Author: Julia Buntaine, Editor-in-Chief, SciArt in America
Published: June/July 2015 Issue
Article link: www.sciartinamerica.com/magazine
Article PDF: SciArt in America_Judith Modrak
Interviewed by Julia Buntaine
Q: First, I’d love to hear a bit about how science has impacted your life, and how you view your relationship to science as an artist, and individual.
I was born with a curiosity about the natural world and a hardwired emotional sensitivity. These two traits made for a lively and adventurous childhood and continue to this day. From the earliest age, I remember catching frogs and worms with my brother, excavating caves made of dirt and leaves looking for hidden treasures, rescuing abandoned dogs and birds with broken wings, and drawing exceedingly detailed Parameciums and other single cell organisms in elementary school. While I majored in art, my love of science continued in college and I vividly recall dissecting small animals (which died of natural causes) in biology and peering into the mysteries of blood and other cells through a microscope. As an adult, I eagerly await the Tuesday “New York Times Science” section, read a number of science-based periodicals, attend science-themed lectures and exhibitions, and engage with nature whenever I can.
Despite enormous strides being made to understand the human brain, including, global initiatives, the brain still remains much of a mystery. The seed for the “Dendrites Series” was planted in 2013 as a result of reading an article about advances in understanding the role that dendrites and neurons play in Autism. It was a natural next step to interpret in sculptural form what these cells may look like when a person is young, old, anxious or affected by a particular condition. Without question, the “Dendrites Series” is a continuum of much earlier work (“Self-Portrait”, “Circe” and “Dionysus”) which probed the essence of identity from anatomical and spiritual perspectives. Understanding the natural world and decoding our physiological and psychological worlds within the imprint of the larger historical period we find ourselves in, has been a source of artistic inspiration and interest to me for many years.
Here and There, 2015 – 88”x12”x14”, plaster cast, pigment and oil on wood base
Q: An underlying characteristic in much of your work is the exploration of landscapes, specifically those of the psychological and neurological. How do you view your role as an artist in this long-standing tradition of inner-self portraiture in art history?
Throughout history, the artist has served as a reflection of their particular time from the snake goddesses found on Crete, to Rembrandt’s self-portraits, to Louise Bourgeois’ spiders. I certainly view the artist as a visual anthropologist of their times and experiences. I feel firmly planted in this tradition with my body of work voicing personal and collective concerns of the 21st century, while referencing our shared historical past and artistic precursors.
I am especially interested in modern psychology, myths of humanity, biology and neuroscience. The underpinnings of the “fight or flight” response, Jungian archetypes and the collective unconscious, folk stories and creation myths, the physiological components of fear and anxiety, the biochemistry of neurons and neurotransmitters, emotional intelligence, and the complex relationships we have with one another—these are the topics which fuel my creative process.
Witnesses, 2008-2010 -Variable dimensions, Plaster cast, oil, pigment and shellac on wood base
Q: Your figural works both exhibit and invoke strong emotional reactions. What is your goal with this body of work – to throw your viewers off guard and take notice, or act as an internal mirror?
A: My intent is to compel engagement and insight into particular psychological states rather than shock. Depictions of strong emotional content, such as vulnerability and anxiety, can be unsettling. In the broader history of artistic expression there are many examples of haunting and arresting figurative works which reveal greater truths—think of Munch’s “The Scream”, Picasso’s “Guernica”, Kathe Kolwitz’s “Mother with her Dead Son”, Goya’s “Black Paintings”, Michelangelo’s “La Pieta”, Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights”, Rodin’s “Gates of Hell” and so many others. Two bodies of my work which dive forcefully into our human coping mechanisms and generate self-reflection are “Witnesses” and “Standing”.
“Witnesses” is a series composed of six sculptures and seven panels, and was conceived as a reflection on 9/11 and other historical, cataclysmic events, such as the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in Pompeii. The series explores the notion of witnessing acts of violence or trauma and examines the nature of sensations caught in a moment of time, such as longing, hope, or pain. The three-dimensional sculptures represent witnesses to the original unnerving event and now become part of the spectator’s experience as they are viewed in the context of the larger piece. “Witness III” is agitated, “Witness I” is frozen in a moment of time and exudes a palpable angst and fragility.
The “Standing Series” delves into emotional and physical states captured in an unguarded instant. The naked figures seem to be in a state of fright, agitation or expectancy – on the verge of a breakthrough or breakdown. The seven sculptures in this series are caught between composure and collapse with their physical presence exemplifying this tension.
“Standing-by” is waiting expectantly for something to occur, not certain if it will and unsure about what the outcome will be, and consequently a bit anxious about it. Similarly, her smaller cousin, “I’m Here!” is afraid that she may be overlooked due to her physical size or general apathy. “One Step Forward” reflects the fierce determination involved in taking a step into uncharted territory. “I’m Still Here” is a resigned contemplation of her younger, former self, possibly even the self portrayed in “I’m Here!”. Aging is a recurring motif and explored from an interior perspective in “When I’m Old”, part of the “Dendrites Series”.
When I Was Young, 2013 – 13”x7”x3½”, edition 1 of 3 of a planned edition of 7, plaster cast, oil, pigment and copper leaf on wood base (private collection)
Q: Neurons, or brain cells, crept their way into your oeuvre with your “Dendrites” series. Taking on visceral and anthropomorphic forms, what is behind this series for you?
My fascination with the brain and how it works is the inspiration for the “Dendrites Series”.
Neurons and dendrites, the part of the nerve cell that transmits and receives signals, are responsible for complex functions including memory, perception and learning. Dendrites are tree-like branches or spines on a neuron that help increase its surface area and are specialized to receive signals from one part of the body to another. They are the only part of the neuron that fires electrical signals in the brain in response to stimulation from one of the five sensory organs of the nervous system, i.e., eyes, ears, and the organs of smell and taste. Unlike antennae, they are more than just passive transmitters. A 2013 study in the journal “Nature” discovered a previously unknown function of dendrites. They found that dendrites not only receive information but actually process it like “mini-computers”. This is truly phenomenal and captivating on many levels—it means dendrites store memories and other neural details.
With the “Dendrites Series”, I wanted to investigate how memories, experiences and other neurological conditions influence our lives by exploring the vessels in which these pieces of information are stored in the brain.
The pigmented plaster cast sculptures in the “Dendrites Series” use neurons and dendrites as a springboard to peer into our minds. The current belief is that certain memories and experiences create distinct neural pathways. When the neuron’s pattern of information is disrupted, it can interfere with brain function and is believed to play a role in Anxiety, Alzheimer’s disease, Schizophrenia, Depression, Autism Spectrum Disorders, and degenerative disorders like Parkinson’s disease. The sculptures in this series are interpretations of what these microscopic cells may look like when one is old, young, afraid or affected by a particular neurological condition.
For example, “When I’m Scared” interprets what a frightened neuron would look like. The neuron’s body is curled in a fetal position with its many dendrite arms protectively encasing it. The cell body has a number of cavities filled with red blood cells to amplify the fearful state that it is in. “When I’m Old” investigates the nature of memory as evidenced by long dendrite branches reaching skyward and back in time. The neuron’s nucleus is filled with smaller replicas of the larger dendrite to emphasize the repetitive nature of emotion and experience with age. In contrast, “When I Was Young” reflects the expansive and fertile nature of youth. He has short, chubby spinal branches at the end of all three of his arms with a very small nucleus as he is only beginning to store memories.
I recently completed “Here and There”, a seven foot tall addition to the family, based on Bipolar disorder. Scientific research suggests that certain conditions like Bipolar disorder and Alzheimer’s disease have associated degeneration of synapses and dendritic spines. The spines are considered “immature” and either do not develop fully or become spindly as a result of the disease *. “Here and There” embodies this discovery in the form of a shortened spine along her back, while the other attributes of her sculptural form are imagined manifestations of Bipolar condition. Her long dendrite arms are intertwined, though never touch. Her rose to deep red nucleus is filled with sunbursts and striations, representing the intensity of both aspects of this condition—the mania and depression with the gradations of both.
All the sculptures in the “Dendrites Series” share anthropomorphic qualities with their more literal figurative siblings and in many ways are the interior side of the same coin.
*from the journal NeuroPlasticity entitled, “Synapses and Dendritic Spines as Pathogenic Targets in Alzheimer’s Disease”, 2013.
Witness I, 2008 – 26″x9″x6″, plaster cast, pigment, shellac on wood base (private collection)
Q: Most of your current work is made in plaster – what drew you to this medium?
I discovered plaster casts with oil patinas, while attending the San Francisco Art Institute. While I work in a variety of mediums, including resin and bronze, my preferred material is plaster cast. For the past seven years, most of my plaster casts are 3-dimensional free-standing sculptures. Earlier plaster cast pieces tended to be in bas-relief form.
Plaster (gypsum) has a tangible organic quality, based in part on being quarried from minerals and reacting in a chemical manner when water is added. When water is added to plaster during the mold-making and casting processes, the plaster heats up and very quickly transitions from a heavy cream consistency to a hardened form. It is a very magical sensation and resembles a sculptural mini-birth.
Another core attribute of cast plaster is its ability to absorb oil and other patinas. Color pigmentation is a critical element in my work and this quality allows for a painterly, sculptural skin.
If all of the above were not enough compelling reasons, plaster casts also possess a strength and fragility that echo the larger ethos of much of my work.
Q: What is the hardest thing about your art practice?
Being an artist is not for the faint of heart, it requires great resilience and perseverance. Despite the well-documented hardships known to most artists, including myself, I would not have it any other way. My art muse appeared at a young age and will be my companion until the end of this journey.
As Margaret Bourke White observed “work is something you can count on – a trusted, lifelong friend who never deserts you.”
Q: In your view, what is the role of science-based art in our culture at large?
Science-based art serves an important role in humanizing what can be very complex and perhaps difficult to grasp conditions and processes. In this sense, art which stems from science becomes the gateway for a much larger audience to understand themselves and their world more completely.
From the earliest cave paintings to modern Instagram photos, humankind has had a need to visually depict and record their experience. In ancient times, humans explained the mysteries of the universe and themselves through deities and rituals. As science evolved, it provided another lens to view one’s role in the larger world. While not necessarily replacing religion, science has become the oracle of our time, shedding light on our existence in profound and radical ways. In this model, science based artists become the Pythias (or guides) to help others navigate and understand this emerging world.
Tried to Change, 2013 – 12”x7.5”x3½”, edition 1 of 2 of an edition of 7, plaster cast, oil, pigment and copper leaf on wood base
Q: What are you working on right now? Or what is exciting you right now that you’d like to address in your work in the future?
My neurological and figurative work is converging in surprising ways with two new pieces: “Secret Chambers: Ancestors” and “Family of Dendrites”. While not consciously intentional both sculptural groups revolve around family dynamics and could be interpretations of the same event addressed from an internal and external perspective.
The “Secret Chambers” series interweaves recurring emotive and scientific themes in a way which fuses the internal world of neurons and biochemistry with the external manifestation of particular psychological states. The first sculptures in this new series are in development and revolve around a concealed family secret involving suicide, “Secret Chambers: Ancestors”. The sculptural group is composed of two figures and a very large key. The troubled male figure is giving the “key” to a much smaller female figurine who is no match for the weight of this tragic secret. The key is loosely based on allegorical stories involving St. Peter receiving the “keys” to the kingdom of Heaven from Christ. The plaster cast key in this particular case is one to unlocking a neural and familial mystery and is encoded with the steroid hormone cortisol, released in excessive amounts in response to stress. While originating from a personal story, the sculptures are meant to serve as archetypes, not portraits of specific individuals.
“Family of Dendrites”, the sixth piece in the “Dendrites Series”, is composed of three figures in a posture reminiscent of a classical Madonna and child with a noticeable twist. The larger mother neuron is cradling two smaller children in her arms. She is protecting and shielding them from what may be a tumultuous ride ahead.
The two sculptural groups when viewed together comprise an interpretative glimpse of what family dynamics look like from the outside and the inside. Expect to see more sculptures investigating this fertile region where internal and external states intersect.