Science and art rarely bond so engagingly as they do in the mesmerizing sculptures and photos of Trever Nicholas and Ryuta Nakajima, on view through Sept. 29 in the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program (MAEP) galleries at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
Their materials are simple, even commonplace — Styrofoam, light, epoxy resin, photos of art in the museum’s collection. Oh, and some cuttlefish and Swarovski crystals. Skillfully manipulated and infused with imagination, such stuff turns quite magical.
Though bundled under the MAEP umbrella, there are actually two shows, titled “Umwelt” and “Luma,” loosely linked by the artists’ shared interest in scientific observation.
‘Umwelt’ by Ryuta Nakajima
Nakajima is an associate professor of art at the University of Minnesota Duluth, but he doubles as a cephalopod researcher, a job that requires him to swim in the ocean with a video camera recording the behavior of squid, octopus and cuttlefish. Among other curious qualities, cephalopods have the ability to camouflage themselves and blend into their surroundings. They do that by expanding and contracting different layers of colored pigments in their skin, a trick with obvious appeal to an artist. Besides turning an amazing range of colors, from translucent white to pink, coral, blue and brown, they can also texture their skin to look like spiny coral, nubby plants or sleek, hydrodynamic fish.
The show’s title means “environment” in German. Nakajima uses it to reference cephalopods’ ability to mask their appearance. The camouflage enables them to hide from predators, of course, but also perhaps to attract mates and even to communicate.
In his most imaginative experiment, Nakajima placed cuttlefish in tanks of water atop color photos of objects in the MIA’s collection — among them details from a 14th-century Madonna painting, an 18th-century Korean image of hell, a 20th-century Haida crest design and a fragment of an 18th-century Chinese textile. Then he took photos of the creatures as they tried to blend into their weird new “environments.”
Enlarged to more than 7 feet wide and roughly 5 feet tall, the photos are extremely strange and oddly fascinating. Centered in the middle of each image, the cuttlefish look like the grayish-white bodies of exotic moths whose “wings” are patterns from the museum’s art. In the Madonna picture, for example, the cuttlefish has adopted the golden-olive tones of human skin while the virgin’s eyes and lips appear as extensions of the creature’s body. Plunked atop the Korean image, the cuttlefish made its own skin seem bumpy as if made from grains of rice or tapioca. Confronted with Freda Diesing’s 1977 “Haida Sitting Eagle Crest Design,” it looked worried and threw on a shimmering blue line where its bottom met the picture. Elsewhere its skin is mottled with brownish spots and its head seems striped with peach ribbons.
Nakajima also created fist-sized epoxy-resin sculptures of cuttlefish, which he variously decorated with lacquer, metal studs, Swarovski crystals, 23 karat gold and pop designs of polka dots, stripes, army uniform camouflage, calligraphy and geometric patterns. Displayed on velvet pillows, the fancy ones look like exotic jewelry or evening purses. Others are set out like strange, slightly spooky toys. In all cases, his imaginative creations are a provocative meld of science and art.
‘Luma’ by Trever Nicholas
At first glance, Nicholas’ “Luma” installation may look like a mural-sized drawing of an immense, irregular honeycomb. Roughly 15 feet tall and 25 feet wide, it completely fills one end of a gallery with a delicately shaded gray-and-white wall of polyhedrons.
Depending on your perspective and/or psychology, the illusion may appear to be a flat two-dimensional drawing, or three-dimensional forms that recede or project outward from the wall. Stare at it long enough from a certain distance and your perception is likely to shift from one notion to the other. Walk closer and it’s clear that the “honeycomb” consists of backlit, translucent Styrofoam shapes that project 12 or more inches from the wall, creating an irregular matrix with a soft, glowing surface.
Fascinated since childhood by everything from milk bubbles to blades of grass, Nicholas has made a career out of creating curious illusions from ephemeral materials — aluminum foil, earplugs, balloons, plastic twist-ties, pipe cleaners, holes punched in paper. The present installation was inspired by the salt he loved to study under a microscope.
Indeed, the wall may resemble giant blocks of tumbling salt crystals, marshmallows, weird clouds, mathematical puzzles or who knows what. The familiarity of the wall matters less to Nicholas than its ability to surprise and delight. As he said in an interview on the museum’s website, “I prefer that my art has the grit to challenge daydreamers and academics alike.”