Beauty of the Double Helix | Art Review | Chicago Reader

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Beauty of the Double Helix


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Valerie Beller

at the Kay Garvey Gallery, through October 7

Johanna Yerby

M.J. loftus

at Nomad Central, September 7-10

When science makes discoveries about nature, word eventually gets back to art. When James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the double helical structure of DNA in 1953, suggesting for the first time how organic matter replicates itself, they not only made a splash in the science world whose ripples are still being felt, they discovered the sort of icon that captivates even biology students.

In Watson's memoir, he admits that the beauty of the form he and Crick hypothesized encouraged them to believe that they were approaching the truth--surely not the first example of aesthetics having an impact on science. Architectural yet organic, orderly yet whimsical, and scientific yet sensual, the double helix has grown in significance as the place of genetics in the popular imagination has expanded. Bijan has come out with men's and women's perfumes named for the abbreviation of deoxyribonucleic acid; and one of this summer's blockbuster films, Species, betrayed some uneasy feelings about adventurous genetic research.

During the opening weekend of the River North gallery season I discovered three abstract artists who incorporate images of the double helix in their work. Because my day job is editing manuscripts for the American Journal of Human Genetics, I paid attention, noticing especially how these artists seemed happily unaware of the debates over funding for the Human Genome Project, the ethical issues related to genetic engineering, and the elaborate, laborious procedures that advance this science, though journalists often suggest that progress is made at a terrific speed. My personal associations with the double helix notwithstanding, the structure is undeniably beautiful and undeniably evocative of certain social issues. An organic phenomenon like a flower or a spiderweb can inspire an artist without carrying much cultural baggage, but paintings of the double helix cannot harness the power of the image without calling up the debate over whether DNA represents a scientific sham paraded before the O.J. jurors, a potential threat, or another way of spelling God. The great thing about art is that it can evoke without having to take a stand.

Valerie Beller, Johanna Yerby, and M.J. Loftus found the double helix by following three completely different paths, though all three express a utopian vision of the possibilities of genetics. Beller is a doctor's daughter who remembers looking through medical books at a young age and dissecting frogs with a friend and making drawings of their insides. She says that she tries to express in acrylic and oil an "overpowering sense of nature," perhaps derived from her earliest encounters as an amateur scientist but deepened by her experiences as an adult--observing nature, developing her style of painting, and thinking about what it means to be constituted of the stuff in science textbooks.

Her affinity for the botanical and zoological comes through in her paintings, but not in any programmatic fashion. In fact, the double helix I perceived in the painting called Arabesque was intended to evoke the ballet position and classic design element as much as the structure of DNA. It is surrounded by smaller calligraphic knots that almost but don't quite match the double helical form: to me these suggested protein molecules in the primordial ooze that didn't get hit by lightning and therefore didn't start replicating and evolving.

"Evolution" is a word that Beller associates with the double helix and emphasizes when describing the process of painting. Sometimes she squeegees patches of acrylic paint to create a watery or fleshy background, then applies oil paint. Working on several canvases at once, she initially allows them to correspond across the studio; but as each one evolves, accumulating skeins and fields of oil paint, it builds up its own discrete logic, which Beller permits to reach its own conclusion. Although two of these paintings were created side by side, the energetic, Miro-like Memento Mori and the more restful Nocturne explore the tensions between inner and outer, center and periphery, deep and superficial layers, in very different ways. The tensions between inner and outer have mounted as Beller continues to wonder about internal structures--biological, psychological, and metaphysical--though she expresses that wonder in a medium, painting, that is unforgivingly external.

Yerby and Loftus both exhibited for one four-day period only in the quarters of the defunct Struve Gallery. Nomad Central, their artists' collective, acquired a last-minute short-term lease, something they do in September and May every year to coincide with the season openings and Art Expo respectively. The proximity of Yerby's and Loftus's works was accidental, but it certainly emphasized the versatility of the double helix as an icon. Yerby's "Origins" series of three oil paintings and two pastels, both extensively worked over in charcoal, features double helices floating with simple geometric forms in murky spaces ranging from deep green to dark gray. Yerby admits that her scientific knowledge is impressionistic, not schooled, but she feels strongly that art and science come from the same source, the human instinct to find origins. Like Beller she alludes to evolution, maintaining that in evolution, as in art, "what survives is an accident." Each work is like a separate petri dish where forms can thrive or die depending on their relationship to one another, and such factors as humidity and temperature affect the final outcome: the surface cracks, the colors continue to blend together. Yerby makes paintings that not only interact with their surroundings but take that interaction as their subject.

Loftus has taught chemistry at the high school level and, in preparation for making the five monoprints on display at Nomad Central, studied genetics textbooks. Noting the humanoid shapes that chromosomes take on under the microscope, she seized the chance to put this formal coincidence into symbolic terms. She renders chromosomes (and the most realistic double helices of all the artwork I've seen) in red, green, and yellow over a pattern of rings that on closer inspection can be seen to represent fruit stacked in bins. Each of the five titles is a musical signature, from the simple 4/4 through the complex 7/4.

What brings these disparate elements together is the fact that they all refer to the artist's identity: the colors signify her Lithuanian heritage, and the titles express her love of jazz. Made during a personal crisis, the series helped Loftus address life rather than sink into despair. "The deeper I went within myself, the more at peace I could be with the rest of the world," she says. Though in an interview she cautions that genetic technology can be put to harmful as well as beneficial uses, the depth of her understanding of and identification with genetic concepts is remarkable. I can't imagine the same thing happening with symbols drawn from computer science, say, or astrophysics, perhaps because artists share with geneticists a preoccupation with identity and, ultimately, with the forces of life itself.

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