Touching the Surface

At the start of this year, I was introduced to the work of the artist Wendy Smith, who has recently completed an exhibition at Michael Richardson Contemporary Art in London. Wendy has a substantial history of exhibiting and recognition in the art world, and has combined this with a distinguished professional background, gaining a DPhil from the University of York and going on to hold several senior academic appointments.

Dr Smith’s work is built upon hand-drawn lines from which emerge beautiful patterns, cloud-like geometries, and optical illusions. Up close, the results are complex and full of detail, but at a distance the effect can be quite minimalist. Some pieces remind me of crystalline lattices, or the diffraction patterns produced by a technique called X-ray crystallography (both of which help scientists determine the shape of molecules and biological structures, as well as the eruption of particles as they collide in particle accelerators like CERN. It is amazing how often the structures and patterns we see in science are repeated and reflected in works of art.

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An X-ray crystalography diffraction pattern

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The paths of sub-atomic particles after a high energy collision

Three principals seem to inform Dr Smith’s work. Firstly, the simplicity of materials used: pen or pencil on board or paper, and the interaction of these materials during the drawing process. Secondly, the expression of motion and energy that arises from the creation and interaction of lines on paper. Thirdly, the constraints of creating art within two-dimensional boundaries, examining how these boundaries can be expanded through suggestion and optical illusion.

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In The Beam (2009) – an example of Wendy Smith’s work

What is remarkable about Dr Smith’s work is the spontaneity by which it is produced. Each piece begins with “no preconception, from the outset each drawing starts its journey as a voyage of discovery, the image emerging from the process as if coaxed from the surface”. This suggests an intuitive, exploratory method of creation, as opposed to a planned, structured approach to creating art.

Aside from the beauty of Dr Smith’s work, her art and methods made me consider how in art and science, points, grids, and lines can convey far more than their simplicity suggests. Physicists, in particular, have used very simple drawings to illustrate complicated concepts. An example of this is the famous Feynman diagrams, which describe the behaviour of subatomic particles. The magnificent achievement of their creator, Professor Richard Feynman, is the way that these simple drawings of straight and wavy lines are able to represent the complicated mathematics that describes how particles interact.

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An X-ray crystalography diffraction pattern

Another example in physics is the concept of ‘Flatland’: a universe whose inhabitants exist on two-dimensional lines, and which helps to explain the possibility of hidden spatial dimensions in the universe. The concept of dimensions and boundaries in art also made me think about an exotic theory proposed by string theorists, known as the ‘Holographic Principal’. According to this theory, all the things that make up our three-dimensional universe could be encoded by two-dimensional information at a boundary of our universe. Limiting the dimensions upon which something is created or reducing the boundaries in which it is presented might help to increase our understanding of the science, or enhance our perception of the art. Perhaps in nature as in art, higher-order information can be projected from a less complex source.

If you’re a fan of this type of work, you can also visit Saturation Point, an online editorial of reductive, geometric and systems artists working in the UK.

Photos: http://www.wesmith.co.uk/; http://www.crystalmaker.com; https://cds.cern.ch;   commons.wikipedia.org

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