Painting evolution

Rock of Ages Sands of Time
November 22, 2002

"Imagine a world with no living thing bigger than a pinhead. That was our world for most of its history," - the opening sentence of this stunning book, Rock of Ages Sands of Time . Open the 20cm-high, cm-long book somewhere in the middle and you will immediately get a sense of the artist's and book designer's intentions. Each 55cm double-page spread holds four half-scale reproductions of Barbara Page's paintings and bas-reliefs permanently displayed at the Museum of the Earth in Ithaca, New York. Each of her square 544 panels is an interpretation of 1 million years of the 544 million-year fossil history of visible life on earth. The work exemplifies one of the more intelligent and breathtaking intersections between art and science. A rare find.

Recently, we have seen a resurgence of an old conversation between the arts and the sciences. In these dialogues, contemporary artists generally grab the opportunity to show their work but in my view the most interesting dialogues generally revolve around the old masters, such as Vermeer and da Vinci. Very few contemporary artists understand science well enough for it to inform and inspire their art. It would be an exciting change if artists could go beyond printing the genetic code on dresses hanging in a closet or creating a magnetic resonance image of a man and woman "hugging" each other (and who knows what else). But it takes a great deal of effort to understand science, and often it is easier for artists to use new technologies as a jump-off point to "express" what, in their view, is the more important piece of their art, namely themselves.

Not so with Page. As you wander through the reproductions in this book, you linger over colours and details. Page describes how she based her palette on the rock in which particular fossils turned up: tints of mudstone, shale, sandstone and limestone. She does not overwhelm us with the deluge of information in her chosen fossil record.

Instead, you yearn to touch her three-dimensional bas-reliefs, all abstractly suggesting the shapes and textures of these fascinating early creatures. Her masterful techniques of "detailed drawing, expressionistic brushwork, and textured modelling, remnants of art history and (my) idiosyncratic evolution as an artist... inserted to avoid monotony and to build crescendos" are marvellous. The panels evolve, just as the original creatures did over hundreds of millions of years. And you cannot avoid being enthralled with the visual power of the subtle background earth tones that at times develop into a stronger yet subdued rainbow of colours.

Viewers will find their own rhythm, depending on whether they are paleontologists, photographers, quantum physicists or five-year-olds. The experience is differentfrom that of a crowded art gallery. More participatory and private, this printed "installation" is an intimate encounter with the artist's work.

The reproductions begin with the Cambrian period, 543 million to 507 million years ago, and run through to the present Quaternary period that began 2 million years ago. On a first browse, one might decide to ignore the enormously rich written material at the back of the book, describing each fossil specimen. The foreword is written by Rosamond Wolff Purcell, an artist who is devoted to finding the serious intersection between her compelling photographs and science. The accessible introduction is by Warren Allmon, director of the Paleontological Research Institution in Ithaca, New York. His short narratives open each chapter. A small but important graphic element, discretely labelled with the appropriate "mya" number (that is, millions of years ago), helps to communicate the book's vast span of time. As one becomes more absorbed with each panel's details and their juxtaposition with the details in other panels, one acquires a sense of the scale of the fossils: how a particular living creature would compare in size not only to its neighbours within the same geological period, but to earth's inhabitants that lived millions of years before and will live millions of years after it.

Page has undertaken a monumental challenge resulting in work filled with substance and beauty. The rest of the art world would do well to pay close attention. They too might some day delight and instruct us at the same time.

Felice Frankel is a science photographer and research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, US.

Rock of Ages Sands of Time

Author - Barbara Page and Warren Allmon
ISBN - 0 226 64479 0
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Price - £28.50
Pages - 347

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