Tag Archives: painting

Speculative Pentimenti

Speculative Pentimenti cover

Speculative Pentimenti: $40.00






Speculative Pentimenti: Painting in the Age of Endarkenment, the most recent book I’ve designed for the Institute of Cultural Inquiry, has just been released. It is one in a series of monographs the ICI is issuing about the work of its Associates. Speculative Pentimenti is about the work of painter Sande Sisneros, specifically a series of paintings from 2009-2011 in which she deploys fluorescing pigments to create two strikingly different states of each painting, one visible under normal daylight or incandescent light, and the other under ultraviolet light. The book includes an essay about the related phenomenon of bioluminescence (by Lise Patt), an essay about Sisneros’s work (by Sue-Na Gay), an interview with Sisneros, and reproductions of selected paintings in both their daylight and UV-visible states.

Speculative Pentimenti spread 2

the opening spread of the Gay essay

Speculative Pentimenti spread

a spread from the Patt essay

Posted in 2013, books | Also tagged , , |

neurology meets sumi-e

UCSD Gold and Black Purkinjes

Greg Dunn, "UCSD Gold and Black Purkinjes", 2010

Over on the blog Bioephemera, I came across the elegant sumi-e style paintings of neurons by University of Pennsylvania doctoral student Greg Dunn. Since my first passion in art, as a child, was for the Japanese and Chinese scroll paintings in the Boston Museum of Fine Art, I was instantly taken with Dunn’s application of this minimalist technique to a subject ordinarily accessible only through micro-photography. While the best such photographs are themselves works of art, Dunn’s pieces bring to bear the different affordances of painting: color and texture, selective filtering of subject matter, traces of the hand as well as the eye.

Dunn sells high-quality digital prints of his work through his website, and he also takes commissions for original paintings and scrolls.

The major cultural value of scientific imaging may lie in the technical reliability of the image, and certainly the canonical story of its development as a field with reference to such key figures as Andreas Vesalius, Maria Sibylla Merian, and Étienne-Jules Marey is one of increasing accuracy. More interesting to me is the ongoing problem of how we learn to ‘see’ both through and with scientific images. That is, how what we see and know affects the kinds of images we make and, conversely, how the kinds of images we make affect what we can see and know.§

Golgi-stained pyramidal cell

Golgi-stained pyramidal cell

For instance, I’m struck by how Dunn’s paintings home in on the branching structure of neurons, the axons and dendrites that create forms reminiscent of tree roots. Trees are prominent in art, and they are familiar in another sense through the frequency with which they are used as a metaphor—genealogical trees, the ‘tree of life’. It is easy to feel we understand what we are seeing when we look at dendritic representations of the brain’s micro-structure. There is also the fact that one of the classic techniques for making the dendritic structure of neurons visible, known as Golgi’s method, stains the cells dark brown or black through impregnation with chemicals that precipitate as silver chromate. Dunn has, in effect, found a painterly analog of Golgi’s method in the black ink of sumi-e.


diagram of a synapse

But it happens that I’ve been reading a good deal about neurochemistry lately, and there’s a whole other set of images and analogies at work there—for what happens ‘in the gap’ between neurons where neurotransmitting chemicals do their work. These tend to evoke images of riverbanks and ferries (docking, shuttling), of action and exchange, of a kind of chemical commerce at the molecular level. Where the tree imagery evokes stability, the synaptic imagery evokes fluidity. Neither kind of image is wrong—for one thing, the synaptic diagrams represent a different level of detail, a close-up of hot spots in the dendritic system—but neither offers a complete picture by itself. I find myself wondering: what are the images of the brain we have yet to ‘see’, the metaphors we have yet to invoke that will change our understanding once more?

§ A terrific article on this subject is Simon Schaffer’s “On Astronomical Drawing”, in Picturing Science Producing Art, edited by Caroline A. Jones and Peter Gallison. Also recommended on a related subject: Errol Morris’s new book Believing Is Seeing (Observations on the Mysteries of Photography), most of which appeared in an earlier form online through his “Opinionator” column at the New York Times.


Posted in 2011, latest | Also tagged , , , |