Microetchings and a hodgepodge of scientific imagery — Mind Illuminated at the Mütter Museum

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[Evan racks his brain for insight into a neuroscience-inspired show of works, finding himself a little lost in the neural network. — the artblog editors]

The hodgepodge of scientific imagery, Eastern-influenced design, and ultra-sleek presentation that artist and neuroscientist Greg Dunn presents in Mind Illuminated at the Mütter Museum can’t seem to decide what it wants to be–art, science, or spectacle. The product of an artist with an abundance of ideas about the human brain and art and the resources to see all of them through without restraint is jumbled. Intermittently, I found myself gripped by some of the more minute details. But I had to work for it.

Branching off

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Greg Dunn’s exhibition, Mind Illuminated, will be on display at the Mütter Museum from July – December 2015. [Greg Dunn].
The artist works in multimedia and printmaking, and co-invented (with Dr. Brian Edwards of the University of Pennsylvania) something called the microetching technique, which integrates optics and engineering into the more traditional relief-based printing process. The result, which involves a layer of reflective and vibrant material printed onto metal coated in gold leaf, is both astonishing in its complexity and held back by its own coolness.

I imagine that scientists and doctors–those who have an intimate knowledge of the nature of neurological relationships and research–will have a very different reaction to the work than I did. Dunn’s work hangs mostly in medical departments of universities like Johns Hopkins and Carnegie Mellon. While the written material that accompanies the show explains Dunn’s inspirations in layman’s terms, a more intimate knowledge is still required to deeply access the work. At a certain point, I got a lot further by viewing the pieces as abstract visual experiments.

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Greg Dunn’s exhibition, Mind Illuminated, will be on display at the Mütter Museum from July – December 2015. [Greg Dunn].

Restraint resonates most

He is clearly influenced by Japanese and Chinese landscape works and scroll paintings, even utilizing a red-ink seal on his pieces as a signature. His substrate is mostly gold with the application of black ink.

Probably the most successful single component of Dunn’s work is his use of differing shades and applications of microetching that make certain lines appear or disappear as the viewer moves across the pieces. The single works in fact contain a multitude of separate experiential versions of themselves, meant to highlight the complex systems of communication and action/reaction that occur constantly within our brains.

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“Chaotic Connections”, a microetching by Philadelphia artist-scientists Greg Dunn and Brian Edwards, on display at the Mütter Museum from July – December 2015. [Greg Dunn].
For a show about the brain, the artist has included a number of works that imagine the city of Philadelphia as a neural network of its own. Dunn suggests that we perform the same role for our city as the traveling neuron does for the brain. It captivates on a visual level, but the connections between neuron flow and traffic flow seem forced in the end.

The following scroll paintings are far more delicate than their metal and dark-wood surroundings, and they offer a welcome respite from the headiness of the preceding work. “Alzheimer’s Triangles” is particularly beautiful, incorporating subtle pink tones in the meandering black ink–a serenity that turns sour when the reality of Alzheimer’s sinks in. Dunn has made something so ugly and so destructive into a pseudo-representational and visually astute interpretation of reality.

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“Brainbow Hippocampus,” a microetching by Philadelphia artist-scientists Greg Dunn and Brian Edwards, on display at the Mütter Museum from July – December 2015. [Greg Dunn].
The work on the final wall appears to be the most no-holds-barred product of Dunn’s practice; it includes a number of still images featuring reflective rainbows of color and algorithm-based line work that dances and darts in and out of your vision. It is highly active and stimulating, but is in most cases just too busy to have great effect after going through the rest of the–also highly busy–show. If I saw it individually and out of the context of this exhibition, I might have a very different reaction.

For these reasons, I find the last work in the show to be the most moving. “Blaze in the Blacks” is an exercise in restraint in a sea of excess. Cloudy, seemingly brushed metal is canvas to many small silver dots, rippling out and fading into the ether of their surrounding. It is mesmerizing, rewarding the viewer with a more complete and less exhausting look at the functions of the body’s data center. Ending with this was a good decision.

As an artist and neuroscientist, Dunn situates himself downstream from the likes of Anna Atkins and John James Audubon, who long ago made work that was driven by research as well as aesthetics. If he incorporated more of the reasonable visual restraint that these artists did, he could do far more with far less.

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“Cortical Circuitboard,” a microetching by Philadelphia artist-scientists Greg Dunn and Brian Edwards, on display at the Mütter Museum from July – December 2015. [Greg Dunn].
Dunn, who completed his Ph.D. in neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania in 2011, is clearly passionate about his subject. The show is flashy and playful, but in the end a little too bombastic to have a meaningful impact on the uninitiated viewer coming to the Mütter to see the shrunken heads.

Greg Dunn’s exhibition, Mind Illuminated, will be on display at the Mütter Museum from July – December 2015.

Evan Paul Laudenslager is an artist and writer currently living in Philadelphia. He is a graduate of Tyler School of Art.

Tags

arts & culture, greg dunn, mind illuminated, mutter museum, philadelphia

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