Visual Arts

Lessons in Relativity: Peter Stephens at Nina Freudenheim Gallery

by / Mar. 16, 2016 4am EST

Artist Peter Stephens describes his current works on show at the Nina Freudenheim Gallery as the culmination so far of a long personal project to “transform the concept of landscape painting by changing the frame of reference…to include the structure and behavior of the material world at the extreme scales of the very large and very small.” Inspired by his reading and thinking about science and the history of science—astronomy, physics, chemistry, cosmology—his ideas about landscape include landscape on the moon and Mars, and consideration of the reiterative filtering and interpretation of digital data—visual imagery through mathematical numbers—by which we know what we know about other world terrains. As for the very small, he says other sources of his imagery are “activator/inhibitor and reaction/diffusion models of physical and chemical interactions—the basic mechanisms that nature uses to create patterns.” 

The title of the exhibit is “Lessons in Relativity.” It is intended to commemorate the centenary of the publication of Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity (in the year 1915 actually).

There’s much going on here conceptually and artistically. The subject matter fabric of the universe—in that trite but nonetheless lovely metaphor—literally—scientifically—interpreted. Then reinterpreted artistically—another act of metaphor—into works resembling fabric in a literal sense—textiles—in colorful and exotic patterns. 

Patterns that refer to current scientific ideas as disparate—or possibly harmonious aspects of some still to be discovered theory of everything—as the big bang initiation of the cosmos account and recent string theory refinements on Einstein’s theory. Or maybe better call it strand theory, as it more appears in some of these artworks, featuring undulant strands suggesting—in addition to current string theory—the historical theory—from Einstein predecessor Johannes Kepler—of literal musical harmonies of the spheres as main ingredient in the glue that holds the universe together. 

Other works suggest other possible Keplerian reference. Several feature an enormous multi-faceted irregular crystal—like a diamond burgeoned out of control of its own internal organizational principle—evoking infinitesimal scale structure of matter science but also Kepler’s theory about the physical structure of the universe—in the seventeenth century limited to the solar system—as a series of nested one within the other regular polyhedra, solid geometrical figures bounded by regular polygons. 

All the works on show are composed of an underlayer mosaic of paint chips—the little square or rectangular paint color samples obtainable free of charge usually from bucket paint stores—overpainted in thin strips or stripes and/or more elaborate patterns varying from the crystallographic and explosive designs to paisley effect swirls and curlicues. To vermiculate patterns—worm forms and underground tunnels—possibly to represent inferential model physical and chemical actions/reactions, versus observable in a literal visual manner. Another variety of metaphor. 

As for the textile general appearance of the work, the paint chip underlayers—prevalently in softer more than brighter pastel hues—confers a basic sense of plaids—tartans occasionally, but more often more akin to madras—more than stripes, as an effect of the overlay paint stripes. But wildly colorful fabric in any case. The overlay paint stripe examples evoke mola fabric, a colorful multiple appliqué technique needlework production of the Kuna indigenous Panamanian people. 

In his artist’s statement, Stephens has recourse to conceptualizations of theoretical physicist Leonard Susskind. He notes that Susskind uses “the term landscape in the context of cosmology,” and quotes Susskind’s formulation that “landscape is the space of possibilities, a schematic representation of all the possible environments permitted by theory.” 

The Peter Stephens exhibit continues through March 30. 

 Nina Freudenheim Gallery / 140 North St., Buffalo