Elemental Matters

In Elemental Matters: Artists Imagine Chemistry, artists transform ordinary associations about chemistry into something genuinely surprising and evocative.

By Christy Schneider | October 12, 2010

The chemical elements, the essential building blocks of matter, are ever-present but elusive. We inhale and exhale, yet phantom oxygen is invisible and odorless. The Hope diamond is carbon; so too is charcoal. And just as both scientists and artists use matter in their work, both can help us see and understand the elemental world.

This is the inspiration behind Elemental Matters: Artists Imagine Chemistry, the forthcoming exhibit at CHF’s Clifford C. Hach Gallery, featuring the work of contemporary artists exploring the elements as symbol, raw material, or energy. These artists transform ordinary associations about chemistry into something genuinely surprising and evocative.

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This print representing iridium is part of the Periodic Table Printmaking Project on display in the Institute’s upcoming exhibit Elemental Matters.

Lynn Macintyre

The columns and rows, letters, numbers, and symbols in the periodic table, though familiar, haven’t been explored by most adults since high-school chemistry class. Central to Elemental Matters is a display of the entire Periodic Table Printmaking Project, curated by Jennifer Schmitt, which includes 118 prints of each element by 97 artists from 29 states, one U.S. territory, and 7 countries laid out in the table’s familiar grid. With whimsy and conviction the prints in this project celebrate the chemical elements as they link to everyday life.

Works on view include photographs of German artist Brigitte Hitschler’s installation titled Energy Field 1. In the slag heap of an abandoned potash mine Hitschler planted battery structures of zinc, magnesium, and copper that reacted with the potash salts and moisture in the earth to fuel 400 red LED lights. Seen from the air, the lights are described by Hitschler as “tiny mysterious dots on sixteen poetic square meters. . . . They symbolize the past and future energy potential in the land.”

Allure and mystery are both central to the work on display. Dove Bradshaw’s photos show the beauty of the human figure juxtaposed with words listing the elements inside the human body. Herself in the Element depicts a seated woman, poised and unclothed. On the model’s bare back Bradshaw has painted the names of elements. Words decrease in size as they descend her spine. Elements in great abundance appear in large letters, while the viewer must squint to see the minute letters that list trace elements in the body.

These pieces and others in the show will be of interest to art enthusiasts, as well as chemists and chemistry enthusiasts. Visit the exhibit when it opens in February 2011, or check out the CHF Web site to discover more about Elemental Matters and explore how art and science together can lead us to a richer understanding of the building blocks of the universe.