Art Review: Immerse yourself in the mysteries of the universe at the Maine Jewish Museum

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We tend to believe that scientific explanations of phenomena are absolutely rational, quantifiable and reproducible under certain controlled conditions. Yet two exhibitions by Portland-based artists at the Maine Jewish Museum – paintings by Michel Droge in “Deep Sea” and experimental objects from the PSBL collective in “Reflectors, Emitters and Diffusers” (both until November 12) – beautifully illustrate the impossibility of leaping over the mystery inherent in the heart of all creation and reality.

Droge’s work, according to their artist statement, “engages with the environment and the human condition in an era of uncertainty. Inspired by landscape, cartography and environmental research, their large-scale abstract paintings unravel existing grids and structures and make way for new ones. In many of their paintings, the threads tear as a dazzling burst of color rises from the deep depths beyond the canvas and unstoppably traverses them. Shape, with the exception of the fillets themselves, has generally been absent in the midst of these abstract color fields.

In “Deep Sea,” Droge literally dives into a new body of work that responds to conversations they had with Beth Orcutt, a senior research scientist at the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in East Boothbay. Orcutt studies “microbial life in deep marine environments, as well as the effects of deep-sea mining on ocean ecosystems.”

The sea affects all aspects of human life – generating oxygen, moderating the climate, feeding us, providing raw materials for medicines, affecting weather conditions, etc. But it is also, according to a current debate in scientific circles, perhaps the origin of life. The “primordial soup” theory (according to which we emerged as organisms generated in swamps) is now called into question by the hypothesis that human life actually arose from hydrothermal vents deep in the sea. ‘ocean.

Some paintings, like “Coeur de Dynamène” and “Baume d’Amphitrite”, seem to represent the hydrothermal vents themselves, with their orange-red eruptions and vaporous gray mists on a cerulean blue background. We can feel the heat (temperatures at these vents can reach 700 degrees) coming from the aquatic depths of the ocean. The names of many paintings, moreover, come from Greek mythology; Dynamene and Amphitrite are two of the 50 Nereids, marine nymphs daughters of Nereus and Doris.

Michel Droge, “Deep Sea Dreaming II” Photo courtesy of Michel Droge

In works like “Chemolithotrope’s Backyard” and “Sub Photic Celebration”, life seems to appear as small painted ovals which could be archaea, bacteria which are the oldest form of life and which thrive around these. vents and on the body of crabs. , shrimp and other animals that can withstand the light-less environment at the bottom of the ocean.

This oval pattern appears in various paintings, most sublimely in two “Deep Sea Dreaming” paintings where they appear to sparkle from the surface, like thousands of bioluminescent marine organisms floating in the hot vapors emitted by the vents. They are in a way a return to the form of the purely abstract works of Droge. The form becomes more explicit in paintings such as “Holothurians”, in which two green figures resemble real sea cucumbers, which are sea cucumbers, a kind of underwater worm. “Forest Spell” appears to team up with jellyfish, drops of paint spreading across the canvas evoking a forest of jellyfish tentacles.

None of these elements, however, are completely self-explanatory. Abstraction serves these paintings well in the sense that our understanding of life at these depths can never be complete. The riddle at the center of it all – how life actually emerges from the boiling environment of the vents – remains indecipherable and mysterious; in a word, abstract.

Installation of PSBL “reflectors, transmitters and diffusers” at the Maine Jewish Museum Photo courtesy of Zero Station Gallery

PSBL wall sculptures do something similar with light. Again, from the artist’s statement: “Light, made of photons, is how most of us discover and describe our physical natural world. “For centuries,” surveys have developed a progressive development of ideas and instruments for probing and recording light, deepening attempts to describe the world as it is … Engineering, ingenuity and beauty inherent in these scientific instruments were the first inspirations in the creation of these objects. “

The key phrase here, of course, is “attempts at description,” because no matter how complex and sophisticated the instruments we invent, the mysterious nature of these subatomic particles ultimately remains elusive. We know that photons are produced when electrons, energized in one way or another and orbiting at higher than normal levels, fall back into their normal orbit. This plunge releases a bundle of energy called a photon.

We can certainly measure this phenomenon – the energy it gives off, the degree of brightness it emits, etc. We can even reproduce it over and over again. Yet despite the fact that we can explain this process with precision, it is something that we can never actually fully “know” by experience. Yes, we see that it is light, but it is an incomplete perception of its effect, understood only with our eyes and brain rather than felt, touched, heard or smelled. We know what’s going on and how it’s going, but we don’t know.

Using materials and processes such as acrylic, aluminum, colored mirrors, chromatic lenses, LED lights, and digital printing, PSBL (an acronym for Punk Sugar Burn Lab) conjures up different effects of light and colored. A strong piece, “Webb Reflector”, bears the name of the James Webb Space Telescope which is to be launched into orbit in December.

“Webb” is inspired by the 18 hexagonal segments of the instrument’s primary mirror, which are made of beryllium coated with gold. The reflectivity produced by the piece draws a chromatic range of tints from the stained-glass window of the space and ambient light and returns it. Viewers are part of the work, which reflects and distorts their images like a funny mirror. It touches on the central mystery of things: it uses light, but it emits none of its own.

The central circular element of “Event Horizon” changes color depending on the angle from which it is viewed. We must constantly oscillate in this direction and this to obtain its full effect. In the center of “Dark Energy” is a rectangle or a square that cannot be seen from the front. Like “Event Horizon”, we only understand it at an angle, never directly and concretely.

Two “Eclipse” rooms emit light thanks to LED interior lighting. You could almost take them for large round sconces hanging on the wall. But the phenomenon that gives them their title is only fully appreciated if we see them from across the room. From this vantage point on the mezzanine level of the synagogue shrine, we suddenly apprehend the irregular auras of eclipses, and the disc in the middle takes on the visual characteristics of a three-dimensional planet or moon instead of a piece. of flat and circular film.

But of course, this more complete phenomenon can only be experienced with the yawning chasm of double-height space between us and the room. Again, it is, in a way, inaccessible. The inability to grasp and retain a phenomenon definitively is all the more poignant as the works are located in a sacred space dedicated to the mystery of Yahweh.

The works of Droge and PSBL seem at first glance to have absolutely nothing in common. Yet, in their own way, they each strive to understand something that will forever escape the grasp of our limited human brain.

Jorge S. Arango has been writing about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be contacted at: [email protected]


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