We tend to believe scientific explanations of phenomena as absolutely rational, quantifiable and replicable under certain controlled conditions. Yet two shows from Portland-based artists at the Maine Jewish Museum – Michel Droge’s paintings in “Deep Sea” and the experimental objects of the collective PSBL in “Reflectors, Emitters and Diffusers” (both through Nov. 12) – beautifully illustrate the impossibility of leapfrogging over the inherent mystery at the heart of all creation and reality.

Droge’s work, according to their artist statement, “engages with the environment and the human condition in an era of uncertainty. Inspired by the landscape, mapping, and environmental research, their large-scale abstract paintings unravel existing grids and structures and make way for emerging ones.” In many of their paintings, nets are torn asunder as a bright effulgence of color arises from profound depths beyond the canvas and pushes unstoppably through them. Form, except for the nets themselves, has generally been absent amid these fields of abstract color.

In “Deep Sea,” Droge literally takes a dive into a new body of work that responds to conversations they have had with Beth Orcutt, a senior research scientist at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in East Boothbay. Orcutt studies “microbial life in deep-sea environments, as well as the effects of deep-sea mining on the ocean’s ecosystems.”

The sea affects every aspect of human life – generating oxygen, moderating climate, feeding us, providing source material for medicines, affecting weather patterns, and so on. But it is also, according to a current debate in scientific circles, possibly the origin of life. The “primordial soup” theory (that we emerged as organisms generated in swamps) is now being challenged by the hypothesis that human life actually arose out of hydrothermal vents deep in the ocean.

Some paintings, such as “Heart of Dynamene” and “Amphitrite’s Balm,” seem to depict the hydrothermal vents themselves, with their orangey red eruptions and vaporous gray fogs amid cerulean blue grounds. We can feel the heat (temperatures at these vents can reach 700 degrees) coming from the ocean’s watery depths. The names of many of the paintings, incidentally, come from Greek mythology; Dynamene and Amphitrite are two of the 50 Nereids, sea nymphs that were daughters of Nereus and Doris.

Michel Droge, “Deep Sea Dreaming II” Photo courtesy of Michel Droge

In works like “Chemolithotrope’s Backyard” and “Sub Photic Celebration,” life seems to be appearing in the form of small painted ovals that might be archaea, bacteria that are the oldest form of life and thrive around these vents and on the bodies of crabs, shrimp and other animals that can withstand the lightless environment at the bottom of the ocean.

This oval motif appears in various paintings, most sublimely in two “Deep Sea Dreaming” paintings where they seem to shimmer out from the surface, like thousands of bioluminescent marine organisms floating in the hot vapors emitted by the vents. They are a return to form, of sorts, from Droge’s purely abstract works. Form becomes more explicit in paintings such as “Holothurians,” in which two green figures resemble actual holothurians, which are sea cucumbers, a kind of underwater worm. “Forest Spell” appears to team with jellyfish, paint drips extending down the canvas calling to mind a forest of jellyfish tentacles.

None of these, however, is completely explicit. Abstraction serves these paintings well in the sense that our understanding of life at these depths cannot ever be complete. The riddle at the center of it all – how life actually emerges from the boiling environment of the vents – remains indecipherable and mysterious; in a word, abstract.

Installtion of PSBL’s “Reflectors, Emitters and Diffusers” at Maine Jewish Museum Photo courtesy of Zero Station Gallery

PSBL’s wall sculptures do something similar with light. Again, from the artist statement: “Light, made of photons, is how most of us discover and describe our physical natural world.” For centuries, “investigations have evolved a gradual development of ideas and instruments to probe and record light, deepening attempts at describing the world as it is…The engineering, ingenuity and inherent beauty of these scientific instruments were the beginning inspirations in creating these objects.”

The operative phrase here, of course, is “attempts at describing,” since no matter how complex and sophisticated the instruments we invent, the mysterious nature of these subatomic particles remains, ultimately, elusive. We know that photons are produced when electrons, energized in some way and orbiting at higher levels than normal, fall back to their normal orbit. This plunge releases a packet of energy called a photon.

We can certainly measure this phenomenon – the energy it releases, the degree of luminosity it emits and so on. We can even reproduce it over and over again. Yet, despite the fact that we can explain this process with precision, it is something we can actually never “know” wholly experientially. Yes, we see it’s light, but this is an incomplete perception of its effect, comprehended only with our eyes and our brain rather than felt, touched, heard or smelled. We know what happens and how it happens, but we do not know “it.”

Using materials and processes such as acrylic, aluminum, colored mirrors, chromatic lenses, LED lights and digital printing, PSBL (an acronym for Punk Sugar Burn Lab) conjures different light and color effects. One strong piece, “Webb Reflector,” is named after the James Webb Space telescope due to be launched into orbit this December.

“Webb” takes its cue from the 18 hexagonal segments of the instrument’s primary mirror, which are made of beryllium coated in gold. The reflectivity the piece produces pulls a chromatic range of hues from the space’s stained glass and ambient light and bounces it back out. Viewers become part of the work, which reflects and distorts their images in a funhouse mirror kind of way. This gets at the central mystery of things: It utilizes light, but it emits none of its own.

The central circular element of “Event Horizon” changes color depending on the angle from which it is viewed. We must constantly oscillate this way and that to get its full effect. At the center of “Dark Energy” is a rectangle or square that is impossible to see head on. Like “Event Horizon,” we understand it only obliquely, never directly and concretely.

Two “Eclipse” pieces do discharge light thanks to LED interior illumination. They could almost be taken for large round sconces hanging on the wall. But the phenomenon that gives them their title is not fully appreciated unless we view them from across the room. From that vantage point on the mezzanine of the synagogue’s sanctuary, we suddenly apprehend the eclipses’ irregular auras, and the disk at the middle takes on the visual characteristics of a three-dimensional planet or moon instead of a flat, circular piece of film.

But of course, this more complete phenomenon can only be experienced with the yawning chasm of the double-height space between us and the piece. Once again, it is, in some way, unreachable. The inability to grasp and hold any phenomenon definitively gets a heightened poignancy by the artworks’ location in a sacred space devoted to the mystery of Yahweh.

The works of Droge and PSBL on first glance appear to have absolutely nothing in common. Yet in their own way, they each strive to understand something that will forever slip the grip of our limited human brain.

Jorge S. Arango has written about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected] 


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