Visions of art and science

A collaboration between a painter and neuroscientist at Ford Gallery

By MALLORY PRATT

How do we understand what we see? Inquiring minds have been considering this question for millennia, ever since early Homo lineages started making marks on cave walls. With the rise of empirical science in the past two hundred years, art and science became separate disciplines, a trend Leonardo di Vinci definitely would not have understood.

Into A Study represents a decisive step toward reuniting these disciplines by asking the question “How does viewing art help us understand how we see?” This collaboration between Paul Rutz, a painter, and Amanda Hampton Wray, a neuroscientist, aims at nothing less than integrating scientific and artistic inquiry as seamlessly as possible. As with all joint ventures, the success of the project rests on a foundation built from long association, mutual respect and rigorous, thoughtful compromise.

The show at the Ford Gallery consists of seven nearly identical pairs of paintings displayed in the gallery space. All of paintings depict the human form and explore gender and anatomy; they are oil paintings on canvas or panel. Each pair consists of one painting done from life (a live model) and one painting done from memory, photos of the original subject, and photos of the other painting. The focus of the scientific study is the differences between each pair. Attendees of the October 27th opening became research subjects who were plied with questions about each pair of paintings. The paintings remain on view through November 21st.

“Into a Study” Opening Night, October 27th at Ford Gallery

The collaborators, Rutz and Hampton Wray, are both dancers of ballet and modern genres. They met seven years ago in their respective Ph.D. programs at Purdue University, Rutz in Visual Culture and Wray in cognitive neuropsychology. They became friends through dance and remained so after pursuing their respective careers.

The genesis of the current project began in 2017 when Rutz put two of his paintings of the same subject side by side. As with the pairs in Into a Study, one was painted from life and the other from photographs and memory. Rutz wanted to explore where the differences between the two works came from and how those differences were seen and understood by others. Though Rutz has long had an interest in behavioral neuroscience — his dissertation was on combat art related to the Iraq War — to explore these questions in more depth, he turned to Hampton Wray, now the director of the Brain Systems for Language Lab at Michigan State University.

Hampton Wray currently studies how people’s attention skills support language learning and what happens when those interactions don’t go well, as in ADHD. Hampton Wray says “I’m really interested in how the world works outside the lab, and have recently started a collaboration to develop a way to test attention that could be used reliably in classrooms.” Hampton Wray recalls she was particularly “excited about the questions and the potential to try to do something innovative and collect data in a real-world environment…I was in.”

At the opening night of data gathering, gallery goers as subjects were guided one at a time by a volunteer to view each of seven pairs of paintings, displayed side by side. The gallery goer-subjects were allowed only 20 seconds to view each set before a volunteer launched into questions and recorded answers: Which one of the pair do you enjoy (not like!) most and why? Which one do you think is the “copy”? What features make you say that? How sure are you? What differences do you notice? After viewing all seven pairs, gallery goer-subjects were asked to choose their favorite pair. We were allowed to return to look at the paintings at a more leisurely pace after the experiment was finished.

It is notable that the study question was not which painting the viewer liked more but instead which one they enjoyed more. I attended the opening with a friend and she noted that while she enjoyed looking at the images, she didn’t particularly like them. I was intellectually engaged and reminded of how our visual system can be harnessed by a skillful painter to see dimensions and details that do not exist in material reality. I was also slightly obsessed with looking for the differences and assessing how they changed my perception of the subject matter.

The paintings are well executed. Rutz uses color and composition to evoke movement and provoke surprise. Bodies are caught mid-motion about to leave the frame and colors help to manipulate planes. His background in dance is evident in the lithe bodies and attention to anatomy. With all that said, the paintings did not engage me as powerfully on an emotional level as I expected. That very well may be because I was primed by the knowledge that I was a research subject. It is difficult to say as I cannot start from zero.

Image from the Ford Gallery Press Release for “Into a Study”

What wasn’t entirely clear at the show or in conversation with the collaborators, was the end goal or desired result of the scientific experiment. Neither wanted to reveal what they were looking for in the data or what they expected to see. If I had to guess, I’d say that Rutz wants people to be able to view the show as an art installation on its own merits and not as a data gathering exercise. Hampton Wray likely considers this as a project in progress, where the methodology is still being worked on and this is a preliminary trial.

Is it possible to merge art and science without sacrificing the key features of either one? The collaborators have a strong concept of their individual roles. Rutz says “my primary job in this ongoing collaboration is to support the team’s effort to discover how art can help us engage with the world in new ways.” Rutz was willing to put his interest in specific subject matter in second place in order to support a broader aim. For her part, Wray had to find a balance between constraints and the realities of “live” data collection in a gallery setting. “We worked to balance constraining factors with maintaining as many of the real-world factors as we could, bringing out some of the commonalities in our approaches.”

“Into a Study” Opening Night on October 27th at Ford Gallery

The fusion was not seamless, but this collaboration demonstrates the potential for a bridge between art and science that honors expertise and intellectual curiosity without sacrificing the tenets of either discipline. It is no surprise that this level of success requires people who share a vision that art and science working together opens up opportunities for both that neither could achieve separately.

Rutz and Hampton Wray intend to continue with this project and will take the show and experiment to their alma mater, Purdue University, next year. They hope to add other locations as well to extend the data collection. If these two have anything to do with it, art and science will come together. Leonardo da Vinci would be proud.

Mallory Pratt is a science educator at Pacific Northwest College of Art.

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