Incised into stones or painted on cave walls, images of nature are the oldest known artistic subjects. Forty or so millennia later, flora and fauna remain popular motifs, but a new sort of nature art has arrived, at least in the Washington area. Local exhibition spaces — some, but not all, connected to scientific institutions — are displaying work that depicts worlds too small or too big to be perceived by the unaided human eye.
One explanation is simply that people now can see many things that were previously imperceptible, thanks to devices such as electron microscopes and the Hubble Space Telescope. Advancing scientific knowledge also offers new conceptual subjects, on both cosmic and microscopic scales.
There’s a shift from poetic, humanistic and spiritual themes, which perhaps seem too vague amid the current fashion for “data-driven” thinking. Technology is now widely considered benign and even liberating, which it wasn’t during, say, the Industrial Revolution. Yet much contemporary science-minded art is concerned with such tech-driven threats as species extinction and global climate change.
The latter is the impetus for “Endangered: From Glaciers to Reefs,” Diane Burko’s show at the National Academy of Sciences. The Philadelphia painter-photographer compounds art and science in near-abstractions layered atop oceanographic charts. Burko began by collaborating with glaciologists to depict retreating ice at both poles, a project documented in a 12-minute video that melds footage of ocean waves and flowing paint.
Sometimes textures tell the story: One piece uses white crackle paint to simulate buckling ice, and the pigment is thickly applied in “Reef Grid,” a series that shows how coral reefs, too, are disappearing. Burko’s art can be read as representing general issues of change and fragility, but the maps underneath the paint hitch the pictures to specific places and a particular threat.
“Ground Truth: Corona Landmarks,” also at NAS, depicts landscapes in the context of technology. Julie Anand and Damon Sauer set out to photograph the 180 remaining targets that had been placed in a grid in the Arizona desert so that satellite-based cameras could calibrate their scale and focus. The top-secret Corona Project, which ended in 1972 and was declassified in 1995, was a CIA and U.S. Air Force surveillance program of China and the Soviet Union.
Although Corona’s metal birds are extinct, many more remain. The Phoenix-based artists map the paths of the publicly known satellites that were overhead at the moment the photograph was made, and add those orbits to the final picture. (A video reveals how they stitch the various elements together.)
Made of rock and concrete and placed in empty barrels, the Corona targets appear primal. But their purpose was technological, and secret. Anand and Sauer’s pictures remind viewers of how much of their world is covert.
Diane Burko: Endangered: From Glaciers to Reefs Through Jan. 31 and Julie Anand and Damon Sauer: Ground Truth: Corona Landmarks Through Feb. 22 at the National Academy of Sciences, 2101 Constitution Ave. NW.
The paintings and drawings in “Duality: Art and Science” are clearly handmade, yet are inspired by things glimpsed through machines, notably microscopes and radio telescopes. As interpreted by New York’s Jody Rasch and the District’s Betsy Stewart, the phenomena celebrated in the American Association for the Advancement of Science show appear similar in form, whether they’re massive or microscopic in actuality. They lose their original scale and, in some cases, their menace.
Cells of HIV and ovarian cancer, beautiful in enlarged isolation, are among Rasch’s subjects. He also depicts particle showers and electromagnetic spectra, which include visible light and much more. Some of his pictures incorporate equations, as though aspiring to the certainty of mathematics. Yet Rasch’s mixed-media style, which encompasses paint, ink and pencil, never looks mechanical.
Stewart, too, finds visual links between the smallest and hugest of substances known to science. Many of her works reveal fluid environments teeming with life, and suggest influences as diverse as Anne Truitt’s minimalist pylons and Asian styles both venerable and modern. Stewart uses scroll-like formats, juxtaposes sumi ink with acrylic paint and includes animé-like pink globes in her “Natale” series. The inspiration is science, but the whimsical contrasts could be produced only by an artist.
Jody Rasch and Betsy Stewart: Duality: Art and Science Through Feb. 1 at American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1200 New York Ave. NW.
The microscope is an essential tool for Michal Gavish, a former research chemist who now specializes in “Nano Portraiture,” the title of her show at the BlackRock Center for the Arts. The D.C. artist renders DNA sequences and protein samples in large 3-D constructions, which are echoed by smaller paintings of the same or a similar subject.
The red blotches depict protein in a piece that layers two compositions on diaphanous fabric atop another on paper. Another assemblage positions dabs of blue, red and green — representing DNA — on ribbons of paper, plastic and tissue tied in a bowlike helix. DNA is also the crux of “Fine Mess,” whose bars of color are painted horizontally on long strips of paper that hang nearly from ceiling to floor. Gavish gives tiny things an outsized presence.
Separate yet thematically linked, Stephanie Garon’s BlackRock show gives the natural world a spine of steel. “Nature/Nurture” consists mostly of metal forms the Maryland artist has impregnated with organic materials, including dirt, pine needles and red wine. Like Gavish, Garon offers a few paintings that give one-dimensional form to the 3-D works.
Garon, who also has a science background, juxtaposes steel with substances that shed, shrink and decompose. A hivelike form is slathered with honey that’s partly oxidized, and a curved metal lozenge is coated with resin infused with cabernet sauvignon. “Green” is steel flexed into the shape of a corset and laced with tomato dried vines. Garon employs decaying natural artifacts primarily as symbols of humanity’s fragility. But her contrasts of hard and soft intrigue the eye as well as the mind.
Michal Gavish: Nano Portraiture and Stephanie Garon: Nature/Nurture Through Feb. 16 at the BlackRock Center for the Arts, 12901 Town Commons Dr., Germantown.