In a new exhibition at Stanford University, Bay area painter Theodora Varnay Jones and photographer Penny Olson are transforming hi-tech objects into art. Connecting their existing practices to artistic explorations of science and technology, the two artists collected computer chips at the Nanofabrication Facility in the Paul G. Allen building. Stanford Art Spaces curator, DeWitt Cheng, installed their artworks on the outer walls of the facility in which they were fabricated, endowing the technological inventions with new formalities.
Varnay Jones encases her set of chips in layers of small round drawings and paintings based on their gridded surfaces. Partially obscured, each chip resembles a jewel, set in elegant precision at the circular center. The chips retain their technological qualities as they are distilled to ephemeral abstraction. Varnay Jones arranges these round encasements behind etched Plexiglas in horizontal pairs, creating a continuous showcase of round-framed geometric objects. Viewing this leveled progression of flat-sheathed chips becomes an excavation process. The multiple patterned circles add up to intriguing sequences of undecipherable codes, referencing their art-historical connection to mathematical origins of Constructivist language.
Penny Olson takes pictures of the same computer chips. Her photographs are illusive, appearing like three-dimensional holograms of multilayered grids floating in an unresolved phase. Speaking about her process, Olson explains that she digitally “condenses” the high-resolution photographs until the image of the chip converges into a blurred impression of stacked geometrical grids. These structures return to early influences on Olson’s work such as ancient weaving while the magical spaces that she creates in her soft edged lines, bring to mind modernist influences of Gerhard Richter and contemporary photographers like Michal Rovner.
Next to these new works of the two artists, Cheng installed their older works, creating small personal retrospectives of their technologically–related practices. Layered panels by Varnay Jones survey her invented coded language of circular signs. These works narrate the timeline of her practice of creating mathematically based abstractions of intermediate dimensionality between volume and flatness. Next to the new and updated Nanofabrication Facility, Olson’s works from the late 1980’s give homage to older technologies such as manual image manipulation with photocopies. These photos set a preface for her interest in technological forms. Together, these old works create a continuation and establish a progression timeline of the works of the two artists.
The exhibition continues at the adjacent Packard building, where current works by the two artists are shown among permanent displays of the first electron microscopes and early computer chips that were developed at Stanford since the 1950s. Like the electron microscope designed to investigate our visual field, the works are series of visual artistic experiments. Such is a series of dry clay reliefs that Varnay Jones exhibits next to the early prototypes of electron microscopy. Next to the old scientific instruments, the works seem to be arranged like experimental sampling of microscopic images, where each panel becomes an abstract composition of natural cracking patterns. The visual exploration evolves in parallel in a series of elongated color photographs by Olson. Her panoramic phone-camera prints create colorful formal conversations questioning the integrity of the photographic visual field. In this scientific environment the art works become sets or scientific data, that draws the viewer to survey and examine them. Retaining their original freshness as visual exercises, these series connect the artistic and scientific processes of visual exploration.
The strength of the show is in its site-specific installation at the historic Stanford engineering buildings, although the spreading of the exhibit over such a large area is sometime hard to follow. Still, the focus on the particular presentation of art related to chip technology in the actual building where it was invented and is now is now fabricated makes it compelling. The entire show is complex, apposing contemporary art and science to historical displays, connecting the art to grand moments in science. These connections are established precisely and modestly through the consistent pursuit of Varney Jones and Olson, giving new meaning and abstracted formality to the scientific results. In a wider context, located at the center of Silicon Valley, this show marvels in technology and celebrates in unironic freshness the creative scientific momentum diffusing into art.
Theodora Varnay Jones and Penny Olson
at Stanford Art Spaces
Paul G. Allen and Packard Buildings, Stanford University
Curator: DeWitt Cheng
Reviewed by Michal Gavish
The exhibition is on view until May 2nd 2015