See an exhibition of works — including some in glass, a skill he picked up at the Pilchuck School — by scientist-artist Joe Davis at Jacob Lawrence Gallery on the UW campus through Feb. 19.
Spending some time with Joe Davis, or his art, just might blow your mind. He began our interview by saying, “At the farthest ends of the cosmos, at the edge of the universe, you’ll find your own cerebral cortex imprinted there, but when you look inside you only find ‘the other.’ “
Davis, 60, an artist-researcher at MIT and Harvard, has been called a free spirit and a mad scientist, and, according to Marek Wieczorek, professor of art history at the University of Washington, Davis is “a likely candidate to save the world” (more on that later).
Davis uses the most advanced, and the most rudimentary, scientific equipment, processes and principles to explore ideas about existence (human and extraterrestrial) and the quest for knowledge — what we think we know, and how we know what we know.
Walking into his show at the Jacob Lawrence Gallery at the UW’s School of Art is a little like walking into a hybrid of a modern laboratory and a 19th-century cabinet of wonders. There’s a functioning laser, glass jars wrapped with tinfoil, working crystal radios and busted-up clocks. Some of the pieces are downright gorgeous, like the evocative biomorphic glass forms that Davis created during a residency at the Pilchuck Glass School in Stanwood last year.
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Asked about his eclectic forms and materials, Davis says, “They’re just tiny details of a much larger picture. The objects are containers for ideas; if they don’t hold ideas, then they’re worthless.”
The exhibition — a fantastic and ambitious venture for the gallery — contains objects from the past 40 years of Davis’ explorations, from acrylic sculptures carved in the 1970s with then-new laser technology to the latest additions to his collection of self-assembling clocks (which jab at the theory of spontaneous generation).
Davis will be here for the duration of the show, giving lectures to UW classes in departments ranging from art to oceanography. He visits the show often, adjusting frequencies on the voodoo radio and tinkering with his Morse code system that is designed to send messages about the more horrific aspects of human existence into outer space.
According to Wieczorek — who co-curated the exhibition with the gallery’s director, Kris Anderson — “it is rare to find an artist who is so at home both in scientific material and in the way that art can evoke issues of identity, politics, and ethics.”
The title of the exhibition, “Resonance,” applies a scientific metaphor to Davis’ “in-between position,” which is “much like standing waves,” Wieczorek adds. “Standing waves form a stand-alone, amplified harmonic that only appears in between two frequencies within a circuit, and Joe certainly draws science and art into one circuit and amplifies their resonance.”
In other words, Davis’ work has power. Several of the works in the show are fully viable scientific experiments and carry the potential to offer solutions to life’s great problems and mysteries. Although Davis knows that the chances are slim (and he can explain those chances with several probability theories and formulae), his work just might offer a solution to the energy crisis, for blasting an asteroid out of space, sending a message back in time, communicating with extraterrestrial intelligence or ending human suffering.
Somewhere along the way, certainly not during Leonardo da Vinci’s time, art and science became separated, with science making claims to objective empirical research and art staking out territory in the land of self-expression. Davis has little patience with these divisions and cringes when people say they got into art because they were bad at math.
Davis says that he works in the realm of what’s possible, leading him to do things like “creating lasers to hurl energy back at the sky, to rage against God and nature, to save the world. To bridge this incredible gulf between the edge of our galaxy and the inside of ourselves.”