Recent advances in computer-imaging technology have allowed scientists to
picture the inconceivable by capturing background radiation emanating from
the Big Bang. The result is a beautiful digital rendering that still gives
the novice very little sense of what the universe actually looks like.
Jonathan Feldschuh has made the wise decision to turn these data
accumulations into something more tangible, a painting such as Early
Universe North Galactic Hemisphere. Not that anyone still believes in
painting’s truth-telling capacity, but acrylic on canvas offers a degree of
materiality that is welcome when dealing with mind-bending abstractions.
While the attempt to cram the entire universe into a canvas is clearly
quixotic, it is hardly unusual in the history of modernism to think in terms
of universals. The early moves toward total abstraction in the work of
artists like Malevich, Mondrian, and Kandinsky were accompanied by utopian
claims about greater communicability and higher states of consciousness.
This generation of artists was also impressed by recent developments in the
laboratory, for instance the experiments by particle physicists that
revealed the properties of atoms. Being personally educated in physics,
Feldschuh is hardly new to these discussions, but a shared sense of awe
before the miracle of science is present in his work.
Although Feldschuh’s latest series, Macrocosm, concretizes maddeningly
complex information, it yet again reveals art’s fictional status. As Picasso
famously pointed out in 1923, “Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth,
at least the truth that is given us to understand.” The second half of this
line is often left out when historians quote Picasso, but it is this part
that has the greatest relevance for Feldschuh’s new work. For he focuses on
the most up-to-date knowledge that is available from astrophysics. He then
aligns the relatively antiquated technique of painting with the outer limits
of scientific research to produce enticing images that might be taken for
straightforward abstractions. One is thus compelled to question whether art
is any more suited to representing the unrepresentable than traditional
fact-gathering documents like charts, graphs, or numerical tables.
If we find ourselves overwhelmed by the sheer physical scope of most
works in the Macrocosm series, Feldschuh’s Hurricane brings us to a
comparatively stable place. Making use of a photograph taken by an orbiting
astronaut of the earth’s atmosphere during a massive storm, he concentrates
on swirling cloud formations as they rotate above the deep blue of the
ocean. A pleasurably mild vertigo is induced akin to that presented in
Charles and Ray Eames’s 1977 film Powers of 10, in which successive images,
beginning in outer space, rapidly bring us into the microcosmic world of the
human cell structure, a locale that Feldschuh has also consistently
explored. Yet he adds an element of distortion via thickly applied paint
that conditions the experience of these abrupt shifts in scale. The multiple
layers of acrylic are built up in such a way that standing close to the
canvas renders the scene almost unrecognizable. Though the earth view
rescues us from purely abstract visual statistics, Feldschuh seems to
suggest that the closer you look, the less you know.