Hidden Estrus, 2019 and Blue Mountain 《蓝山》(from the Crystal Lattice Series), 2016-2017
Going back to at least the 1970s, some contemporary visual artists have created works that operate serially, composed of multiples that show cumulative effects or changes over time. In her studio, Condon-Shih has built what she calls “a DIY science lab,” with scientific instruments, including microscopes and cameras attached to them. These permit her to replicate, modestly, some of the science that makes images like these possible: the artist in her delights in discovering what science reveals, so she has invested in pursuing that science as a source for her own art.
In a video produced for the Cleveland Institute of Art, Condon-Shih describes herself as " ... an American interdisciplinary artist and educator working between the United States and Beijing, China. Her practice intersects art and science and examines the dichotomy between the microscopic versus the macroscopic in thinking about biological systems, and, more recently, cultural and urban networks."
Although she completed her undergraduate degree at Cornell University (B.F.A. in Architecture, Art and Planning), she had in fact begun to study in the pre-med program there. She went on to earn an M.S. from Syracuse University and an M.F.A. from Hunter College of the City University of New York, and then went to Beijing to explore being an artist abroad. She ended up spending eight years there, teaching the International Foundation course as Head of Studio at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing and building her studio practice (and learning to speak Mandarin fluently!). Today she moves between Beijing, where she maintains a studio, and Cleveland, where she promotes pedagogy as practice in the Foundations program at the Cleveland Institute of Art. Her art is interdisciplinary, crossing media boundaries — painting, printmaking, photography, performance, video, installation — as well as disciplines, such as biology, sociology, and urbanism. Her work in the Summa Health Healing Arts Collection exemplifies that richness of inspiration and expression, as well as showing how it can be, at the same time, very personal. She has completed commissions for work that is now on view at Case Western University in Cleveland and here in the Summa Health Care system.
Where you can see more of this artist’s work:
Condon-Shih’s website contains a well-documented representation of recent works, created and exhibited in Hong Kong and China. Closer to home, work has been exhibited at the Fuse Factory in Columbus and at SPACES Gallery and with the Cleveland Institute of Art. She has been active in making work that addresses socio-economic and urban issues — air pollution, urban growth, degradation of the built environment — and in reflecting on her experiences in order to participate in discussions that engage peer educators and artists as well as the general public.
Blue Mountain 《蓝山》(from the Crystal Lattice Series), 2016-2017
Materials: Giclée digital print on (archival) Hahnemühle paper, 1 in an edition of 10, 40" x 40"
Location at Summa: Akron City Hospital, ground floor, Volunteer Services Office
About the art:
This large digital print on paper adheres to the format of the petrie dish in which Nicole Condon-Shih has been growing crystals from materials used in Chinese medicine. She became interested in such materials during long periods of residency, study, and teaching in China, 'though she tells us that she sourced these materials from local (that is, northeast Ohio) Chinese medicine providers.
She mixes conventional art pigment with Chinese medicine. The combination then crystallizes and grows, while the artist photographically documents the evolving forms over a period of months. Condon-Shih also does mapped drawings of the crystallization process and even exhibits the "in-progress" petrie dishes as "bubbling sculptures!" Some of the digital photographs, such as this one, suggest landscapes or other natural forms, but the artist is clear that her role is just to start the mix and then stand back to let the solution do the work. As the crystallization plays out (and finally dries out) over many months, the artist highlights the beauty and complexity of its phases and forms.
In Blue Mountain, we see forms that suggest pine needles, sharp leaves resembling agave rising in spiky mounds, and perhaps a steep slope -- the title's blue mountain? -- on the left. Condon-Shih provides another level on which to appreciate this "image" when she describes her goal with this series of prints as "contemplate[ing] boundaries of the organic and inorganic, and raise[ing] questions of growth and space."
The artist's processes may seem utterly new to us, but, in fact, visual artists, along with writers of music, plays and novels (science fiction!), plus musicians, dancers, and actors, as well as movie-makers, have been responding to, exploring, and appropriating scientific discoveries since at least the nineteenth-century. We tend to take some genres for granted after short periods of familiarization, like that powdered orange drink, Tang, after the early NASA space program. Nicole Condon-Shih reminds us, through her unusual but fascinating processes, that science can combine with an art form to create something not only new but thoughtful and intriguing.
And she also emphasizes, in describing herself as both an artist and a researcher, that in fact, artists have a lot in common with scientists: They explore and sometimes discover new ideas, materials, approaches, and contexts.
Where you can see more works like this:
See this artist's Hidden Estrus in the Summa Collection to get another glimpse into her studio-laboratory and into how she proceeds to envision and develop her ideas into projects which then lead to distinctive final visual statements.
Hidden Estrus, 2019
Materials: 30 fluorescent Plexiglas laser engravings encased in Petri dishes, each 5½“ in diameter
Location at Summa: Dr. Gary B. and Pamela S. Williams Tower on the Akron Campus, second floor, outside patient rooms 202 and 203
About the art and artist:
Going back to at least the 1970’s, some contemporary visual artists have created works that operate serially, composed of multiples that show cumulative effects or changes over time. Nicole Condon-Shih’s Hidden Estrus is clearly a serial work: 30 laser engravings aligned in rows of seven, a calendar page. The Petri dishes tell us that the subject is about science, or at least part of it is, and the artist tells us that she has chosen these as frames because they also capture the round shape of our view through a microscope’s eyepiece. Not only in the visual arts but in music, poetry, literature, dance, and theatre, artists have often been among the first to explore the impact of and the possibilities made manifest by scientific or technological innovation (as well as the dangers they may portend).
Finally, the title of the work, using the Latin term for “the recurring period of sexual receptivity and fertility in many female mammals,” clues us into the specifics: Those five black engravings among the florescent pink ones refer to the part of the human female’s monthly cycle in which she is fertile. Condon-Shih is one of a number of artists in the past 25 or 30 years who have involved themselves directly or tangentially in the very methods and processes that scientists use to describe the universe, the earth, the human body, and the microscopic world. They might employ the same technology. Often, they create while in dialogue with members of the scientific community itself.
Condon-Shih has collected saliva samples (her own, in this case) over a one-month span and studied these under a microscope to discover for herself what scientists had described: The samples reveal forms and patterns caused by the biome in the mouth, varying across a woman’s monthly cycle. In particular, the artist informs us that, after some days,
“… an unforeseen miniature crystalline “ferning” pattern suddenly emerges in a sample. The fern continues to ‘grow’ in the next sample the following day, and again the day after, until it overtakes the microscope slide by forming a garden of ‘ferns.’” But after another few days, these beautiful forms simply disappear.
The period of estrus, the fertile period, ends. She invites us to inspect the images at close range and see for ourselves the forms characteristic of “normal” days, in contrast with the peculiar and lovely white fern patterns that appear and grow – and then disappear – mid-cycle. That she herself was trying to get pregnant during this time adds emotional poignancy to the scientific and aesthetic.
Condon-Shih photographed these slide images through her microscope, and from the photos re-drew them digitally, creating files that were, next, cut by laser as engravings on florescent plexi. She then mounted these engravings inside the Petri dishes. What were once biological phenomena have been transformed and presented as a calendar graphing a monthly cycle to call our attention to the (artist’s) fertile period; the images have become a human-created artifact, art.
The other layer added by the artist to this set of visually arresting images comes from her question about why among humans, in contrast to other mammals, the fertile period of reproductivity lacks any outward marker? That biological “hidden”-ness is why she chose to highlight the fertile days in black (also, she found that black reveals the ferning patterns most effectively). Is what once may have been a successful evolutionary survival mechanism still meaningful?