Review | In the galleries: Art exhibits inspired by scientific disciplines


Anyone pondering Kendall Buster’s work would probably not be startled to learn that the sculptor earned a science degree before pursuing art. What might surprise is that the Virginia Commonwealth University professor came to make her sleek, methodical fabrications after studying not engineering but microbiology. The influence of the latter field is not immediately evident in the streamlined white objects on exhibit in Buster’s concurrent shows at the Kreeger Museum and Tephra Institute of Contemporary Art.

While the seemingly random shapes and textures of microorganisms inform much recent art, Buster’s current work appears more indebted to architecture and aeronautical design. The Kreeger show, “Solstice,” consists of a single piece, “Model City (Constraint).” It’s a cluster of miniature building-like forms, some connected by bridges or causeways, punctuated by spires that evoke minarets and watchtowers. The all-white structures combine modernist and medieval, minimalist and ornamented. Made of cardboard and paper, the unpopulated metropolis is clean and precise and, as is typical of Buster’s 3D work, shows no evidence of the human hand.

The floor-based sculpture, whose tallest turret rises about four feet, can be seen as a sort of stage set, awaiting a drama that will never occur. The model’s mazelike features and recessed polygonal shapes are activated by light and shadow. This interplay is essential, suggests a statement by Tephra’s executive director Jaynelle Hazard, who curated both shows.

The centerpiece of “Seed,” the Tephra exhibition, is much airier. “Radial Spin” is a diaphanous double-chambered structure, open at one end and large enough to be entered. The metal-framed, cloth-covered ventricles are bulgingly curved and connected by a narrower part, through which an internal protuberance juts from the larger section into the smaller one. If this inner arrangement seems botanical, the exterior suggests a zeppelin as much as a seed.

Buster draws more connections between the germinated and the engineered in the nearly 60 digital prints also featured in the show. Originally rendered with graphite on Mylar, the meticulous sketches of “New Growth: Biological Models for a New Architecture” contrast and occasionally combine organic and man-made forms. Some of the drawings nearly resemble buildings and machines; others could be unknown fruits or vegetables.

That sense of gentle confusion is a sensation Buster cultivates. Her sculptures look almost but not quite familiar, designed to change subtly as the light or the vantage point does. They can be considered from above, and sometimes below; from without, and sometimes within. Like an architect, Buster seeks to define space. That space is meant not for activity, however, but for contemplation.

Kendall Buster: Solstice Through Feb. 24 at the Kreeger Museum, 2401 Foxhall Rd. NW. kreegermuseum.org. 202-337-3050.

Kendall Buster: Seed Through Feb. 25 at Tephra Institute of Contemporary Art, 12001 Market St., Reston. tephraica.org. 703-471-9242.

Fluids whirl, vapors spin and water shatters in “Chaosmosis: Assigning Rhythm to the Turbulent,” an exhibition that offers both scientific insights and arresting imagery. The pieces were inspired by the study of fluid dynamics, but also by the frenzied skies in canvases by British proto-impressionist painter J.M.W. Turner. While many of the works in the National Academy of Sciences show are videos, there are also photographs and 3D-printed objects.

The splintered water is documented in a set of bluish laser prints that demonstrate the results when droplets hit silicon wafers ultra-cooled by liquid nitrogen. The beads of water flatten into fried-egg shapes and crack like window glass, yielding patterns that are chaotic yet lovely.

A more practical exercise is an infrared video of an opera singer in performance, revealing how specks of water vapor disperse widely from the vocalist’s silhouetted head. Singing was deemed a covid hazard, which makes this white-on-black illustration of breath in motion as ominous as it is fascinating.

The largest piece is Roman De Giuli’s six-minute video, puckishly titled “Sense of Scale.” The image appears to be an aerial view of geographic flux, perhaps a rocky landscape raked by waters from a melting glacier. In fact, the sweeping vista is enlarged from a microcosm of multicolored fluids. At the start, the artist’s hands set the inks and paints in motion. They dwarf what looks to be, during the rest of the video, a vast landscape.

Most of the exhibition’s entries were made by teams of physicists. The show was curated by Natalia Almonte and Nicole Economides and coordinated by Azar Panah.

Chaosmosis: Assigning Rhythm to the Turbulent Through Feb. 23 at the National Academy of Sciences, 2101 Constitution Ave. NW. cpnas.org/exhibitions. 202-334-2415.

Objects underfoot are usually treated with disdain, or disregarded altogether. Ordinarily, such items would include the ones depicted in Cody Gallery’s “Under Foot,” among which are a decaying leaf, a bird’s nest and various fungi. Yet the three botanical artists render these everyday organisms with near-infinite care. Rather than trample their subjects, Lara Call Gastinger, Margaret Saylor and Carol Woodin elevate them.

The three contributors, all from the Mid-Atlantic region, most often use watercolor, sometimes paired with graphite. Watercolor can produce spontaneous and impressionistic effects, but these artists employ it with exquisite precision. They make scientifically accurate illustrations that have been included in reference books and exhibited at major botanical gardens in the United States and abroad.

Among Gastinger’s most elegant pictures are the decaying leaf, part skeletal but with vestiges of pulpy vitality, and a depiction of roots in white, reversed on a brown backdrop. Woodin offers a rare portrayal of brightly colored blooms, as well as a miniature ear of intensely blue corn. The blue is grayish yet luminous in Saylor’s delicate illustration of moonglow lichen scattered across a field of textured brown. Lichen is hardly the most charismatic of life forms, but these artists look closely to find the enchantment in things that are usually overlooked.

Under Foot Through Feb. 23 at Cody Gallery, Marymount University Ballston Center, 1000 N. Glebe Rd., Arlington. marymount.edu. 703-522-5600.



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