Guest artist Jackie Brown gives talk about recent “biological art”

On November 11, 2015, artist and Assistant Professor of Art at Bowdoin College Jackie Brown spoke to Colby community members about her recent work. Her talk in Olin 1 was part of both the College’s Center for Arts and Humanities Human/Nature yearlong theme and the art department’s Studio Artist Lecture series.

To begin the discussion, Brown noted that there is a strong relation between her work and the Human/Nature theme, as “ideas about nature and our relationship with the natural world are really at the core of my thinking as an artist.”

Brown’s pieces, which she said “are part of the broader conversation in the arts about the natural world and biology,” typically take the form of sculpture installation. The qualities of sculpture installations and the constructed environments that they mimic allow the viewer to integrate themselves in the work and “experience it visually and spatially,” according to Brown.

For a large portion of the talk, Brown discussed her installation, entitled “Surging Seepage: A Triple Bond Accretion System,” and how it marked a turning point in her thinking as an artist. To illustrate this shift in mindset, Brown talked about how, prior to “Surging Seepage,” she was interested in sculpting the human figure in clay and making “psychologically charged works.” Brown did extensive research on the brain to inform these works of art and found inspiration in the writings of neuroscientist Oliver Sacks. Sacks wrote case studies on patients who had different kinds of neurological conditions and anomalies. Brown “found it fascinating that parts of the brain would shift to compensate for imbalances elsewhere.” She noted that the shifts “force unexpected growth and evolution” which inspired her subsequent work.

After reading Sacks’s studies, Brown went into a self-declared frenzy of “making and experimenting in order to explore material as much as possible.” These experimentations allowed Brown to break down parts of the body, ultimately leading her to view the body “as a system of individual parts working together.”

The installation sought to highlight how systems of the body relate to other systems of growth in the natural world through the use of colors and by “blurring the lines between the real and the imagined,” according to Brown.

The choice of materials in this installation was especially important to Brown because she wanted to imply “mutation and processes” in which the materials would mimic each other and make it difficult for the viewer to discern where one stopped and the other began. Despite the importance placed on materials, however, Brown said that she did not want their make-up to be too obvious, so that the work could elicit “a flight of uncertainty and imagination.”

After discussing composition, Brown then moved on to describe the second phase of this installation, which she characterized with the “addition of new parts and new systems.” She spent several months experimenting with material and was ultimately left with “boxes and boxes” of parts to choose from. Along with the new parts, this phase delivered Brown a new sense of liberation: “If something wasn’t quite working, I might smash those pieces or dip the entire thing in rubber and then peel the rubber back.” Her newfound attitudes towards the components of her installation meant that “nothing hinges on a single piece and nothing should be too precious.”

Before moving on to talk about her next project, Brown discussed the work of other artists within the “biological art” field. She said that while she did not look at the work of similar artists before starting “Surging Seepage,” it was during her research for the project that she realized it might fit into a larger dialogue of contemporary art.

The next project that Brown embarked on, entitled “Brain Fruit,” concerns itself with the human condition and biological flux. Originally inspired by the osage orange, which reminded Brown of the brain’s surface, this installation began with “six to eight months of fabricating objects,” Brown said. Her research and art was guided by questions of what it means to be alive at the most fundamental level, and the development the brain throughout a lifetime.

The interests that inspired Brown to create “Brain Fruit” also made her want the piece to be open-ended, like the evolution of the brain. “How a work is made and ideas of what the work really is evolve together over time,” she said. As a result, her typical artistic process does not begin with a specific idea of what the piece is going to be or what it is about, but rather she “starts with an initial premise, and time and experimentation are key parts of the process.”

The final display of “Brain Fruit” happened concurrently with Brown’s rediscovered passion for drawing, so she chose to juxtapose the “macro” sculptures with “micro” drawings of the same kind of subject matter.

The talents that Brown showcased throughout her talk have not gone unnoticed, as her work was featured in installations at the Saratoga Arts Center, the Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts and the Roy G Biv Gallery for Emerging Artists, according to the college’s website. Brown graduated with a B.A. from Hamilton College and later received her MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University.

Some of Brown’s most recent works are currently on display at the MDI Biological Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, and she is in the process of preparing more installations to be displayed in Maine, Maryland, and Massachusetts.

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