The Pomona College Museum of Art’s exhibit “Resonant Minds: Abstraction and Perception,” which opened Sept. 3, is the second in a series of exhibitions developed by student curators. This past summer, neuroscience major Nidhi Gandhi PO ’15 worked as the Curatorial Intern to the museum, where she drew from permanent collections to develop her science-influenced exhibition.
“Resonant Minds” resists the seemingly dichotomous relationship between the arts and sciences. It demonstrates that abstract art—from expressionism to modernism—can speak to our minds from a biological, psychological, and evolutionary perspective as well as an emotional one.
The exhibition features a selection of paintings, lithographs, woodcuts, computer prints, and photograms. Although the pieces are varied in medium, each one shows different ways in which our minds process perceptions. According to Gandhi, the curatorial choices were not easy to make.
“There are 2,000, maybe 3,000 pieces in the permanent collection, excluding the pieces they haven’t yet catalogued. I had to choose 16 or 17 pieces out of 650 abstract ones,” Gandhi said.
The exhibit does not overwhelm the senses at first. However, the pieces demand a closer look, pushing the unconscious mind to use mirror neurons, neurotransmitters, memory, and pattern and motion recognition to comprehend the art on display.
Theorists who attest to the importance of science in art influenced the exhibit, Gandhi said.
According to the neuroscientist Semir Zeki, who is featured in the exhibition literature, “Artists are, in a sense, neurologists who unknowingly study the brain with techniques unique to them.” Furthermore, Zeki suggests that art “externalizes the inner workings of the brain.”
With Zeki’s perspectives in mind, Gandhi selected 17 pieces that revealed neural processes. Instead of serving solely an aesthetic value, the function of each piece is to make “a reflection of the function of the brain.”
Among the artists on display is Arshile Gorky, an Armenian painter who participated in the Abstract Expressionism movement. His work Untitled (1944) shows a yellow piece of paper covered in graphite scrawls and doodles, as if drawn by a child. Yet, there is more to Gorky’s drawing. The artist is avoiding conscious intention in producing art in order to access and express his unconscious. Rather than evoking a careful process of creation, the ambiguous nature of Untitled realizes Gorky’s daydreams and memories in a testament to unconscious process.
In her book Echo Objects, which Gandhi read as part of the internship’s research component, art historian Barbara Stafford suggests that “since the nested and relooping brain—especially the temporal lobes—seems to recruit the same areas and structures over and over in various combinations in the building of our experiences, it does not seem extravagant to argue that the sight of shape and color radicals might awaken memories of a distant cognitive heritage.”
Unlike Gorky’s Untitled, Bruce Conner’s II is detailed. His drawings appear, at first, like infinitesimal stitches that slowly morph into the images of a sunset, eyes, a branch, and other familiar objects. II is a visual riddle, a puzzle of overlapping and interwoven images for the brain to decipher. The piece triggers the mind’s problem-solving activity. Upon deciphering the puzzle, the brain initiates reward by releasing neurotransmitters related to happiness.
Gandhi’s selection of works with the perspective of a neuroscientist will fascinate art and science majors alike. The exhibit bridges the gap between the disciplines to create a new one—neuroestheticism.
The exhibition, “Resonant Minds: Abstraction and Perception,” is on display through Dec. 22 at the Pomona College Museum of Art.