“In the Garden of the Mind,” an exhibition of freestanding sculpture by Manhattan artist Judith Modrak, views through March 3 at New Arts Program, Kutztown. Modeling the cellular structure of the human brain, the artist represents the neurons, dendrites and other such cranial content into curvelinear statuary that oddly become creatures in themselves.
Measuring anywhere from a few inches to several feet tall, the cellforms occupy the floor of the gallery in a mock-surreal setting of work that looks to be made by aliens from another planet. They are made in casts of resin colored with acrylics or plaster painted with oils to offer a smooth, almost skinlike surface texture.
The shapes and forms are taken from the biological statistics provided by studies from doctors and scientists, placed in curious figurations that resemble human or animal interactions, as if having a conversation or posing in self-awareness. Arranging the work in series according to their biological categories, they seem to tell a story.
“Passion,” for instance, from the dendrites series, features a pair of plaster cells about 5 feet tall engaged in a discourse, just as “Fading Memory,” from the vital memories series, depicts a 4-foot supine organism, tendrils reaching up and inward as if struggling with something (in this case, the struggle is the dilatory effects of Alzheimer’s disease).
From Modrak’s statement: “The forms and concepts in my work bridge art and science by exploring scientific advances that increase our understanding of psychological and neurological landscapes, including the nature of memory, brain physiology, the biochemistry of neurons and neurotransmitters and the mechanics of sensory experiences. I translate these esoteric and often intangible concepts into three-dimensional anthropomorphic forms. These humanlike structures embody psychological and emotional states, often mirroring their beholders with a pronounced expression of bodily gesture.”
Another piece from the dendrites series titled “Family of Memories” portrays a sloth or anteaterlike form that is seemingly self-absorbed or contemplating something. Other pieces sit atop poles and express themselves through various gestures. Included also in the show is a life-size standing human figure titled “Ancestors and Axons.”
“In the Garden of the Mind,” Modrak continues, “unveiling as part of the New Arts Program, uses the garden as a metaphor to examine the lifecycle of experiences and memories. This site-reflective installation includes new work and sculptures from Dendrites, Vital Memories and Thought Storm — all of which use neurons and dendrites as a springboard to investigate how our brains react and respond to processing information and emotions. The current belief is that certain memories and life events create distinct patterns in our brains.”
As artworks on their own, these peculiar objects are well-made and do not need scientific justification to be art. And regardless that these works lean toward abstraction and surrealism, they are to a degree representational and portray real things in the real world. They adapt natural medical conditions and appearances into a language that is, albeit analogous and metaphorical, something relatable.