VISUAL ARTS ‌ Weird Science 

Art meets technology in two downtown shows

I was always more of a word nerd than a science geek at school. Despite frequent assertions by our teacher that "physics is fun," I found it hard to get excited about the old textbooks he used. They had grainy black-and-white illustrations of lab scientists with '50s-style black rimmed glasses and ridiculous haircuts. It was as if some kid-hating publisher had a secret plot to bore children to death by flooding classrooms with dry and dated schoolbooks.

In his solo show at Redux Contemporary Art Center, bio-artist Kevin Jones has taken similar dour illustrations, blown them up, and juxtaposed them with star charts and pop-art-colorful images from nature, all mounted on aluminum. He takes the serious, documentary-style textbook photos and compares them with the almost magical, seemingly infinite mysteries of the universe.

Sharing space with functioning technological installations, the photos and accompanying diagrams reflect our human desire to define and catalog those mysteries, grounding nature's wonders in reality.

My favorite installations are "Vastness of the Universe," a sensor on a stand that scans for local weather reports; "Regelation Microcontroller," which shows an animated ice cube on an LCD monitor that melts and refreezes depending on your proximity to its sensor; and "Devices to Supply," with a calculator embedded in a Space Technology book. The calculator is powered by 20 moldy lemons arranged in delicate, wiry rows. All three installations are low-tech enough to reveal their innards while retaining the sense of wonder that technology can evoke.

Source Coding, on view through April 21, captures the impact of science and biotechnology while linking it to those dumb school books. My science teacher would be proud of Jones. Redux will show more of this kind of stuff in the fall, when the center starts a new lecture series exploring technology and art. Solid backup will be provided by the CofC's computer science and history departments.

Mary Edna Fraser blurs the boundaries between art and science in a very different way. For her new exhibition at the City Gallery at Waterfront Park, she's referred to geologist Dr. Orrin Pilkey's work on global warming and the way it's made sea levels rise. Since Fraser likes to create water-wrapped land masses with dye on silk, this is right up her street.

While her large-scale pieces ("Monterey Canyon" is 10 x 6 feet) benefit from the gallery's light and space, there are smaller monotypes on paper as well. The complex "Wind" is a more manageable 34 x 18 inches. But it's the batik work in bright red, orange, and blue that makes jaws drop and eyes pop. They're wildly original, remarkably detailed, and illustrate the watery erosion of great land masses.

Fraser's Water for Life art shares gallery space with photographs provided by Charleston-based Water Missions International. There's also a low-maintenance Living Treatment System on display, the kind supplied to people in developing countries with unsafe or hard-to-reach water. The ungainly treatment system contrasts Fraser's soaring aerial landscapes and WMI's down-to-earth challenges. The color photos, mostly depicting the beneficiaries of the clean water program, look out of place beside the graceful silk art. It would have been better to keep the photographs upstairs and the batik downstairs rather than placing them next to each other on both floors.

Kevin LePrince's "Water for Life" is a better fit. It's an oil painting inspired by a photo of a Ugandan girl carrying water on her head, detailing the intense heat around her and the sweat trickling down the back of her neck. Although its role in the show is not explained, it's the first thing visitors will see when they step in the door, helping to bridge the traditional (the informative photographs) and the invigorating (Fraser's textiles).

Aesthetics aside, the photographic exhibits, on view through April 15, acknowledge the global problem of contaminated or inadequate water supplies. The problem affects more than a billion people, and a child dies every 15 seconds from an associated illness. WMI aren't just documenting the issue, they're tackling it, too. Go see Fraser's work to see some fine art, and the photos for a wake-up call.


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