Elemental Matters: Artists Imagine Chemistry in Title Magazine

November 4, 2011 - Philadelphia, PA

By Em Kettner

Seeking refuge from a sun shower, I ducked into an unassuming, business-like complex on the corner of 3rd and Chestnut Streets. The Chemical Heritage Foundation (CHF) is Philadelphia’s cultural hub of all things chemistry. To celebrate 2011 as the International Year of Chemistry, CHF presents a small group show in its Hach Gallery, entitled Elemental Matters: Artists Imagine Chemistry. Seven artists illuminate the symbiotic relationship between art and science, and remind the viewer how both are necessary in conceiving of the unknown. Displaying a range of contemporary practices including traditional printmaking, sound installation, and minimalist sculpture, the work is unified through a consistent effort to show how naming the parts—as the periodic table of elements exemplifies—does not necessarily offer a clearer idea of the whole.

It’s fitting that Dove Bradshaw’s Song of Which (Evelina kneeling, looking left) hangs next to the wall text describing the show’s collaborative mission. The image, a black and white photograph of a nude woman kneeling behind a sheet printed with the human’s chemical makeup embodies the main artery of the show: the listed symbols do not bring that which they describe into clearer focus, but rather add another level of mystery to a familiar form. Bradshaw presents the woman pictured as secondary to the clinical listing of her elemental construct—the informative veil ultimately obscures its subject. The woman peers down through the portal created by the oxygen symbol, and becomes more alien by avoiding the viewer’s gaze.

Where Bradshaw uses the elements to describe the human, Jennifer Schmitt uses artists to illustrate each chemical in her large-scale replica of the periodic table. For The Periodic Table Printmaking Project, Schmitt enlisted the help of 97 fellow printmakers to provide imagery for each of the 118 known elements. She presents this collaborative effort under glass on six adjoined plinths in the center of the gallery. Theoretically, the piece relates a community of printmakers to the referenced organization of elements: each artist could use their own skill set to create individualized prints that would contribute to the singular project, just as each unique element, with its specific characteristics, works in harmony with all others to shape our world. Though the effort is visually arresting, I ultimately found the piece a bit juvenile since the print selection favored a uniform cartoony style and obvious illustrations.

In a sense, Elemental Matters successfully dethrones the periodic table: one sees that cataloguing elements doesn’t really make them more familiar, and naming the parts doesn’t always reveal the whole. Jones highlights the mystery in his labyrinthine wall piece and considers the unknown a part of the finished work; Bradshaw combines the recognizable forms of stone and water, yet only implies the ultimate form the piece will take. The artists here embrace those spaces still left for the “unknown elements,” and leave me feeling confidently mystified. Outside, I imagined Alexjander’s composition multiplied a thousand times over. The rain pounding away at the pavement, I wondered at the ocean of tones I’d never be able to hear. It seems true that artists are needed to imagine chemistry into being—without these encrypted visual and audible riddles, we might forget how little we know.

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