Arts & Culture » Visual Art

Devorah Sperber at BAM

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No one can deny the growing intersection between art and science, the nature of which is being increasingly discussed by scientific and cultural commentators in the media and in literature. This interdisciplinary dialogue has been fed by advances in imaging technology and computers' ability to replicate neurological functions and other organic processes. We have also seen an intense interest in environmental issues, human genetics and the life sciences on the part of artists, especially regarding the blurring of the boundaries between the biological and the artificial. The result has been a new experiential direction taking place in art, particularly sculpture and installation, as demonstrated by Boise Art Museum's current exhibition of work by sculptor Devorah Sperber whose marriage of these opposing perspectives subverts the old left-brain/right-brain dichotomy we take for granted.

What is perhaps ironic about this trend is that artists have in many cases turned to science and technology out of a desire to recapture a flesh-and-blood relevance in their work which has been lost in an electronic/digital age that limits us to secondhand, virtual experiences. As New York art critic Nancy Princenthal has written, there is currently a shared "assumption of humankind's creeping disembodiment [e.g.] reproduction without sex, fetishism without eroticism, minds without wetware, fatal damage without death ..." Yet, surprisingly, this cultural malaise has in many cases inspired artists to find an aesthetic response within the very technologies that brought us to this predicament in the first place. And interestingly, more often than not, it is women artists who are pioneering this new sensibility.

Sperber's exhibit is the second in BAM's series entitled "Threads of Perception," which began in 2008 as a three-year program geared to new ideas and ground-breaking artwork that draw on scientific thought and technology to visualize the mental act of perception, and consider its social and cultural implications. Conceived by BAM art curator Sandy Harthorn, who has been particularly attuned to the new directions in sculptural and installation art (BW, Arts, "Art After the 'Isms'," May 6, 2009), the program invites artists who "have achieved recognition for their inventive use of digital and unconventional media to explore perception-related issues."

The inaugural exhibition of the series was the elaborate construction/deconstruction project "After" by Lead Pencil Studio, which occupied BAM's indoor and outdoor sculpture courts from November 2008 to last May. Constructed from non-art and found materials, "After" was a multi-layered architectural statement that addressed organic processes like regeneration and decay, exploring the transitory nature of the seemingly secure while toying with our ingrained perceptions of whether a structure is on the way up or the down.

Sperber's project is also based on a found-material aesthetic, but hers is of a very different sort, one that makes "Threads of Perception" a particularly appropriate title for her exhibit. As technologically savvy and unconventional as her work is, it has a strong craft element to it with obvious ties to fabric art. Using wooden spools of colored thread and stitched-together pipe cleaners as installation mediums puts her squarely in the company of other contemporary artists exhibited at BAM in recent years, like Hildur Bjarnadottir, Kendall Buster and Gerri Sayler, who also have acknowledged women's skilled traditional handiwork in their sculpture, thereby resurrecting the imprint of the human hand. So, too, does Sperber's use of Swarovski crystals, marker pen caps, colored faceted beads or other mundane items that come in a wide range of colors suggest an affinity for the unusual. Perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of Sperber's work is its merging of neuroscience, optics and computer technology with a Duchampian playfulness and a subtle folk art sensibility. The material beauty of these works, demonstrates an acute sensitivity to the character ordinary things and textiles can possess. The dignity Sperber says she looks for in her materials is on ample display here.

Anyone who saw the Chuck Close exhibit at BAM in 2007 cannot help but be struck by the similarities between Close's prints and paintings, and where Sperber is coming from in her art. Indeed, Close's work was the original inspiration for her interest in exploring visual perception in the studio. Both begin with a photographic image of the subject, which they then deconstruct into its visual components. Close's technique is to impose a grid system that breaks the image down into thousands of small squares and within each he draws or paints the minute abstract notations that together construct a realistic image on a monumental scale. Sperber deconstructs her photographic subjects digitally, by breaking the image down into pixels via computer. By matching an individual spool of thread (or other object) with a corresponding pixel, Sperber creates a three-dimensional composition on a much larger scale. In addition, her chenille-stem series called "After Dali, After Harmon" are reminiscent of Close's mutating serial images.

Nevertheless, there are significant differences in their art as well, which are informative. Close captures on paper or canvas the way a camera sees a person versus how the human eye sees them. He deliberately chooses anonymous, ordinary people for his "heads," whose faces usually have a passive, non-expressiveness to them. This way he eliminates the "distractions" of familiarity and celebrity. He wants us to respond to the objective, democratic nature of photography, where all the surface components are given equal importance, without the mental baggage.

Sperber, on the other hand, captures both what the eye sees and what the brain does with that information, i.e., our "visual biology," which is subjectively influenced by cultural forces, too. Her choice of art historical subject matter is based in part on those artists from the past whose art was informed by the science and technology of the day, such as Hans Holbein.

For those subjects composed of thousands of spools of thread strung on steel ball chains, Sperber has chosen to recreate iconic works by famous western artists like DaVinci (The Mona Lisa, The Last Supper), Vermeer (Girl with the Pearl Earring) and van Eyck (Man with a Red Turban)--all paintings we know by sight, which is the point. Displayed inverted on the wall, the compositions are impossible to sort out, our eye pulled in all directions by swarms of shifting color patterns. As we peer through the clear acrylic viewing sphere placed in front of the work (our brain), the image appears upright and everything clicks. Recognition is swift and startling as our memory takes over and fills in the details. Sperber makes it possible for us to experience this transformation as if in slow motion.

This unique, illuminating treatise on the "art of seeing" presents an intriguing taste of the possibilities science offers to the contemporary artist. It will be interesting to see if and how Sperber applies these principles in taking her own original imagery in new directions.

"Threads of Perception" runs through September. Boise Art Museum, 670 E. Julia Davis Dr., 208-345-8330, boiseartmuseum.org.