Gallery Brochure: Harmonic States

From Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program

Ever since Artistoltle clearly differentiated them, art and science have maintained an uneasy truce. Historically, these antagonists of intuition and reason have converged and diverged, blurring some seemingly hard-and-fast distinctions. There is no question that scientific discoveries have influenced the visual arts. The use of the one-point perspective in painting was an outgrowth of the empirical bent of Renaissance science, while impressionism reflected nineteenth-century discoveries about light and optics. In our own century, the cubist fracturing of the plane is analogous to the physicist's relativistic investigations into multiple frames of reference. It shouldn't really surprise us that these two erstwhile adversaries share a family resemblance. As Jack Burnham points out, "What connects art to science is an abiding similarity between the artistic and scientific mind: it is as if both were motivated by the same pangs of discovery and a desire for the consummation of ideas into beautiful totalities."

Jantje Visscher's lyrically undulating fields embody this "abiding similarity," a kinship born out of a sense of wonder at the workings of the world. Her visual images are based on moire or interference patterns that result when two grids are superimposed. The term is derived from the textile industry, where moires ripple through the irregular weave of silk or other cloth. It also describes the circular patterns that can be glimpsed in a double layer of window screens. Of endless fascination to Visscher is the capacity of a simple arrangement of straight lines to suggest an undulating, expansive space that pulsates with energy and shifts in response to the viewer's movement. ALthough Visscher's paintings are not illustrations of scientific principles, they nevertheless share the characteristics of a new world view currently being forged by such sciences as physics and psychology.

At present, we seem poised between two paradigms of reality. On the one side is the familiar terrain of classical physics which conforms to our commonsensical notions of how things operate. On the other is a strange, shifting cosmos where space and time, matter and energy, mind and body lose their distinctions and flow amorphously into each other. This is realm of the space-time continuum and non-Euclidian geometries, Einstein's theory of relativity, and Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. Here, all the old guideposts that have marked Western thought for five hundred years are swept away. Scientific "objectivity," absolute space and time, the lon-established laws of matter and motion are all revealed as suppositions of a mind that insists the world should be the way it seems.

These discoveries have set in motiona conceptual revolution, a transition from a world formerly conceived of as isolated entities to a universe made up of an interlocking matrix of relationships. In this new scheme, the atom counts for nothing outside of its interactions with other stoms, and electron can be simulateously a wave and a particle, and human consciousness is created through encounters with its environment.

Jantje Visscher's precisely delineated grids partake of this puzzling new view of reality. Each work in the Moire Seriesis based upon a simple plotting system: a set of lines radiating from a single point and intersected by a perpendicular field of parallel lines. The system can be seen in its purest form in Mountain, where the lines spread out from the central "peak" to the widening base of a massive pyramid. Differing only in size of the angles between the radiating lines and the choice of repeated patterns, the other works are all variations on this theme. Horizon, for example, lops off the point of convergence to create a more open, expansive space. Intersection of Light and Time repeats a small portion of the grid three times. Each time the scale expands until the overall pattern becomes almost impossible to read. Night Rainbow and Moire Commentary each contain two mirror-image grids. The optical effects achieved in Visscher's paintings result from subtle additions of lines and colors which coalesce into swirling patterns on the flat grids. By dropping notches from the intersections of the two sets of lines, Visscher can create the illusion of graceful arcs and circular whorls that seem to move before our eyes. Recently she has been experiementing with color as a means of bringing out patterns that otherwise would be invisible.

The earliest works in this series, Mountain and Horizon, suggest kinetic landscape forms as they might appear while being traversed. The patterns sweep upward and outward, drawing the viewer on with them in the process. Thus they define a conception of space that is diametrically opposed to the flat, "rational" Renaissance space that has underlaid science and art from the fifteenth century right up to the beginning of our own. The discovery of perspective gave Renaissance man a way to visualize objects as if they were in a static arrangement on an empty platform. One-point perspective defined a system at rest- the roving eye could range across it without upsetting the external relationships between the islolated objects of the world. Renaissance space was the stage upon which Newton formulated his laws of motions, and Descartes imagined his mechanical explanation of mind and body. In architecture, Renaissance space manifested itself in logical, graspable interior built around simple, geometric forms.

Nothing could be further from the continual ebb and flow of Visscher's paintings. So it is not suprising that, when her works suggest architecture (as is particularly the case with Night Rainbow), they recall, not Renaissance formality, but the earlier mystical space of the Gothic cathedral. The sweeping arcs that weave through the paintings bring to mind the enfolding vaults of Chartes or Notre Dame. While their worldly successors were interested in creating interior spaces that were extensions of the secular world, medieval architects strove to create a world apart in which the faithful might palpably feel their connection with their Maker. The sense of motion we feel boundaries melt and apparently separate entities flow into each other. Thus, Gothic architecture provides us with an image of space so compatible with the latest theories of physics and psychology. The medieval world, like our own, is one in which the system predominates over the object. In Visscher's paintings, the modern and medieval meet in the image of the vibrating arc.

In the "Moire Series," boundaries that alternately dissolve and congel lead to inquireies into the nature of human perception. The vrichness of the work stems from its visual ambiguity, its capacity to suggest an astonishing range of effects from landscape forms, empty space, architectural vaults to cellular structures. Studies in Gestalt psychology reveal how the mind imposes order on visual phenomena, how an arrangement of lines on a piece of paper comes to be read as an image. Experiments have shown, for example, that the spacing of dots ona grid determines whether they appear in horizontal or vertical rows, and that a progressive change of regularly spaced elements produces an impression of depth or change in meaning. Thus, Gestalt demonstrates that it is misleading to think of the eye as a simple mirror of the world it observes. As in the new physics, which proposes that curving spacetime wraps itself around the object-events that prick its fabric, Gestalt demonstrates that what we observe is a fusion of the subject (observer) and object (thing observed).

The implications of Gestalt theory for Visscher's work are obvious. Our abitlity to read the straight-line patterns as curves and arcs, to see infinite depth in these flat grids, to shift back and forth between alternate readings of these paintings as two and three-dimensional fields (the latter ina manner very reminiscent of the mental switches between the duck and rabbit in the famous Gestalt drawing) suggest that what we see is as much "in our heads" as that which exists on the surface of the canvas. The "Moire Series" provides a visual analogue to phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty's description of consciousness in the world: "Visible and mobile, my body is a thing among things; it is cought in the fabric of the world, and its cohesion is that of a thing. But because it moves itself and sees; it holds things in a circle around itself."

Similar correspondences can be found with the Moire paintings and the musical "minimalism" of composers like Philip Glass and Steve Reich who, significantly, include medieval music among their sources of inspiration. Glass and Reich return to earlier musical traditions in which interwoven cadences shade into each other to form a single inseparable fabric of sound. Glass, for instance, creates rhythmic structures by progressively adding small units of five or six notes to yield larger cycles of thirty or more beats. Cycles are then joined to cycles until the sound begins to ripple outward like wheels turning within wheels. This creation of music out of the repetition of simple building blocks of sound isa startling analogue to Visscher's procedure. Both build hynotic fields whose perceptual complexities belie their simple constructions. Visscher's recent experiments with color as a means of picking out patterns within the grid emphasize the work's musical nature. The expanding yellow arcs that sweep out from the center of Moire Commentary can be seen as a visual interpretation of Glass's cyclical compositions.

Despite its strangeness, this new understanding of the world, glimpsed in the pulsating grids of Visscher's moires, offers us comforts absent from previous, more familiar formulations. Referring to the specter of a vast, unresponsive universe, Pascal confessed, "The silence of these infinite spaces frightens me." By contrast, Merleau-Ponty describes a cosmos that reaches out and embraces its inhabitants. "I do not see (space) according to its exterior envelope," he writes. "I live it from the inside, I am immersed in it. After all, the world is all around me, not in front of me." While science can tell us how a world like this might operate, Jantje Visscher's work allows us to feel what it is like to be, in her own words, "part of the universe in a magnificent way."

Essay by Eleanor Heartney.