David Shelton Gallery, San Antonio
Through February 11
by Wendy Atwell
Jessica Halonen’s series of nine paintings at David Shelton Gallery read like elegant, reductive charts, hinting at a vaguely familiar landscape. The paintings, each named Target, are differentiated by numbers in their titles and muted colors, graphite lines and impressive trompe l’oeil details. Two sculptures, made from twigs arranged into spheres, elaborate on the paintings’ subject and colors. The targets evoke the spinning color wheel on a Mac computer, or pairs of chopsticks arrayed in a circle, their tips pointing towards the bull’s eye. Yet the pairing and subtle indentations in, for example, the delicate, ampoule shapes of Target 12 (2012) reveal them to be far more complex and relevant than computer programming or chopsticks. The landscape is the microscopic world of chromosomes—actual maps of life itself—containing DNA, protein and genes.
As the title suggests, Halonen’s Propagating Uncertainty visually responds to “pharming,” the pharmaceutical industry’s manipulation of chromosomes to grow proteins with medicinal properties. Halonen’s work prompts a dialogue about organisms like the “spider goat” in Quebec, where Nexia Technologies is making silk milk, which, once created in commercial quantities, will be used to create a product called BioSteel, to be used in the medical field and nanotechnology.
Halonen literally represents the etymological origin of the word chromosome, which is composed of the Greek words chroma (color) and some (body). The color’s relevance is due to the association with strong dyes that render chromosomes visible. Most of the chromosomes’ perimeters, drawn in graphite, remain visible beneath precise painting that evokes the fill-in-the-blanks of a standardized test or sample on a slide. Halonen reinforces this implied manipulation by harvesting colors from pharmaceutical advertising. Safe, inoffensive, subtle tones stolen from the natural world, suggest the fur of a fawn, the spot of a moth’s wing or color of human flesh. The targets quietly remind the viewer that all creatures great and small are up for grabs, altering the natural into a sci-fi world of monsters.
Target 13 (2012) depicts graphite tracings of the target structure, yet some of the painted bodies appear to have fallen into a pile beneath the target structure. Target 11 (2012) portrays a trompe l’oeil needle stitching the chromosomes together, the delicate tracing of graphite moving through them like thread. In Target 5 (2011), the chromosome is tagged, suggesting possession, control and ownership.
The two sculptures on pedestals, Rx Garden: Sticky Ends (4) (2010) and (6) (2012), are made from maple, sycamore, cottonwood, birch, oak, cedar and pecan twigs. These spheres’ careful and delicate construction makes them appear as if graphite drawings of molecules have been rendered into three dimensions. Pastel colors, painted over the twigs’ joints, suggest a seamless accuracy. Halonen’s use of organic materials reinforces the appropriation of the natural world into the scientific marketplace. Her careful slickness recalls the bland anonymity of pharmaceutical ads and echoes the way profit-making motives of private enterprise gloss over ethical issues–rendering the appearance of the drugs as innocuous and benign.
What happens when god-like powers are harnessed for profitable endeavors? Halonen’s subject matter calls to mind Leigh Anne Lester’s elaborate drawings of mutant plants. Lester often layers together her elaborate botanical drawings, made from graphite on vellum, so that they combine into complex yet random single plants. Lester’s blending of different species questions the repercussion of genetically modified plant species entering the natural world. In the dystopian world of The Hunger Games, a book trilogy, the totalitarian Capitol engineers genetically modified creatures, called mutts, to use for weapons and intelligence. While this may be a worst-case scenario, it is the ever-observant and watchful eye of the artist, working in the shadow of Big Brother that prompts difficult conversations about the future of this industry. Halonen accomplishes a maneuver as equally polished as “pharming,” marrying controversial issues with a restrained, subtle formality, that, despite its quiet quality, provokes profound ethical questions.
Wendy Atwell received her M.A. in Art History and Criticism from The University of Texas at San Antonio. She is the author of The River Spectacular: Light, Color, Sound and Craft on the San Antonio River.