Here is a tweet from a geologist halfway around the world about an art exhibit less than an hour from me. That’s a fun connection. But also: how often do you get to see a geology-themed art exhibit? I had to go.
I had the chance to go to that exhibit (The Contact: Quilts of the Sierra Nevada by Ann Johnston) today, the day before it closed. The Bellevue Arts Museum was mostly empty, and I went alone, so I got to take my time and look closely at the fabric art, which spanned the entire third floor of the museum. The exhibit benefited from close inspection: there’s even more geology in the works on display than I’d originally thought. Plus, downstairs was an exhibit of new works by emerging glass artists that had some interesting petrologic parallels.
What struck me was the degree to which an understanding of the geology informed the artwork. These quilts weren’t simply illustrations of geology: they were a way to deeply understand a landscape, both through analysis and creation. Apparently, Johnston’s family own the rights to a mining claim in the Eastern Sierra Nevada – it’s delineated with a thin thread on this quilted geologic map. I can imagine that , having grown up with this claim in the family, someone who is both an artist and a geographer (as Johnson is) would want to explore it from both perspectives.
A lot of my own work deals with fabric in the geologic sense: the arrangement of mineral crystals in a rock. In this sense, fabric is a three-dimensional thing: something that pervades a rock but may change from one part of an outcrop to another or even across one hand sample. Fabric is also something that, most of the time, you need to look closely at to be able to interpret. I was impressed by the detail and three-dimensionality of the (textile) fabric in this exhibit. In most of the pieces, the stitching added a layer of information beyond the fabric’s dye and reflectivity – in the same way as a rock’s fabric gives a geologist information beyond the rock’s composition.
For more images, click the gallery below.
The Contact: Eureka Chimney (2013): Stitches in this quilt of a collapsed mine tunnel add 3-dimensional detail to the piece. This patterning, while it doesn’t look exactly like a realistic rock fabric, has some of the same features. I especially like the detail on the tan and white blocks on the left edge of the quilt.
The Contact: 07.25.12 19:55 (2015) – I especially like how the stitches differentiate between the dark, fractured rock (gabbro?) in the foreground, the rock across the lake, and the sky.
The Contact: Cirque 1 and Cirque 2 (2016): The same cirque (glacially-carved amphitheater) at different times of day.
The Contact: Cirque 2 (2016): The detail here is amazing. Notice how the stitches take jogs to indicate slight changes in topography – stream valleys?
The Contact: Nevadan Orogeny (2011): Both the stitching and dyeing/printing here are incredibly detailed. The Nevadan Orogeny was a mountain-building event in the Jurassic and Cretaceous, during which the Sierra Nevada was probably a range of high mountains and active volcanoes, much like today’s Andes. The buckling and warping of the stitches, and the twisted, slashed fabric gave me a visceral impression of the forces at work down deep as a mountain chain rises.
The Contact: Vertical Joint (2013): I like the light and dark here, and the grain that the stitching makes. The fabric itself is spattered with dye or paint to illustrate crystals. The spattered fabric seems more plausible as rock here than in some of the other pieces – I can’t quite put my finger on why.
The Contact: Sierra Honeymoon (2015): I never thought of rocks in a particularly romantic way, but here two rock types (a darker one, presumably a gabbro, and a lighter, granitic rock) are held together by a few thin intrusions. The other side of this quilt is a sunset scene, with two figures silhouetted atop a ridge. Maybe one can take a metaphor too far, I don’t know. But to my unromantic mind, the two intrusions remind me that we geologists sometimes call magmatic bodies that cross two disparate regions of rock “stitching plutons,” making this a visual pun.
The Contact: Inside Granite (2015): This is a pretty faithful view of what you’d see in a microscope when looking in polarized light at a thin section of a granitic rock, like those from the Sierra Nevada. Much of the gray and white is supposed to be quartz or potassium feldspar (microcline; probably the gray at the bottom). There is a striped piece of plagioclase feldspar on the right, and what looks like biotite mica crystals in shades of orange, red, and green on the left. The black may be an oxide mineral – I’m not sure. I love how Johnson uses the stitching and color here to emphasize both the minerals’ microscopic structural features (cleavage planes of the mica, twin planes in the plagioclase) and the way the minerals’ shades change as you turn the microscope stage (called extinction; quartz and microcline fade in and out of black in a characteristic wave-like or patchy way – see the microcline crystal at the bottom).
The Contact: Inside Granite (2015): A detail.
The Contact: Cross Polarized Granite (left, 2015) and Cross Polarized Gabbro (right, 2014): Oh. My. Goodness. This is really what it’s like to look at these rocks in a polarizing (petrographic) microscope. But again, there’s more than that. The range of scales represented by pieces in this show is striking: these images represent crystals that are maybe a few millimeters long. In contrast, the areas that the geologic map and landscape quilts represent are several tens of kilometers wide. And yet the mineral grains here – the color fields and stitching patterns – are what produce the fractures and rock fabrics illustrated – also by color fields and stitching patterns – in pieces like Nevadan Orogeny and 07.25.12 19:55.
The Contact: Cross Polarized Gabbro (2014): Detail.
The Contact: Cross Polarized Granite (2015): My favorite detail of the whole show. This is a pleochroic halo (black) around a zircon crystal (blue). Zircon crystals often contain quite a bit of uranium. Particles produced from radioactive decay of the uranium damage the crystal structure of whatever is around the zircon crystal. This causes the optical properties of the damaged zone to change, often making a halo around the zircon crystal change colors as you turn it in polarized light. This play of colors is called pleochroism. It makes it easy to find zircon and other radioactive minerals, which can then be used to date the rocks they come from.
The Contact: 07.25.12 20:13 (2015): A sky like biotite…
Kim Brill – Plaza Blanca, New Mexico: Investigations (2016): From the Emerge 2016 exhibit. Glass art that looks geological. There’s a pretty huge overlap between glass art and experimental petrology.
Kiln-formed glass techniques, from the Emerge 2016 exhibit. More overlap between experimental petrology and glass art!