Recent news of the first case of MERS appearing in the USA prompted memories of the effect of other pandemics and epidemics in recent years. The H1N1 flu virus, SARS and West Nile Virus all caused fear and paranoia to spread through populations. This could be seen in the ghastly facial expressions when a nearby subway passenger in Toronto suddenly began coughing during the peak of the SARS outbreak. And witnessing the pesticide spraying trucks that roamed Manhattan’s streets on a nightly basis managed send chills up the spine.
It also caused me to remember the work of a couple of artists whose paintings grappled with ideas related to the seemingly invisible workings of genetic engineering and viral infection.
Mia Brownell has produced opulently detailed still life paintings that envisage highly atypical accumulations of plums, pears and grapes. In her essay on Brownell’s work for the catalogue Complexities of the Garden, Carolyn Korsmeyer writes: “There is something dreadful about the beauty of those chromosomal swirls. Their compositional harmony signals the power of what we are only beginning to decipher about the templates for life.”
Her paintings also make us aware of how our food supply keeps evolving. At one time food stores primarily stocked seasonally available produce, but today all kinds of formally unavailable fruits and vegetables can be purchased year round. Donald Kuspit, in fact, quotes Brownell on this development in his essay ‘Ambiguous Nature: Mia Brownell’s Paintings’. Brownell notes that when visiting a supermarket she feels “transported to a unique place without seasons.”
Yet this notion of plenitude also rings hollow. Though the stores may be able to carry more and more types of fresh produce, the evolution of agricultural practices has engendered an overall decline of food plant diversity.
David Blatherwick‘s canvases draw attention to the susceptibility of various kinds of organisms, membranes and networks to threats such as viruses and worms. Straddling biological and digital realms, these potential dangers taunt the imagination. In contrast to Brownell’s heightened realism, Blatherwick employs a non-specific visual vocabulary heavily indebted to abstraction. He has stated that his paintings are only meant to allude to “parts of cells, parasites, and so on. Then I link these different line forms into chains or sequences that in turn begin to suggest some kind of organic structure.”
The canvases convey a strong sense of vulnerability. Not only do the paintings appear unfinished, but his shapes seem capable of movement. In some ways they suggest views seen through a microscope. It is easy to see them as glimpses of a vast parallel world, at once prismatic, writhing and spasmodic.
These images offer some possibilities for how we might consider this unseen world that is in ongoing process of evolving. Visually captivating and unsettling, they leave us with mixed feelings about whether these changes may help us or cause harm.
Mia Brownell: Complexities of the Garden, Big Orbit Gallery, Buffalo, New York, 2006. Includes essays by Kenneth Bendiner, Carolyn Korsmeyer and Donald Kuspit.
David Blatherwick: Cheese, Worms and the Holes in Everything, Co-published by The Art Gallery of Windsor, Windsor, Ontario, and The Robert McLaughlin Gallery, Oshawa, Ontario, 2007, with an essay by James D. Campbell.
List of illustrated paintings:
David Blatherwick, OTYFN 14, 2007
Mia Brownell, Still Life with Villen Headpiece, 2006 (detail)
Mia Brownell, Still Life with Grapes, 2006
Mia Brownell, Still Life with Pear, Plum, Grape and Apple, 2005
David Blatherwick, CS-13, 2006
David Blatherwick, Indeterminist, 2006