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Marginal: A new wall drawing environment

The white and uninterrupted expanses of the gallery—most suited to displaying art—lay blank and abandoned. In the interstitial spaces a pattern undulates as if it were a curtain from an earlier time, touching through to this moment, blurred around the edges, anchored to our time by the joints and folds of the space and the modern infrastructure. Outlets, alarms, signage and safety equipment pierce though where they would not have existed in the days of Christopher Dresser, the Victorian botanist and decorative designer who created this wall pattern. The pattern and designer peer through from the last time the worlds of art and science touched and intertwined—the idealized graphic forms of the pattern playing out early suspicions about the biological patterns that underlay our world.

The Victorian pattern leaks through to our own time sharpening and blurring, becoming most focused in the form of small plants—the Mouse Ear Cress, Arabidopsis thaliana. In 2004 it was the first plant to have its genome sequenced, thus making it the genetic basis—the archetypal pattern—for our understanding of the plant world. Each drawn plant, in all its peculiarity is an archetype manifested in time and space, an ideal played out with all the contingencies of the here and now. The plant populations around each interstitial object—an outlet for example—are drawn from live specimens, which are adapted to particular wild habitats and manifest particular characteristics.

Arabidopsis is a curiously weedy and embattled model for understanding the plant world. It is a plant that grows on the edges of rocks, in dry, compacted, rocky, and poor soils. It grows where nothing else will. The moment conditions become favorable—it disappears.

- NJS, 2011
go see Marginal →

Ornament and Architecture

Ornament and Architecture is a large scale wall drawing environment for the 2011 Pittsburgh Biennial. The work occupies an entire room—a 360° wall drawing environment. As the viewer nears the door, a graphic figure in high contrast radiates out from the opposite corner of the space. Deep, undulating clouds of graphite slip between a reflective silvery white and deep black, defining the forms of the decorative motifs as sharp negative spaces. Stepping inside the room, the viewer takes in a panorama of repetition and variation—portions of the restrained and idealized decorative motifs burst, giving way to images of exuberant, sensual and ungainly plant specimens. Coming closer the viewer sees that all these images are drawn directly on the wall in graphite. Many viewers stand, noses close to the walls examining in turn the details of the various plant forms.

Drawn in by the high contrast graphic motifs and made newly perceptive by looking closely at the drawn plant matter, the viewer turns and now sees what many pass by when first entering: On the far walls back near the entrance is a subtle, clouded, and ghostly wallpaper pattern—gloss white lacquer on the flat white walls. Looking closer, the wall pattern is a field of smaller versions the motifs the viewer has just seen enlarged on the surrounding walls. These smaller motifs are as they would have been in their original Victorian context—a wallpaper, a backdrop to domestic life, wallflowers. Near the door on an adjacent wall is a ten foot white lacquer positive image of the motif—this on the same scale as the large motifs drawn in graphite. The lacquer effigy seems to stand as a prototype, a platonic ideal presiding over the space and all the actors in it.

- NJS, 2011
go see Ornament and Architecture →
Read more about Settles' ongoing work engaging the Victorian design and the natural world →


The Natural Motif: Old Patterns in Modern Science

In the Natural Motif series of drawings on paper and wall, I graft together elements of plant detritus with decorative motifs from Victorian wallpapers. The source plant matter is small, such as the inch-long twig drawn in Fractionate (2009), though in the drawings they are significantly magnified and begin to take on the air of bones or grotesque, fleshy appendages. The drawings are spare, like the backlit image through a microscope or a Spartan museum presentation. The red in many of the pieces evokes the process of staining otherwise invisible samples on a specimen slide, and has the visceral overtones of blood. The Victorian motifs haunt the images like Platonic ideals—universal answers to the twigs' particularity.

I fastidiously plan the wall drawings using scale models, but quickly execute them on the wall in graphite over a week or two. Once completed, each drawing lasts only until the end of the exhibition and is then painted over--like a lavish plant with a short lifespan. One previous wall drawing, Transcribe (2009), was described by a reviewer as, "so purposefully temporary it feels performative." The works immerse the viewer, exploding past their field of vision and arching over their heads. Indeed, viewers engaged Transcribe in a curious dance where after inspecting the corner details, they then stepped well out from the drawing. This created a curiously specific, alchemical interaction between audience and the piece, which made it appear as though the work occupied a three-dimensional space.

The Natural Motif series initially evolved out of a decade among scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Through discussions with researchers such as Dr. Theresa Grana (developmental biologist, now at the University of Mary Washington), Dr. Kelly Aukema (biomolecular chemist, now at University of Minnesota), and Dr. Burr Settles (computer scientist, now at Carnegie Mellon University), I came to view nature as puzzle of knowns and unknowns, and science as a process of elaborating, inducing, and deducing patterns from a seemingly infinite field. I've been particularly influenced by the idea of the individual as a particular "ornament" within the overall "pattern" of its species and environment—a perspective originally put forth by the 19th Century German biologist and artist Ernst Haeckel.

My current work was also shaped by a formative time living in Cambridge, England in early 2007. There I met the work of Victorian designers whose patterns embellished the college halls and museums with nature-based motifs, such as William Morris and Dr. Christopher Dresser. These decorative motifs looked back at me from the dawn of biology: in the 19th century scientists were just beginning to suspect the underlying patterns of genetics that governed growth and form. Especially Dresser's patterns reflected the budding science of the era, and I began to quote them in my work like the ghosts of patterns suspected, but not yet fully known.

Upon my return to the states I was awarded a Wisconsin Arts Board Fellowship in 2008 for my work engaging art and science.

- NJS, (rev. 2010)
go see the Natural Motif Series →

Collapsed Explosion: Thoughts on Abstraction, and Representation in Natural Forms

Abstraction and representation have collapsed into one another. Fifty years ago biochemical and genomic analysis transformed the taxonomy of organisms from a system based on phenotypic (observable) traits into a web of genetic relationships. In the past decade biology has stepped from a practice of observation to a sifting of information, which is had cheaply and in quantity. Scientists continually abstract natural forms from their most elementary concepts into progressively exploded components. Each of these levels of detail, from fascia to minutia, is a true representation of the object or creature, and an abstraction from one level of information into another level of information.

In the form of a pet, a perfect fall day, or a loved one—all the biochemistry and genomic information becomes an arresting gestalt to the mind and senses. The abstraction of code and chemistry, and the representation of the individual hang in one of the most fabulously crafted tensions. The implosion of abstraction and representation happened because natural forms have multiple identities that are not discrete.

- NJS, 2007
go see the Corpus Series →

Field Series

Death is about what is missing; the void is palpable. The field of white, rather than the graphite imagery, forms the focus of each work in the Field Series. For these pieces, the white of the paper is more than an arbitrary substrate, but the focus of the work. I watch how the fields of white affect the images and choose titles based on those relationships, frequently selecting a word that is both noun and verb—an object and an action.

Working with graphite is meditative. It is a medium that does not usually produce images quickly; the hard thin pencil point yields only small amounts of material at a time. The slow, methodic process of using graphite allows a lot of time to watch the drawing take shape in the surrounding white space of the paper. I provoke the images out of the paper and out of my gut like an animal whipped into a show of strength. Working the piece incrementally through a long detail-focused process gives me an odd, cathartic detachment from the image as a whole. The well-crafted nature of the works is in its own way a method of embalming.

The unwieldy rush of life, death and disease among family and friends inevitably leaves me wrestling with something bigger than myself. I brood over questions about loss, absence, time, and distance. I am along for the ride, acted upon by the churning mass of contradictions in the work; watching each image emerge to distill my thoughts. As I watch the drawings materialize, they seem to have more in common with the sterility of hospital death than the actual dirt of graves. Sanitized and almost monumental, the images appear to stand in place of a traditional marble headstone. Alone and disembodied from a specific context, the images suspended on the paper remind me of the absent-but-there nature of a corpse.

- NJS, 2006
go see the Field Series →

Domestication Series & Canis Series

As an artist who feels at home in a major research institution, the content of my recent work in the Domestication Series is drawn substantially from classic fields of study like veterinary anatomy and also from scientific theories about the human-animal relationship. Biology, zoology, veterinary medicine, paleontology, and taxonomy are natural habitats for the ideas in my work. Images and concepts I have gleaned from files of animal skins at zoological museums, the behavior of dogs at animal shelters, and my work as a sculpture and modelmaking intern at the Smithsonian Institution pack my sketchbooks and feed my work. The focus of the domestication series has been the dog, and a disdained home-dweller, the rat. The dog is a loaded image because of its years of association with humankind. It is the subject of centuries of anthropomorphism on account of our struggle to understand that long-standing relationship.

My early work in this series started at the basic biological level by peeling back the layers of anatomy within the dog and pushing the possibilities of what a canine body could do and how it could be constructed. Soon I began to study and produce work concerning the dog's roles in society and specifically how their adaptability has become a multifaceted tool for human needs and wants. However, the human uses of the dog drove me to consider the ethical implications of domestication. What I found surprised me and profoundly influenced my work. Many scientists now believe that domestication was the result of the process of natural selection, much like the development of any other symbiotic relationship in nature; this means that the whitewashed rectilinear human home is the natural environment for many domesticated animals. With further study I discovered that many other non-domesticated animals, like rats, have sought out contact with humans and our environment and flourished disproportionately on account of that contact. Man-made dwellings as native habitat became the curious focus of my prints and sculpture.

The square sterility of modern human constructions inspired, both formally and conceptually, this series of sculpture and prints. The work looks at the influence of rectilinear spaces on natural forms. The planar sculptures of rats and dogs project into the gallery and physically adapt in reaction to that space. The prints affect a similar feeling of sculptural and architectural space; images trail off the edges of the paper, reminding the viewer of its physical limitations in size and shape. Like the gallery, the paper becomes a physical space, which the images enter and exit. On paper, in life, and in the gallery, natural forms vie and coalesce with squared-off environments.

- NJS, 2003
go see the Domestcation Series →
or the Canis Series →