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Turning The Science Behind String Theory Into Immersive Murals

Kysa Johnson turns the invisible equations that surround us into actualized, viewable art.

by Laura Feinstein
10 March 2014, 6:20pm

Artist Kysa Johnson specializes in making the intangible tangible. Through her complex drawings and paintings, which are based on scientific notations, subatomic particle decay, and string theory, the Brooklyn-based artist turns the invisible equations that surround us into actualized, viewable art. While from afar, her works might look like bucolic landscapes, up-close they reveal coordinated micro-colonies of numbers, dashes, flourishes, and spirals, that make the viewer re-evaluate their proclivities towards mathematics and the sciences in the first place.

In the past, Johnson has used this technique to create a phantom panorama of the Roman ruins, a structurally assembled homage to Piranesi, from eleven key scientific equations. For her newest exhibit at Halsey Mckay in East Hampton, the artist turned her lens on the invisible inequality in modern American life that envelopes us, building these same subatomic particle compositions into contemporary Americana. As Kysa notes in her artist bio, “My work explores patterns in nature that exist at the extremes of scale…in short, microscopic or macroscopic “landscapes” [that depict] a physical reality that is invisible to the naked eye.”

Curious about her work, as well as its highly unusual context to discuss modern equality, The Creators Project visited Kysa in East Hampton to better understand the ephemeral forces that bind us:

The Creators Project: Can you describe subatomic decay, and why it's played such a major role in your work?

Kysa Johnson: Subatomic decay is when unstable subatomic particles decay in signature pathways into stable ones. The trails left by these transformations are beautiful on their own, and their shapes express the elegant processes that exist at the deepest level of our physical reality. There is something quite poetic in the falling-apartness of it. I began by just drawing these patterns on their own, but over time they have become an alphabet I use to compose larger images and compositions that address change over time, collapse, and the dissolutions of systems and ideals.

How did you first become interested in these micro-microscopic phenomena? 

I came across these fundamental patterns during my final year at the Glasgow School of Art in Scotland. I was reading about Quantum Physics, and when I saw these marks, it occurred to me that at a very deep level, the universe was drawing, and that this “drawing” knit everything together. As a final year drawing and painting student, you're always thinking in terms of marks and mark-making, and here were the marks that belie everything. I became kind of obsessed. I had found eleven notated equations, and drew them over and over again, layering them up over large blackboards in chalk and in ink over large whitewashed boards, trying to give a sense of the speed of the marks and the energy congealing into mass.

How do you decide where symbols will be placed? How do you know when work is "finished"?

When I’m using subatomic decay patterns as a base alphabet for larger drawings and installations, what mark goes where really comes down to practicality and aesthetics.  Out of the eleven, some work better for certain things. There are 3 that work really well when I need to do long straight lines. Some are better for building up mass. There’s one in particular that’s my go to for angles.

I also cycle through favorites. I’ll find myself using one “too much,” while another gets neglected. Then I’ll try and compensate by making an effort to use others. Its like the mug in the cupboard that never gets used: I feel bad for it, and have to have my coffee in it a few days in a row. Like an alphabet, I’ve given myself license to stretch or smush the patterns to the degree that they are still recognizable. You can have a fat A or a skinny A or a long A. As long as you maintain certain basic characteristics it still reads as an A.

This work is extremely mathematically-based for someone so heavily involved in the arts. Do you also have a scientific background?

I took AP Chemistry and AP Physics in High School, and then Physics for Poets before I transferred from a Liberal Arts School to the Glasgow School of Art... But no, not in a traditional sense. I wish I did! It would be my alternate universe-life if I could arrange one!

How do you think science, technology, and art work with and benefit from each other?

Well, I think they all derive from the same impulse to understand and to place ourselves in the world. Historically they were more closely intertwined and viewed as different aspects of the same thing. During the enlightenment things became more specialized and they became more separate modes of inquiry. All three share the common underpinnings of inquisitive thought, problem solving, and invention.  Technology gives art new tools, mediums and media to realize ideas or concepts and broader parameters to work within. For me, science and its discoveries are a constant source of inspiration, but I also think of it in a way that one thinks of landscapes--[my works] are just landscapes that we need technology and science to see. I think that both science and art require an open way of approach in order to see the connections and patterns that emerge.

There are several sociopolitical undertones for your newest work—BLOW UP 250 – BE IT EVER SO HUMBLE – SUBATOMIC DECAY PATTERNS AFTER WYANDANCH, PAYNE & RENNERT—How did you mesh them with your scientific inspiration?

When Ryan (of Halsey McKay) asked me to come and do an installation in their space, I knew I wanted it to be specific to its context and environment. I hadn’t really been to the Hamptons before so I started to do a lot of reading and research. One of the first things that I read was that the 17th century farmhouse that inspired the 19th century song “Home Sweet Home” is in East Hampton. The “Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home” house. The Hamptons also houses the largest house in America, Ira Rennert’s palatial estate that measures approx. 110,000 square feet and clocks a sale price of $150,000,000. A home can be seen as a manifestation of the time and culture that created it.

The extremes embodied by these houses both in size and in what they represent seemed an apt expression of the financial situation that we are currently in, as opposed to where we were in the past. I looked into the difference in income inequality, as measured by the percentage of wealth held by one percent of the population, in colonial times versus today: It’s changed 344%. 

The growing disparity between those at the financial top and everyone else also seemed appropriately represented by the difference in scale between these two homes. The two house structures that live in the center of the larger drawing installation embody that difference. The scale changes 344%. The encompassing wall drawing that wraps the room acts as a timeline of this change. It's an amalgamation of a Hamptons' landscape that holds three structures. Way off in the far left is a wigwam (the original Hamptons house), which the Wyandanch in the title refers to. Then comes the Payne "Home Sweet Home" house, and way off on the right, taking up a wall of its own, is Rennert’s.

The subatomic decay patterns act as a unifying element between these two extremes. They are a metaphor for change over time, the dissolution of a system and an ideal and also an equalizer. They are representative of the fact that, big or small, bombastic or humble, all are equalized by time.

Learn more about Kysa Johnson via her website, and enjoy more of her work on Artsy.