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    Kate Nichols nano particle artworks
    When I become curious about something, my first instinct is to try to make it with my hands. This had led to my picking up an odd line-up of crafts over the years, including paint-making, nanoparticle-synthesis, (bad) lens-making, and mirror-making. I fancied myself quite the eccentric until I realized that all these skills fall squarely within the painter’s craft—as it was imagined in the 15th century.



    in them, we see ourselves. Silver on glass. 36 x 88 inches, 2012.

    In the minds of 15th century Christian theologians, curiosity was a vice—a passion for knowing unnecessary things, things God meant to remain hidden. Curiosity was thought to be closely related to the sin of pride, the hubristic idea that we humans can perfect upon God’s creation. Theologians recognized that the first step to subverting the order of creation was to mimic it.

    The world these early Christian theologians feared is the world we live in today. The order of the day is transgenic organisms, 3D-printed organs, particle accelerators, and gene-therapy. Certainly it wasn’t paintings of flowers that got us here. Then again, let’s not dismiss the idea so quickly.


    Ghost Skin. Lab-grown bacterial cellulose, flask, magnetic stir-plate. 2013.


    As an artist steeped in a tradition of painting obsessed with versimilitude, who makes nanoparticles to mimic structurally colored animals, and who grows artificial skin from microorganisms, I realize how all these practices have a common root in mimesis and in curiosity. And how, given that mimesis is a driving force in biology, mimicry is an expression of our own human biology. I find it fascinating to imagine mimetic painting on a continuum with artificial organs and transgenic organisms.

    In this time of accelerated mimesis, how do we know what we are looking at? We are not like fish changing our own bodies to resemble water, or butterflies changing theirs to less resemble the tasty butterflies they are. We are inserting jellyfish genes into zebrafish DNA. We are engineering surfaces that bend light in ways no natural material can bend it, cloaking any object it covers. Is it as the medieval theologians feared: that the logical conclusion of mimicking nature is the overturn of natural order?

    I find this tangle of questions fascinating, which is why, as an artist living in 2013, I’m interested in mimesis: its capacity to attract, to seduce, to dissemble; in the desires that drive mimesis and in the visual culture it produces. And in the point at which mimicking something gives way to creating something entirely new—the impossible, the unpaintable, the unknowable.

    Any way you look at it, nature cannot be separated from artifice, and science cannot be separated from art.



    Promethean Aspiration. Silver nanoparticles on glass. 16 x 59 inches, 2013.

    Made with silver nanoparticles I synthesized, works such as Promethean Aspiration and Doppelganger present the painter as chemist. The model of painter-as-chemist strikes our contemporary minds as odd, but there’s a rich tradition of this that dates back centuries.

    Before paint came in tubes and tubs, painters sourced pigments—colored substances such as dirt, charred bone, and crushed bugs—from the far reaches of the world. Pigments in hand, they experimented with a panoply of oils, resins, and other substances to carefully tune the chemical and optical properties of their medium. The results were early feats of materials engineering.


    Kate Nichols

    Tue, Sep 30, 2014  Permanent link

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