Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Technological Sublime
Stanford Art Spaces is pleased to announce its March-April 2015 art exhibit, featuring drawings, sculptures and digital prints by Theodora Varnay Jones of San Francisco in Resonances, and digital prints by Penny Olson of Vallejo in Photonics (i.e., the science of light transmission through lasers, fiber optics, etc.)

Both are respected mid-career artists who work with materials and processes in a mode analogous to scientific experimentation, i.e., open-ended and empirical, without a priori conclusions or the aim of direct self-expression, but instead an interest in exploring the material and methods. Varnay Jones and Olson are thus a good fit for SAS science/engineering venues. Incidentally, the artists took a tour of the Nanotechnology labs in 2014 and took away discarded silicon wafers, which they have reused, repurposed and recycled to create new bodies of work: Jones’ two assemblage quartets, Analogy I-IV and Analogy 1-4; and Olson’s Wafer inkjet prints, digital interpretations and expansions of the color and structure of the high-tech found objects.

While both artists take their general approach from science, or at least its methodological cousin in art, minimalism, which rejected Abstract Expressionism’s macho glorification of emotion, but naturally, in time, began to look grandiose, taciturn and even corporate, they transcend the Spartan rigor of that movement by imbuing its abstract, non-metaphorical framework with philosophical and environmental concerns. The scholar David Nye coined the term, “the technological sublime,” to speak of Americans’ justifiable feelings of awe before engineered achievements like the Empire State Building and Boulder Dam, (the cultural equivalents of the natural scenery worshiped by the Romantics). The science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke declared, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Varnay Jones and Olson adopt the processes and procedures of scientific inquiry but make of it something magical.

Varnay Jones’ ideas derive from her materials, and her predilection for systems, but they go beyond formalism. Her ‘drawings’ on paper mounted on wooden supports—Indistinction #4 A, Indistinction #4 B, 9.23-9.29’98, resemble charts or matrices, with dots and color bars organizing the data; but her palette, craftsmanship and sense to tactility (probably related to her printmaking expertise) transform them into something more: philosophical game boards, perhaps. Her constructions of stretched translucent fabric stretched over wooden armatures—Transparency #17, Transparency #26—contain both space and, because the layers through which we peer suggest sky and water, and change as we move around them in time. (The artist Robin Hill called them “containers for experience.” A pair of wall-hanging sculptures fashioned from discards from the pharmaceutical company Novartis—Novartis 2, Novartis 4—suggests vents and filters, but also human hives or animal nests—high-tech versions of Joseph Cornell’s Dovecotes.

Olson’s approach is more photographic, but certainly not in a traditional way/ Her Streambed series of cyanotypes (blueprints, in plain terms) from the early 1990s arose from her collaboration with a UCLA earth scientist who had made a model of a pebble-covered streambed, studying its hydrodynamics using a stereoscopic camera. Olson used a pair of the 3D negatives but aligned them out of their parallax positions, out of registration, when she exposed her photosensitized treated papers to the sun, creating diverse (and unreal) underwater topographies.  Her 2014 series of panoramic phone-camera prints, Glen Cove, traces the artist’s shadow as she hiked above the Carquinez Strait, and the sunset progressively altering the colors of the rocks and rubble of the trail. Finally, her Wafer series transforms the discarded silicon wafers from the Center for Integrated Systems through a number of operations into something like icons—symmetrical, glowing and mysterious “ghosts in the machine.”  San Francisco Chronicle Art Critic Kenneth Baker wrote, ”Olson’s pieces ... achieve a sort of ringing silence such as we might imagine belonging to light itself.”

The shows continue through May 1. There will be a reception for the artists on Thursday, March 26, from 4:30 to 7:00pm, in the Center for Integrated Systems in the Paul G. Allen Building. The adjacent Packard Electrical Engineering Building will also be open — as will the nearby Cantor Arts Center and Anderson Collection (until 8pm—free admission). Please see Art Spaces for directions and updates. Parking at all university lots and structures is free after 4:00.

Stanford Art Spaces is an exhibition program serving the Paul G. Allen Building, housing the Center for Integrated Systems, the program’s longtime sponsor, and the David W. Packard Electrical Engineering Building, with smaller venues located throughout campus. All are open during normal weekday business hours. For further information, or to arrange a tour, please contact Curator DeWitt Cheng at 650-725-3622 or