with Jim Modiano
McClintic, independent curator and author of
Modernism and Abstraction, Content: A Contemporary Focus 1974-1984,
and David Smith: Painter, Sculptor, Draftsman.
you have anything to say about the connection between the character
of your art and your time as a plant biologist?
From a scientific perspective, my world view has been
most influenced by the field of developmental biology. Spanning
all scales and levels of organizations, it studies 'the complex'.
Meaning: processes that are are irreducible, that result
from the interaction of numerous players, that display system-wide
behaviors not attributable to the individual parts, that exhibit
emergence. For example, how does a single cell form an organism?
How is positional information specified? What controls the formation
of the many specific cell types in an adult organism? The questions
of the major aspects of living systems is the phenomenon of self-assembly
or self-organization. In many cases events simply happen - the
result of the inherent chemical dynamics or tendencies of the
players or agents. You see it especially strongly in cytoskeletal
dynamics, in viral assembly, in plant phyllotaxis, possibly even
in consciousness - in short a whole host of critical phenomena
Discovering this for myself and studying it formally
had a profound effect on me. In fact, it guided my research
and shaped my perspective as a biologist. To realize that complex,
seemingly unintelligible events may in fact be guided by self-organizing
phenomena is a real show stopper: no central controller (read
genes) required, higher order structures arise on their own. Amazing.
From my perspective, self-organization is one of a few driving
forces in creation! I should point out that embracing self-organization
put me immediately at odds with the dominant scientific paradigm
- namely that of reductionism. Self-organizing phenomena are irreducible.
So of course, it informs my artwork. At one level,
I develop relational compositions to underscore the interactions
of parts that define and characterize the biotic world. In nature,
everything is dependent on everything else - 'cut it up and loose
it.' At another, I am striving to imbue the work with a feeling
of complexity and self-organization, something tangible that a
viewer can pick up on.
This is an effort to counteract our societal emphasis
on reductionism to which I attribute a great deal of the responsibility
for our current state of environmental decay.
Can you describe simply the relation
of tossing to chaos theory?
Tossing has very little to do with chaos theory. But
it has everything to do with complexity and specifically, self-organization
and emergence. As I mentioned earlier in my answer to your first
question, living systems are complex. They are characterized by
having many agents that undergo self-organization and display
emergence. In the tossed compositions, I endeavor to embody these
phenomena both conceptually and actually.
The individual shapes that are tossed are analogous
to agents in a complex system - they could be specific cell types
for example. The act of random, tossing is equivalent to the engine
of self-organization - individual shapes (agents) are driven to
form higher order structures (organize) based on their inherent
properties - in this case visual; shape, color, size (as opposed
to inherent chemical properties say of some molecule in a cell).
As the randomly, tossed shapes begin to interact visually,
they form higher order structures that are not present overtly
in the individual shapes, but rather inherently. This is emergence
and is equivalent to the phenomenon of emergence that occurs in
complex systems. For example, consider the complex shapes formed
when individual triangles begin to overlap into a network or when
two distinct shapes (triangle and circle, for example) begin to
interact. The shapes that arise are unique. They are not found
in the agents nor are they formed by a controller.
The net result of all the tossing is the development
of an 'entity' that has arisen through self-organization. It displays
novelty by virtue of all the random interactions of agents some
of which give rise to emergent properties. In the tossed, cutout
compositions, being and doing are one in the sense that the composition
is formed by the very processes it describes.
How do you choose your colors?
Simply, I choose them intuitively. However,
I am guided by what I call the principle of threes. Some time
ago, when I was just learning to paint, I was walking in the forest
and appreciating light reflecting on water. I realized that
it only took three tones of a single color to recreate the highlights
and three tones of a second to recreate the shadows. As
time went on, I found this three-ness showing up time and time
again in nature painting and so the principle of threes. This
is a rule of color parsimony that has wide application in landscape
So today, in working a single color, I typically utilize
three tones of that color and in developing color harmonies I
frequently work with three colors [also in three tones]. For a
total of nine. I find this the minimum number of distinct tones
that yields the desired vitality.
What writers on color theory have
Color is an area of great interest to me and one I
do a lot of reading in. I don't get much out of [color] theory
and can't say I am guided by any of it. I prefer the view of color
provided by the cognitive scientists (Leo Hurvich, for example).
I also like Berlin and Kay and other workers in the area
of color anthropology/linguistics.
The evolutionary significance of color vision is to
distinguish object from background. I prefer to view color from
the perspective of the embodied individual in the environment.
In this regard, I love the phenomenon of color constancy (wherein
our perception of a color is steady in the face of differing stimuli).
Now in principle, I ascribe to the idea that color
has profound effect upon our psyches. This owes to to the direct
link of color stimulation to our central nervous system. I like
to think that distinct colors have neurological impact beyond
their mere perception and that through color there is the potential
to influence mood and perhaps behavior.