The Art of Jackie Leishman: thoughts on how novelty enters the universe.

20.ManyFacesofAnEve

The Many Faces of Eve by Jackie Leishman

I’ve recently had the chance to think about art and its place in the world. One of the long-term projects I’m engaged with as a scientist, is the evolution of novelty. How do new things enter the world? To give a little context to this consider: The appearance of art in Homo Sapiens is hard to date, but for roughly 150,000 years we just chipped some useful tools and called it a day. There are hints of art emerging here and there, but about 50,000-40000 BP something extraordinary happened. Something astonishing flowered into existence. We began to decorate ourselves, to represent parts of our world in bone and on cave walls, our toolkits exploded with creativity, beauty, usefulness, and intricacy.

Art is what defines us and structures our thought. It seems timely to reflect on this aspect of human cultural evolution as schools and institutions of higher learning cut back on art programs. Remembering our roots, helps us to understand that without art many of the advances of science, which rely heavily on imagination and creativity of those so engaged, would be impossible in a sterile world consisting of only analytical thought. Art is vital in itself for human flourishing. Moreover, it helps us speak the language of meaning and spirit. It helps us use both sides of our brain. Hanging in my office is a painting of Aspens by Boston(ish) artist Leslie Graff. Often when I find myself doing some deeply analytic bio-mathematical problem, something entirely left-brained, as they say, I’ll get stuck. I get locked into focusing intently on something seemingly unsolvable and go round and round trying the same things over and over–that don’t work. So I stop and turn my gaze to this painting and find that it triggers other parts of my mind and memory in ways that allow me to see the difficulty with new eyes. Like drinking a cool lemonade on a hot day, my mind and spirit seems refreshed. So art his important to me because I find practical benefits. But more than that, it speaks to me of deeper things, of a world beyond language and analysis. Art is vital in and of itself. Art for art’s sake is a concept I embrace fully.

Having been asked to be a member of the Board of the Mormon Art Center in New York as also brought me into contact with more artists and given me the opportunity to understand and engage with art more directly.

Recently I was asked to sit on a panel to discuss the work of Jackie Leishman. Once again art changes and saves me.

There are two things that struck me about Leishman’s work. The first is its novelty. Its sheer force of creativity. The second is on the experiential aspects of her work, and why, I think, it transcends its representational character.

Novelty is rare as the Preacher of Ecclesiastes reminds us in Ecclesiastes 1:1-9

2 Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.

3 What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?

4 One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.

5 The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.

6 The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits.

7 All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.

8 All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.

9 The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.

The writer of this work finds the world full of monotony and endless repetition.

And yet, I look at Jackie’s art, and it shines with newness, originality, and novelty. This is a better reflection of the universe than the preacher of Ecclesiastes would have you believe. As an evolutionary biologist and writer, I’ve been intrigued with how creation enters existence both in nature and in art. It still fills me with awe when I think how a universe in which once only Hydrogen existed, suddenly, with a little time, becomes one in which there are giraffes.

14. Water II

Water II by Jackie Leishman

The universe generates novelty and newness, and this is true in art as well, as Niklas Luhmann says in his classic work on Art, “The demand for novelty implies a retreat of time from all occupied places. There is no need for power struggles, no competition in this displacement, no need to prove superiority. To the extent that the principle of novelty takes hold, history and age no longer legitimate occupying places in the world whose sum remains constant. Novelty pleases because it doesn’t need to be regarded as at the outcome of some territorial dispute. Rather novelty seeks to do justice to time itself (by surpassing necessity through innovation.)” p 201

Leishman works from local materials—the found, the lying around. This constraint redefines the possible. This is also how evolution works, drawing the materials present in the situation–the genes it comes with (with slight modification through mutation) its body, and the local environment in order to create the newness of this world.

Let’s take beavers for example. Once they were just a nest making relative of flying squirrels that lived a semi-aquatic existence. Muskrat-like perhaps.

Then they began to modify their environment, maybe by taking some of their already present nest-building skills and trying them out on nests constructed on the water, which was later found in subsequent generations to be a useful behavior for damming the stream to deepen the pond, which enhanced their protection from land bound predators. It’s not hard to imagine that soon evolution was off to the races with selection honed teeth for cutting down trees, increases in size to enable movement of larger trees to block larger streams, and soon we get to the beaver we know and love today.

Once its pond making abilities entered the world, other creatures benefited from this new spandrel of large pools of water now gracing mountain streams, sitting like sparkling pearls on strings of cool brooks. These created an opportunity for numerous evolutionary adaptations in other organisms. Beaver ponds provide a stable resource on which other evolutionary trajectories can play out. Ducks found a new nesting place; many aquatic plants found places to grow and thrive; dragonflies could evolve away from stream-based behaviors and engage in pond lifestyles; fish species were able to find stable bodies of water in which to overwinter their fry. The beaver’s evolution not only placed itself in a new relationship with the world, with novel adaptations bouncing back and forth between pond and beaver, but other creatures evolved in response to the changes in mountain streams. These ecosystem changes also feedback into beaver evolution. Novelty and complexity increase in the world.

I suspect, Jackie does not picture one of her creations fully-formed in her head, as if she were pulling the piece off the rack of some Platonic form existing in the great beyond. No fully completed version is just sitting out there waiting to be discovered. It is a creation. She forms it from resources in the world, from her talent and training as an artist, and in the expression of something fundamental to her being. In our discussion about her art she said that the work itself demands what it wants. She sees something forming in the materials at hand, she adds a bit of this and a bit of that, something meaningful begins to appear, a piece of tape looks right there, no there, both from within Jackie, and from the materials themselves as they are laid together, a work of art begins to emerge. An organic activity of call and response, begins to take shape as the materials make demands on her to be taken seriously. Slowly, a work of art begins to enter into the world, (This description intrigues me because that is the same way that I write in my creative works). Spirit and matter are coming together, her life experiences, good and bad, play out in the medium, her expertise in photography and many other things frame and constrain the work, making something so novel and wonderful it’s stunning.

11. Star Nursery

Star Nursery by Jackie Leishman

Luhmann again,

“… creating a work of art—according to one’s capabilities and one’s imagination—generates the freedom to make decisions on the basis of which one can continue one’s work. The freedoms an necessities one encounters are entirely the products of art itself; they are consequences of decisions made within the work” p. 203-204

She gives us a new way of seeing. Which brings us to my next point. The experience of Jackie’s art.

Nick Sousanis, in his graphic novel / PhD dissertation Unflattening, uses Edwin A. Abbott’s book Flatland, as a metaphor for the way we think, and how we are often confined to dimensions of those thoughts. Abbott imagines a world of geometric shapes like circles and squares that live on a plane, they have a concept of North and South, but no concept of up—off the plane. Bound within two dimensions they are limited. Sousanis compares this to the primacy of text in human understanding and discourse. He describes how this flatness limits our scope.

“The means by which we order experience and give structure to our thoughts, our languages, are the stuff we breathe in and the sea we swim in. Languages are powerful tools for exploring the ever greater depths of our understanding, but for all their strengths, languages can also become traps. In mistaking their boundaries for reality, We find ourselves much like flatlanders, blind to the possible beyond these artificial borders, lacking both the awareness and the means to step out. The medium we think in defines what we can see. As S. I. Hayakawa described the situation: “We are the prisoners of ancient orientations imbedded in the languages we have inherited.” We’ve ben conducting this discussion amphibiously—Breathing in the worlds of image and text-seeing form both sides. Text immersed in image. Pictures anchored by words. Relaying meaning back and forth across their boundaries. Its not always done this way. Traditionally, words have been privileged as the proper mode of explanation, as the tool of thought. Images have, on the other hand, long been sequestered to the palm of spectacle and aesthetics, sidelined in serious discussions s mere illustration to support the text—never as equal partner. . . .

In replying on text as the primary means of formulating understanding, what stands outside its linear structure is dismissed, labeled irrational—no more conceivable than the notion of ‘Upwards” to a flatlander. The visual provides expression where words fail. What have we been missing? What can be made visible when we work in a form that is not only ‘about,’ but is also the thing itself.”

Nick Sousanis, Unflattening, p. 51-59

This describes my experience with Leishman’s art as well. When I first walked into the gallery, it was similar to the experience I have when hiking in the mountains and suddenly come upon a stunning vista or when I encounter the winds, power, and beauty of a breathtaking thunderstorm —I was awestruck. No analytic thoughts entered my head. It called to me in ways beyond language. The works confronted me with an experience of art being art. Art seems to let spirit speak to spirit.

1. Matter I

Matter I by Jackie Leishman

I am completely smitten with the experience that Jackie’s art gives me. It’s powerful, new, novel, compelling, and makes me glad I live in a universe where such things are possible. Check it out more fully here. And thank you Jackie for letting me experience your creations, because I’m convinced that creation and art are the defining attributes of our heavenly parents.

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Luhmann, N. (2000). Art as a social system. Stanford University Press.

Sousanis, N. (2015). Unflattening. Harvard University Press.

Comments

  1. ” … In mistaking their [language’s] boundaries for reality … ”

    Wonderful, thank you!

  2. Thank you. And so spins off a Sunday morning reflection . . .
    We give so much weight to analytic thought, even though it is the tip of the iceberg.
    So creativity feels transgressive.
    “He spoke the incarnation, and then so was born the Son.” (see “The Final Word” by Michael Card, and John 1:1).Is it all language after all?
    “All things were made by him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.”
    Is this life, the Plan, Jesus Christ as God in flesh, best understood as a creative act. Not inevitable. Not mechanical. Not logical. But a new thing in the universe?

  3. Thanks for this, Steve. Jackie’s work is powerful. Anyone near Provo should hurry to Writ and Vision, where this show is up through the end of the month.

  4. “I propose an art that is not private property; an art that will make other artists aware of their real duty as human beings. I propose an art that is not only an inspiration and an education, but also an art form that is aggressive and hostile toward present bourgeois standards. I do not believe in “quality” because it is only a monstrous device by which those who can afford “quality” rule those who cannot. “Quality” benefits collectors and museums, not artists, it enslaves artists. I would like to see “quality” replaced with quantity- in a true dialectical fashion. This will devaluate the art object and make masterpieces obsolete; there will thus be nothing really unique in art and, hopefully, no art history as we know it presently. For Chicanos, and all working class people, art must be more than just a matter of cultural identity, it must be destructive (better here than on the street).” CARLOS ALMATAZ Notes on an Aesthetic Alternative” 1974.

  5. I love the interdisciplinary aspect of this discussion of works of art. What you bring from your work on novelty, Steve, makes good sense when thinking about art. And your thoughts about art make good sense when thinking about Biological novelty. Thank you.

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