Soft materials meet hard science in Radical Elements, an exhibition at the National Academy of Sciences featuring 40 contemporary art quilts, each inspired by a different element from the periodic table. The works in the show, organized by Studio Art Quilt Associates, explore the elements in many ways, ranging from their industrial uses to personal memories associated with them. For example, Barbara Schulman’s piece, A Pepto Bismuth Story (below), started with the “beautiful crystalline structure” and iridescent colors of the element, which reminded the artist of her mother’s hankies and lace, so she incorporated them into the design along with bismuth’s best-known consumer product, Pepto-Bismol.
Grace Harbin Wever’s Iridium – My Darkness to Light II (above), takes a more strictly scientific idea, although she expresses it in a highly artistic, indirect way. The artist, a former cell biologist, was intrigued when she learned that iridium microelectrodes had been successfully implanted into the human brain as part of studies in vision and perception. A range of materials, including holographic fabric and copper wire, surround the central eye image, nodding to the juxtaposition of the natural and the man-made that characterizes recent advances in the field of vision.
Indeed, very few of the quilts on display stick to the traditional materials of fabric, thread and batting. Materials used range from duct tape and aluminum foil to keyboard keys and dining utensils. Curator Jill Rumoshosky Werner notes, “In a relatively short period of time, the field of art quilting has undergone a fundamental change. The primary focus has shifted from decorating the surface of a quilted wall hanging to a much broader acceptance of ideas, styles, and materials.”
Alison Carey’s photographs of “Organic Remains of a Former World” are among the standouts of the current show at the National Academies of Science, Imagining Deep Time. Carey uses a mix of sculpture, installation and photography to conjure up visions of ancient marine environments from each of the seven periods in the Paleozoic era.
To call these pieces small, murky and brownish would be accurate, but would barely hint at their evocative power and beauty. Carey uses scientific data about the different periods and consults illustrations of their flora and fauna. The artist says that she was searching for uncharted territories in an era where little of the globe remains unexplored.
“In my search for a location that has not been photographed, I look to the Earth’s ancient past, a world that existed millions of years ago. I am drawn to this space because it is absent from human recollection and experience. Through my photographs, I offer the viewer a glimpse into a primitive landscape that has since been eroded or erased.”
Carey sculpts her creatures and rock formations out of clay, fires them and then submerges them in the water of multiple 55-gallon aquariums. She then photographs them in her studio using a large format view camera, and prints them as contemporary ambrotypes using 9 x 23” black glass that she hand-coats with silver gelatin emulsion.
She adds that “the organic nature of this process adds to the rendition of these watery scenes by the serendipitous appearance of bubbles, streaks and obliterated areas of darkness.”