Sunday, December 5, 2010

Exhibition Review: Ben Hoffman's "The Cartesian Medium"

Ben Hoffman is both artist and mathematician. He sees something in nature that pleases his eye, and sketches it, but at the same time he sketches something else--the mathematical formulas that become the means for translating his vision into a digital format. When all the parameters such as size, position, shape, color, etc. have been adjusted, then all the mathematical elements, which by themselves are "fairly simple," he says, are layered together to generate a final graph, which will include the computer calculation of billions of points. He calls his process of mathematical visualization "Cartesian," a name he coined.

The results of thirteen of these graphs are on exhibit at the Nevada Museum of Art, and while I was sitting in the gallery studying them, the first thing I noticed that everyone who walked into the room made a noise. The adults went, "Ahhhh," and the kids said, "Awesome! Wow! Unbelievable!" Most of the images involved plants, trees, flowers; one was a feather (a 7 foot long feather), one was a starfish, and one was of a flying bird.

Hoffman's backgrounds were either black or white (not 255 white, but a nice mellow shade). Five of the images were almost monochromatic, like "Shrine," which was sagebrush (white, shaded with gray) and a grass-like groundcover (a subtle gold) against a black background. His "Crystal Coniferous," an image of a pine tree, could be taken for a high-key black and white photograph.

One of the most beautiful images to me was a "closeup" of a pinecone in realistic color, sidelit against a black background, one half fading to shadow. The pinecone was on the left half of the canvas, with the shadowed part fading to black in the center. On the right quarter of the canvas, very faintly, were the mathematical equations that led to its rendering. I was moved by the inclusion of both artistic vision and scientific thought on one canvas. His title, "Cathedral" made complete sense to me, as this work seemed to embody a reverence for both life, beauty, and science.

While all the images were striking in some fashion, there were lovely subtleties, too, like the inclusion of the math formulas in 13 of the works.Rendering a single image, said the display notes, "can take anywhere from hours to many weeks." The largest of the images, "Rooster," a horizontal rooster feather in black and red, with a gray shadow image, was possibly 7 feet long and over 3 feet high. I would love to know how long that took. Yet it was not the most complex of the images. A view of the tops of pine trees in a forest, in many graduated shades of color (plus all those needles) might have taken longer.

I love graphics, and these images, had, for me, the best of all possible worlds: strong graphic design, beautiful and carefully-chosen color, and, despite the "mathematical" way of rendering the images, a very spiritual and appreciative view of the natural world.

This particular exhibition also made me more appreciative of the art of the curator. The explanations, the way the images were displayed, on two opposite walls with the feather alone at the end of the room with formulas painted on the wall surrounding the canvas, was in itself a piece of art, totally in harmony with Hoffman's pieces. And I'm glad there was a bench in the middle, because it took a while to study and absorb these beautiful works.

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