Bertram Brooker, Four Dimensional Cube (n.d.), ink on paper. Collection of the Winnipeg Art Gallery. Gift of Robert and Margaret Hucal. 2006-85
When you see a group of students armed with sketchbooks in front of a masterpiece, you probably assume they are working on a drawing. At the Winnipeg Art Gallery, however, those students may also be working out a math problem.
The WAG’s new exhibition, Math + Art, investigates the fascinating relationship between two seemingly disparate subjects. “One of the fun things that we like to do with our permanent collection is explore interdisciplinary connections,” says WAG Art Educator and the exhibition Curator Rachel Baerg.
Featuring over thirty prints, paintings, and sculptures from the WAG’s collection, the exhibition looks at how artists use mathematical methods and principles such as shape and dimension, symmetry and pattern, or measurement and numeration in their works of art.
With pieces by renowned Canadian and international artists such as Bertram Brooker, Salvador Dali, Sol LeWitt, Kazuo Nakamura, Jessie Oonark, and Claude Tousignant, the exhibition offers a particularly strong focus on art from the last century. As Baerg explains, the twentieth century was a time when “artists were shedding traditional conventions of representation” and experimenting with “geometric abstraction and mathematical theories to explore new ways of seeing and interpreting the world.”
Claude Tousignant, Accelerateur Chromatique (1968), acrylic on canvas. Collection of the Winnipeg Art Gallery. Acquired with the assistance of the Canada Council, G-77-92
Discussing Claude Tousignant’s 1968 painting Accelerateur Chromatique by way of example, Baerg notes that Tousignant used “very precise mathematical calculations to create these hard-edged concentric bands of alternating colour, which were meant to generate a pulsating kind of experience. He talked about his paintings as being pure sensation.”
However, she adds that—in addition to exploring the design and structural principles of math—artists such as Bertram Brooker and Salvador Dali were also interested in mathematical philosophies in relation to the metaphysical. For example: the concept of a fourth dimension that goes “beyond our knowledge of this world as three dimensions.” Dali’s 1984 glass and metal sculpture in the exhibition, Le Desir Hyperrationnel, deconstructs the famed ancient Greek sculpture of the Venus de Milo, creating a very precise opening in her torso, and placing her head on a pedestal above a cube. “It allows us to contemplate how artists play with our sense of what is logical and illogical,” says Baerg.
Kelly Mark, Ginger (2000), colour print on paper. Collection of the Winnipeg Art Gallery. Acquired with the Photography Endowment of The Winnipeg Art Gallery Foundation Inc. 2001-64
Encouraging students in particular to think about math and art differently is one of the central aims of the exhibition. “The goal here was to create an alternative experience to textbook learning, and make mathematics meaningful outside of the classroom,” says Baerg, noting that the exhibition also offers a number of interactive activities and “math challenges” for students—and art lovers—of all ages.
The process of bringing Math + Art together has even changed Baerg’s own take on the two fields. “By looking at art through a mathematical lens, I have gained a new appreciation for exploring and understanding visual art from a completely different perspective,” she says. “More surprisingly, perhaps, this exhibition has changed my way of thinking about the discipline of mathematics. I’ve never really thought about math as creative, intuitive or even beautiful. Now I do!”
Math + Art is on display at the Winnipeg Art Gallery until 27 April 2014.
Robyn Jeffrey is a writer, editor, and poet based in Wakefield, Quebec.
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