A. Maloney Art Gallery is to create an exhibition program that reflects the Mission of the College of Saint Elizabeth, that promotes diversity and inclusion in all aspects, that harmonizes and amplifies the departmental curricula, the annual and one-time events on campus, and the issues and activities of Student Life, and that offers the Campus community and the community at large an on-going series of exhibitions of art of the highest possible caliber and interest.”

With that in mind, during the last two and a half years we have presented a range of exhibitions including The Annunciation in Contemporary Art; Judith Weinshall Liberman: Holocaust Wall Hangings; Line, Gesture, Space; Terri Garland: The Good Books, Katrina Bibles and Prayer Books; Calculating Art: Mathematics in the Visual Field; The Art of Healing; Texture: Surface as Metaphor; Responding to Cuba; The Great Swamp: Flora, Fauna, Etcetera; The Spirit of Charity; and New Classicism. Images from these past exhibitions may be seen on our website, . Opening on Thursday, April 8, 2010 from 4:30 to 7:00 PM will be our newest exhibition, Traditional Traces in Contemporary Native American Art. All are welcome to attend the reception.

Palaia, Temple,Agrigento, with Spot, 2006, 4 x 4' lightbox with Polaroid

The artworks selected for the exhibitions are meant to present, reinforce, and challenge our notions about the stated themes, the nature of art itself, and the humanistic concepts and ideals embedded in the act of creatively responding to the world. On January 21, 2010 we opened New Classicism, an exhibition of eleven artists from New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania whose art has been influenced by classical Greek and Roman architecture, sculpture, painting, literature, ideas and ideals. All the works in the exhibition may be seen on the website under the exhibition site. I was fascinated by the ways in which their responses create metaphors about time, illusion, mathematical concepts and patterns, government, destruction, love, death, contrast and beauty…really almost everything! Responding to Greek temple structure, Franc Palaia paid homage to the Temple of Concord in Agrigento, Sicily, and reveals the ravages of time on both the temple and the out-of-date Polaroid film he uses to capture his images.

Rivera, Cuba, 2008, Oil on canvasdate and discontinued Polaroid film he uses in his work.

By showing flood waters engulfing a Greek-style temple, Jesus Rivera used his image as a metaphor for the lack of democracy in his homeland, Cuba .

Sue Zwick captured the disruption caused when neoclassical rhythm and proportion clashes with modern steel and glass in a photograph, Dynamic Interplay, showing Norman Foster’s late 20th century addition to the 19th century British Museum.

Zwick, Dynamic Interplay, 2006, Silver gelatin printe 19th century British Museum.

Palaia  and Winifred McNeill are among the many artists who marvel at the Pantheon, the oldest intact Roman building circa 126 CE, which served as inspiration for McNeill’s series of trompe l’oeil oil paintings, Shadow of Solid, # 1-10. Her pieces allude to the oculus (the circular opening) in the 142 feet-in- diameter dome of the Pantheon, the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the history of architecture. On McNeill’s paintings we can catch a glimpse of a bird or a shadow of a bird, which may have flown unknowingly into the oculus.  Solid and void, light and shadow, reality and illusion, concavity and convexity are among the many dualities that play out in the Pantheon itself and now here in a series of almost abstract paintings.

McNeill, Shadow of Solid, #1 - 10, 2010, Oil on canvas

In Rome Gianluca Bianchino filmed the abstract patterning of a flock of birds and paired that footage with abstract listening patterns for his DVD, Momento.

Rodeiro, Bar Meliton, 2008, Oil on canvas board

José Rodeiro weaves allusions to both a Pompeian fresco of fruit into his still life, Bar Meliton , which also refers to his hero of conceptual art, Marcel Duchamp, who played chess and met friends at the Bar Meliton in Cadaques, Spain. Athena Visiting Cassandra on the Walls of Troy reveals Rodeiro’s love of Greek harmony, proportion and beauty, qualities which appear in many of his drawings and watercolors based on scenes from Homer’s Iliad, and Odyssey.

Reid, Return of Odysseus, 2007, Oil on canvas

Homer’s epic poems, almost 3,000 years old, have been the basis for countless art works in all media and continue to be a rich source for James Patrick Reid who works in a style that combines classical and 19th century Romantic figurative art. His Battle over the Body of Patroclus and The Return of Odysseus are poignant reminders of the emotions generated by family, home, love and death, in art as well as life, in ancient Greece as well as contemporary society. These are also the themes for Edward Schmidt’s Study for Destruction of a City – Dies Irae.

The Greek and Roman fascination with idealized and realistic beauty in painting and sculpture pervades the history of Western art. We have only to study painters and sculptors during the fifteenth and sixteenth century Italian Renaissance period or 18th and 19th century French Neoclassical era to see that the attempt to depict the beauty of the human face, form and figure was ever present.

Wheat, Ariadane at Naxos, Silvered plaster

Cheryl Wheat’s sculpture, Ariadne at Naxos, and Gerald Lynch’s, Hand of Man, are but two pieces of contemporary sculpture which acknowledge the debt of classical, Renaissance and Neoclassical examples even as they use untraditional materials. Vincent J. Romaniello, Jr.’s painting and sculptures depicting his version of an archaeological field site and its “treasures” of ancient helmets and pottery shards  is another approach to recognizing how important our ancient visual, historical, lyrical and conceptual past is for us.

Reminders of ancient Greece and Rome are everywhere in our banks, post offices, government buildings and statues, and are inspiring contemporary literature as well as visual art, opera and fashion. It is compelling that after the last few years of economic and political turmoil in the United States and Europe, more and more artists are turning to classical art to find a stability within their creativity and innovation. After World War I, the French called it, “retour à l’ordre (the return to order). For example, Pablo Picasso, living in France, began a series of nudes based on classical figures. Is this what the trend to re-explore classical art is? Perhaps you have some ideas and examples. Let me know where you may have found classical inspiration or influence in what you have seen, read and heard, and how contemporary life has been inspired by classical influences!

—Virginia Fabbri Butera, Ph.D., Director of the Therese A. Maloney Art Gallery.

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