Blue Greenberg: Science, art collide at CAM

Feb. 14, 2013 @ 06:24 PM

“Alistair McClymont: Every Thing We Are Capable of Seeing, Sculptures, Drawings, Installations,” CAM, Raleigh, through April 28.

Science is the core of most disciplines; sometimes, like in religion, it can seem at odds and at other times, as with art, it can enter into a comfortable merger. Currently science and art are partners at the Contemporary Art Museum (CAM) and the results are some traditional and very non-traditional objects.
The exhibition is announced in the on-street gallery. Through the windows are one drinking glass on a table with a white powdery substance at its bottom and a flat form which looks like a giant pillow. The title for the glass is “15,450 Milligrams of the Evian Mountain, 2012” and the other is “Inflated Steel Form.”
Moving inside the sparsely filled gallery we consider the large sculptural forms on the floor and flat works on the walls. Gallery and Exhibitions Manager, Kate Shafer, walked me through the exhibition wowing me with her knowledge of the science and math the artist used in the construction of these objects. She began her tour with his very simple idea, one raindrop. Shafer walked over to a rather crude machine, spritzed a bit of water from a syringe into the space between a flat top and a rounded barrel-like bottom and the water became a jewel-like drop dancing around in midair between the two surfaces. The drop lasted about a minute and then jumped off into nothingness. Shafer did this several times and the tiny bit of water was more beautiful each time. In a corner of the gallery are three photographs, each is a portrait of one drop, looking very much like an exquisite gem.
The objects line up toward the back of the gallery, the raindrop machine is first; behind it is “Oak Tree,” a large structure, made of 55 sheets of 8-foot by 4-foot MDF (medium density fiberboard) laid out in a mathematical simulation of the way an oak tree grows. McClymont uses the board just as it comes from the factory and works it into a beautiful pattern through a system of flat layers. A quick look and it seems to be a pile of building materials waiting to be used; another look and you know this is an object of art.
At the end of the line and on the back wall of the gallery is a large photograph of the wing of an airplane; in front of it on the floor are two large shiny stainless steel pillow-like objects. The wall notes say, “Inspired by two plane journeys. An accidental photo caught the flash of the strobe on the wing at exactly the moment he snapped his camera; the steel forms are derived from a Mylar snack packet in which the air had expanded in the low pressure of the plane cabin.” The shiny surfaces reflect the room around them.
On the long wall opposite the entrance is “Eclipse,” 100 sheets of photographic paper, almost 70 feet long, blackened as they were exposed to light. The artist photographed the Sun, Moon and Earth and placed them at either end. The sun is huge, the moon is a tiny dot and the earth just a speck. This is a visual reenactment of the three entities in scale and distance from each other. The black strip beginning and ending with its white forms is more than an exercise in astronomy; it is an aesthetic experience.
Downstairs in its own contained space McClymont has created a simple system with ordinary fans to mimic a miniature tornado. From the safety of the museum space the funnel cloud is a thing of beauty; outside in the real world it would represent nature’s fury with the disaster it brings in its wake. Creating a museum spout was not enough for the artist, however, so he dotted large sheets of paper with a grid of paint and laid them under his burst of air; the resulting paintings simulate the irrationality of tornadoes and are mysteriously compelling.
McClymont’s objects do not have a political message, but his glass of Evian minerals gave me pause. That glass in the window has 15,450 milligrams of sediment produced by boiling down 50 liters (a little more than 50 quarts of water) of Evian water. According to Shafer he chose the glass because it was the tiniest object in the show. My own reaction was to think about bottled water as a travesty on the naiveté of the buying public. If it takes that much water to produce this small amount of minerals, perhaps we should rethink the powers of bottled water.
The artistic core of this show is conceptual art which had its zenith in the1960s. At that point in time, many artists coming from what the historians saw as the death of abstraction stripped art of its material form with the mantra, “all art begins with an idea and the result of that idea is only the record.” In a printed interview between the artist and CAM director Elysia Borowy-Reeder, McClymont said he thinks of himself as a conceptual artist; his work stems from an idea and the form follows. He also said he wants to “reduce the work down to the essence.”
The artist is British, with an international reputation; this, however, is his first museum exhibition in the United States. His university work was in fine art, but he began in engineering. He said, “I’m a keen maker with a scientific edge.”
The artist’s knowledge of Unix Time; Godel’s “incompleteness theorem;” Fibonacci Numbers; and the Golden Ratio are some of the tools he used to create his art. If you understand those theories you will enjoy following his plans of construction. If, however, you do not know anything about these scientific ideas, it does not matter. The objects are beautiful in and of themselves. Come see for yourself.
Blue Greenberg’s column appears each week in Entertainment and More. She can be reached at blueg@bellsouth.net or by writing her in c/o The Herald-Sun, P.O. Box 2092, Durham, NC 27702.SNbS