Portals of Possibility
Sarah Tanguy, Curator
It doesn’t take much to turn your world upside down. For Rebecca Kamen it was the sudden diagnosis of a brain tumor. But this crisis had unforeseen benefits. It awakened a cycle of healing and discovery, and inspired Reveal, an exhibition where Kamen alchemizes her study of the human brain, solar flares, and more recently, the novel coronavirus, into resonant works of ethereal beauty.
The artist’s passion for science started long ago. As a child, she spent hours taking things apart and inventing science fair projects with her chemistry set. Through a simple microscope and cardboard telescope, she marveled at the magical workings of cellular and cosmic phenomena. Summers were spent on the Jersey Shore gazing at the ocean’s rhythms and wondering how things moved in space. Back in Philadelphia, school was another matter. A visual learner, she could easily maintain focus and follow instructions, but had difficulty with reading and recall. It was only much later that she found out she had dyslexia. By then, her fascination with movement and dynamics had taken a firm hold, as had her interest in cognition and the creative process. Being wired differently, she realized, enabled her to intuit novel connections and turn challenges into opportunities. Looking back on her childhood, it was her parents’ gift of Rachel Carson’s book The Sense of Wonder (1965) on her ninth birthday that gave her lasting encouragement.
Fast forward to 2005, the year that launched Kamen’s current trajectory of exploring the intersection of art and science. That spring, she took part in an exhibition commemorating the 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity at the American Center for Physics. In less than six weeks, she created wire and metal sculptures that captured the very essence of Einstein’s thought experiment of chasing a beam of light. That experience had a profound impact, fueling new research, new connections, and new art. It grew into collaborations with scientists and mathematicians, remarkable ventures given her lack of formal training beyond 11th grade chemistry. And it led to the planning of the current exhibition whose focus on curiosity and the creative process was inspired by the groundbreaking work of Perry Zurn, faculty in American University’s Philosophy Department, and his twin Danielle S. Bassett, physicist and neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania. Kamen clearly resonates with the dancer, one of Zurn’s three models of curiosity: “the dancer [may] rupture knowledge and social networks by either jumping to a new idea or throwing existing ideas into a new frame.”
Reveal spins an engrossing account of Kamen’s far-reaching collaborations with her own recent experience. Guiding the narrative is physicist John Archibald Wheeler, whose vision, grasped through observation, details a participatory universe where everything—at once particles, fields, and information—interacts with each other. From the macro to the micro and the outer to the inner, Kamen mines the mysterious realms and cosmic forces hidden to the naked eye. With exhilarating leaps of the imagination, she unlocks curiosity as a dynamic link between the arts, the humanities, and the sciences, and exposes the symbiotic relationship behind scientific research and artistic production. Through painting, sculpture, and installation, she harnesses the visual poetics of abstraction to humanizes scientific breakthroughs in unexpected directions. In the process, the exhibition becomes part incubator, part laboratory, shedding light on the many and diverse connective threads of her own artistic progress during the last three years.
At the outset, a cabinet of curiosities beguiles with an amalgam of natural and manmade objects holding personal significance to the artist. From an assortment of rare quartz crystals, whose glyphic surfaces she finds accessible, and an antique astrolabe, a device used to calculate planetary positions, to a lukasa, a memory board handled by Luba shamans in the oral retelling of history, these objects speak to her in hushed whispers, exhorting her to plunge down the proverbial rabbit hole and test unfamiliar paths across time and place. A glass icosahedron, for instance, attracted her for its transparent and reflective properties, fueling a current body of work based on the Platonic solids. More recently, a spherical replica of M.C. Escher’s drawing Angels and Bats stoked her imagination for its tessellations that resemble those in quantum quilts and in the structure of a virus. Each object in her collection presents special insight and quiet joy, and as a group, they form a portrait of the artist’s encyclopedic psyche.
A series of interrelated sections follow, starting with Sparking Curiosity, an eye-dazzling composition that charts the complex architecture and connective paths of Kamen’s brain as she conceived and created artwork for the show. Developed at the University of Pennsylvania’s Complex Systems Lab by Danielle S. Bassett, David M. Lydon-Staley, and Dale Zhou, in conjunction with Perry Zurn, the semantic network visualization involves translating words through algorithmic sequencing into generative diagrams. In both animated and still versions, darting zigzags of color-coded dots and lines offer a rare glimpse into her evolving quest for knowledge.
Coursing through the exhibition, a body of mylar paintings captures the temporary double vision Kamen experienced in the fall of 2019, after an episode of vertigo serving as a messenger revealed a tumor on her optic nerve. More than records, these brightly hued and emotionally charged expressions were unlike any previous work: they were direct links between her inner and outer eye, in which automatic marks and overlapping patterns seem to fly off the surface. In some, thick blobs spread out and congeal atop the translucent mylar, and in others, orbital swirls surround washes splashing out from open cores or densely packed nodes. In time, Kamen understood that her tumor was a catalyst to visualize new ideas for the show. She titled many of these fantastical works Reveries (2019), in homage to neuroanatomist Santiago Ramón y Cajal who described the beauty of grey matter cells as “the mysterious butterflies of the soul.”
A section in the show devoted to neural complexity systems marks Kamen’s first pairing of the Reveries, with previous sculptures in this case. While both series employ mylar, the paintings radiate spontaneity; the sculptures, on the other hand, entail rigorous calculations before cutting and assembling the shapes by hand. Over the years, as she has honed her simple geometric aesthetic infused with organic poetry, she has come to prize mylar for its malleability. She enjoys transforming its translucent surface through paint and graphite and manipulating its inherent flatness into form. In Hemispheres (2019), a bilobal sculpture inspired by the cerebellum work of neuroscientist Catherine Stoodley at American University, a wire skeleton cradles a grey, undulating mass whose crosshatched surface pulses with a network of cobalt lines. By contrast, wire segments stretch diagonally into points and barely contain the topographical folds in Quantum Quilt 2 (2019), a work informed by research of Nathan L. Harshman, Professor of Physics and Director of the NASA DC Space Grant Consortium at American University. Here, as elsewhere, the tensile compressions of the sculptures counterpoint the atmospheric openness of the paintings even as compositional similarities emerge.
An uncanny convergence sparked the next section, which explores the corona structure at both the macro scale of a solar corona and the micro scale of a virus. The Emissions series interprets solar phenomena. In these paintings, frenetic bursts of yellow and orange erupt from glowing cores as they dissipate into gaseous swirls. Their origin can be traced back to a 2012 tour of the Solar Lab at Harvard University after Kamen had presented a lecture for the Astrophysics Center, while a powerful outbreak of solar flares was taking place. Everything seemed on fire to her, and she wondered how conditions so far away could impact the course of the planet. When the full scope of the pandemic became clear in 2020, she found herself pondering the opposite—how something so small as a virus could affect all of us—and shifted her focus to the novel coronavirus. Sourced in part by colorized SARS-CoV-2 electron microscopic images captured by the NIAID/NIH team at Rocky Mountain Lab, the Corona sculptures all feature a nested core with overlays of blue, orange and green lines that project into fiery spikes in Corona 1 and 3, and elliptical loops in Corona 2. Like the flaming halo of the Dancing Shiva, the Hindu deity who incarnates the cosmic cycles of creation and destruction, this high-energy work boldly conjures shape from chaos and flux.
Nearby, a corollary series about the impact of solar flares and global warming grew out of dialogues she initiated with heliophysicist Silvina E. Giudoni during her residency at American University. Titled Warming, the body of work centers around a spherical sculpture whose topography exhibits the powerful effects of invisible forces. Wire filaments weave in and out of openings that have pierced its layered folds, and its brittle surface, the color of molten lava, has been stained by a blood-red skein. Off to the sides, four companion paintings improvise on the shape of an elongated vertical mass. In some areas of these works, viscous splats of blue and orange coalesce into darkened pools, while in others, pockets of paint distill into a matrix of open and closed lines and spontaneous dots.
Further contemplation of these macro and micro phenomena catalyzed a body of work where Kamen examines their underlying geometry. She found their common shape to be the 20-faceted icosahedron, originally one of the five Platonic solids that the ancient Greek philosopher associated with water. At only 9 inches per side, the tiny mylar structures in Illuminations depict wondrous landscapes that spread over the entire surface, their angular projection from the wall lending an aerial perspective. While these intricate scenes have their own defining character, they share an elaborate network of lines, marks, and pools, all done in a rich, polychrome palette. The overall experience is visceral, the works’ shape-shifting capacity defying words. Some recall a walk in a forest like the first Illumination; others resemble a ravaged battlefield; and still others dissolve into fluid abstraction. To add complexity, one facet is hinged allowing visual penetration. Reminiscent of the glass polygon in her collection, these elemental sculptures generate myriad inner and outer views as they engage the ambient light and objects of their surroundings.
The exhibition culminates in Silent Spread. Featuring twenty-eight diaphanous spheres, the immersive, mylar and graphite installation interprets the migratory pattern of COVID-19 found on an SIR map. Rendered in a serene palette of silvery grey, the composition extends gracefully along a central axis, one side a near inverse of the other. Up close, each element spins its particular magic of gentle creasing, delicate tracery, and tonal nuance. And together, these intimately scaled works of various size generate a polyphonic harmony: In Kamen’s hands, the lethal organism has been transformed into a group of sensuous blooms with fluttering petals. As a response to Silent Spread, Shodekeh Talifero composed Virion Breaths, an enveloping soundscape that reimagines the individual sculptures as a cycle of expanding and contracting breaths. Akin to the musica universalis, an all-encompassing description of celestial motion dating back to classical metaphysics, the aural and the visual blend into a haunting, meditative state where the edge between dreams and reality blur.
Throughout Reveal, the works emerge as catalysts and enlist the power of metaphor to manifest scientific discovery in new ways. A mirror for self-reflection, the exhibition chronicles Kamen’s passionate search for patterns interlinking seemingly disparate fields, and her collaborative practice involving chance, experimentation, and repetitive gesture. Just as the virus has raised awareness of our global dependence, the ever-curious artist illuminates the value of uncertainty and flux. As she continues to seek insight and a positive outcome from difficult circumstance, she coaxes works into being that inspire a fresh perspective, while forging a dynamic model for both individual and societal inquiry. From the deep shadows of turmoil and loss, the inherent beauty of nature is revealed along with the promise of growth.
 Perry Zurn, “Busybody, Hunter, Dancer: Three Historical Models of Curiosity,” in Toward New Philosophical Explorations of the Epistemic Desire to Know, ed. Marianna Papastephanou (Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2019), 26-49.