A comment in a recent essay by physicist and Nobel Prize laureate Steven Weinberg recalls one of the often–overlooked, fundamental truths about modern art. Writing about the impact of science on religious faith, Weinberg says “Perhaps I emphasize belief because as a physicist I am professionally concerned with finding out what is true, not what makes us happy or good.” He means to distinguish science, a comparatively narrow realm of demonstrable facts, from a subjective kingdom of individual desire. “What is true.” Transfer that from the behavior of matter in space to the way things look and you have the driving force of modern art. In Weinberg’s terms, all previous art was concerned to make us happy or help us be good. Good modern art wants to show us the truth.
Most educated viewers accept that an abstract painting, for instance, is about something—a feeling, an impalpable experience—but ignore the pivotal question: if you can’t see it, why paint it? One reason why Jackson Pollock continues to be important is that his large canvases show us the world not as generations of painters have shown it, organized into hierarchies imposed by the viewer’s eye and exercised through composition, but diffused and as intricately inter-woven like a microscope slide or aerial photograph. Another painter who shows us a similar truth is BYU professor Sunny Belliston. In both medium-sized canvases and tiny, three-dimensional constructions she shows how component parts marry in our sensory apparatus to become something larger that we choose to perceive instead of the parts. Just as we must see a hardwood floor as one surface of our world in order to navigate it, so we see her assembled images as composing a single surface or object in space. Central to this magic is the sensuous way she captures the character of surfaces: the patina and light-handling qualities that give an optical experience a sense of personality.
Upstairs from where Belliston is currently on display at the CUAC, Gian Pierotti’s intricate porcelain constructions display a remarkable, if seemingly accidental resonance with her work. CUAC director Jared Latimer compares Pierotti’s sculptures to fantasy vehicles from science fiction, and the comparison is apt enough. Leaning over a low pedestal, gazing down from above on one does recall a Lunar Lander. But the fantasy engineering of these strut-and-truss gems depicts something broader: the way contingency and improvisation turn the rules of molecular biology into the myriad forms of living beings. Like Latimer, I found myself reacting with admiration for the complex and intriguing way they achieve simple, if mysterious and not immediately apparent results, but for me this was mixed with unease that I might be seeing living, potentially threatening organisms. Like a lot of really good art, their purpose is obscure but their beauty is self-evident.
The drive to Ephraim, beautiful and rewarding in itself, is a lot to ask even for such a rewarding encounter with art and ideas. This Thursday, however, September 18, Jeff Lambson, Curator of Contemporary Art at the excellent BYU Museum of Art will deliver a lecture from 7–8 pm on these artists and their contemporaries. It’s an excellent chance to see the work and learn about the larger art context in which they are working, and we are living.
images: Ambivalent by Sunny Belliston and Murcielago by Gian Pierotti.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.