New work by mixed-media artist Michael Paulus always gets my attention, and he has a new series up in Portland beginning today and running through August 1 (Stumptown, 3356 SE Belmont). The new series, "Ten Commemorative Plaques of Prototypes from the Millenium Bioengineering Conference in Hartford, CT" purports to document "lost" bioengineered species whose prototypes were purloined from a scientific conference. The grace with which he executes his strongest works keep us in that amorphous zone between science and art where anything can happen; in fact, it looks as though it did happen in some lost epoch in which the twenty-first and ninteenth centuries collided. For now Paulus has a couple of the project's ten pieces posted to his website; hopefully there will be more up soon.
I've been a big fan of Paulus' work since I stumbled across his Skeletal Systems series, which imagines the skeletons of cartoon characters from Betty Boop to Shmoo (a detail from Hello Kitty, his first in the series, is pictured above). Paulus' work blends curious concepts with anti-pop craftsmanship using methods and forms that seem at once refreshingly alien and old-world; in his Skeletal Systems pieces, acetate is laid over parchment paper on wood with a faithful rendering of the cartoon character on top and the skeletal structure inferred from their outward appearance, an exercise that renders the cute playfully grotesque and the plastic and Platonic utterly corporeal. I'd show his work alongside Harri Kallio's dodo reconstruction photographs in a heartbeat. Both artists play with our notions of evidence and authority and our fantasies' guerrilla war against it all - Paulus by directly referencing formalisms of the grand 19th-century style of scientific display and edification, Kallio striking at the heart of the matter with his reconstructions of the tragic icon of the naturalists who handed that style down to us.
"I liked the idea of representing these characters from a physical point of view, as though they truly existed with those features," Paulus said in an interview in Pig magazine last year (Italian, my translation). "So I decided to investigate 'clinically,' in a more or less objective way, the structure of some of these characters as though I were a scientist with a living organism that presented particular characteristics. I did it to capture their essential nature and to see them in a new light."
One interesting outgrowth of Paulus' "Skeletal Systems" work was that the artist worked with a profoundly hip middle-school teacher in Oregon who asked him if he'd mind if she used his artworks as inspiration for her students to draw skeletons for the cartoon character of their choice. Kids spent time prior to the activity learning the bones of the human body and attempted to incorporate them into their skeletal drawings of characters ranging from Homer Simpson and Pluto to the teacup from Beauty and the Beast. Below, from Paulus' website, is a grading rubric the teacher created for the activity (click on it to view it at a larger size).
"The interaction with the students was great," Paulus told me in a response to some questions I emailed him yesterday. "Actually the teacher, Mrs. Duncan, contacted me and asked if I would be open to her students using the skeletal systems model I had done for their science class dealing with the human anatomy - specificaly the skeletal system. I received a handwritten letter from every student and a xerox of each student's work. I love them. I have them all." You can view some of the student drawings and letters here.
It's easy to forget the role of imagination in science, and despite artists' frequent plundering of the riches of recent discoveries, little traffic goes the other way. Bringing art into the science classroom - whether it be to approach learning from a different perspective or simply to show how scientific knowledge is "remixed" by contemporary culture - can help bridge that mental gap for all kinds of learners.
Here is what my fantasy high-school science teacher would assign as homework:
View the selection of works from Michael Paulus' "Commemorative Plaques" series and answer the following questions.
Lesson extension: Shop class.
- What concerns about genetic engineering does the artist raise with his work? What tone does Paulus use to express his concerns? What reaction does he hope to achieve in viewers?
- What safeguards does the scientific community hope will prevent Paulus' worst fears from being realized? What are the limitations of these measures?
- (After a class discussion.) With Paulus' work in mind, draw your own genetically engineered life form that represent your own concerns about the future of bioengineering. Write a paragraph comparing the two creatures, explaining how each reflects the tensions between scientific progress and a respect for the natural world.