In Space and In Mind

Rockefeller Memorial Chapel provides an apt setting for Audrius V. Plioplys’s latest exhibition, “Cosmic Consciousness.” Only such a lofty yet firmly grounded space seems truly appropriate for hosting art which ponders questions as nebulous as universal creation and as intricate as human neurology, often within the same piece. The great stone walls provide ample space for the ten-foot-by-twenty-foot pieces in Plioplys’s “Origins” series, while the stained glass windows echo the myriad of colors which cascade down the canvases of “Whirling.” The artist, a neurologist—neuroscientist who taught himself to paint while attending medical school at the UofC, drew attention to the cavernous space when he addressed the audience at the exhibition’s opening reception on January 25.

Though clearly earnest and animated by his artistic vision, Plioplys was nothing if not patient. His presentation lasted perhaps thirty minutes, but he could have gladly expostulated for an entire evening. He walked us through the concepts behind each of his three collections, pacing slowly and gesturing to the artwork as he spoke. Afterward, he took questions, but there were few; his thorough explanation had left little need.

In “Origins,” a series of prints dealing with the subject of creation, Plioplys chose an approach that unifies symbols of both human and cosmic origin; each of two large prints consists of photographs of interstellar nebulae, overlaid on images of ancient excavations and neural activity. The pieces’ mingled textures and colors underscore a tenet of the artist’s presentation: humans, along with all matter on Earth, are ultimately made from stardust, and in a certain sense we are all part of a cosmic ecosystem.

Plioplys’s second series, “Whirling,” adds a kinetic aspect to his characteristic marriage of art and science. Semitransparent banners depict neuronal profiles of the artist’s memories, in addition to images of his retinal ganglion cells (nerve cells near the inner surface of his retina), and all hang freely from the ceiling, rotating back and forth in a whirling motion. The sense of color and pattern can be mesmerizing; some of the banners seem to portray recognizable images, such as trees, coral, and veins, while others are more inscrutable, like Pollock paintings. Either way, the motion is meant to mimic the mystic whirling of the Sufi dervishes, once again calling attention to ancient cultural precedents. Plioplys said he sought to evoke the evolution of language and social interaction.

The final component of the exhibit is located in the basement of the church, where four large canvases hang on blank white walls. “Chromodynamics” is a series of enlarged details from works in a previous exhibition, “Symphonic Thoughts.” The original, marbled pieces represent electroencephalograms (EEGs) taken from the artist’s own brain activity–Plioplys found the enlargements to be reminiscent of Monet’s water lily series, interesting enough in its own right to warrant a fresh reimagining. The images in “Chromodynamics” are certainly unique, kaleidoscopic and topsy-turvy as the inside of a wormhole. Staring at one of them long enough could cause dizziness, with spectrums of color curving, dashing, and morphing all over the five-foot-by-twelve-foot canvases. Taking the implications a step further, Plioplys says in an artist’s statement that he means to invoke “the ultimate of the small, namely string theory” with “stringiness incorporated in the fine detail of each piece.”

The themes of “Cosmic Consciousness” are expansive and difficult to grasp in full, but the overall impression is that of a fractal: in the words of Jean Cocteau, “There are gods above gods.” From galaxies of nerves to galaxies of stars, the concept of infinity is given careful and due consideration, and Plioplys and Rockefeller provide patrons with a rarely well-matched pairing of exhibit and venue to witness the interaction between life and art.

Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, 5850 S. Woodlawn. Through February 19. Daily, 8am-5:30pm. Free. (773)702-2100. rockefeller.uchicago.edu