Conversation with Bruce Pollock
by Elizabeth Johnson, edited by Matthew Crain
Conversation with Bruce Pollock
by Elizabeth Johnson, edited by Matthew Crain
Elizabeth Johnson: The New York Times recently had an article, “The Quest for an ‘Einstein’ Shape,” about the geometric challenge of designing a single shape that fits together irregularly on an infinite plane. After much study, a hobbyist in England discovered two “Einsteins”: shapes that tile a plane in a non-repeating pattern. Could reading such an article inspire a series of paintings for you? How do you discover and foster your science-based ideas?
Bruce Pollock: Science-based ideas affect my thinking about the world, but my methods are artistic. My inspiration is derived from direct observation of the natural world and the expanded awareness brought about by scientific enterprise. The images from space telescopes, scanning electron microscopes, and other scientific research have redefined cosmology, revealing landscapes and forms that until recently could only be imagined. My experience of nature and my work are fostered by these images and ideas.
EJ: You mention in the Geoform.net interview with Julie Karabenick that you work from sketchbook drawings...
EJ: ...Do you work up a drawing and then transfer it to canvas? Or do you transfer loose pencil drawings onto canvas, developing and sharpening them there? Do you add paint after the form is determined, or as it is?
BP: I’m a compulsive drawer. I keep sketchbooks where I draw and develop the motifs used in my paintings. When a drawing arouses my interest, I redraw it on the canvas. From here, my painting method is traditional, first roughing in values, selecting and adding color and developing form. It is a very intuitive process, and the paintings go through many revisions before they are complete.
EJ: I imagine you love M. C. Escher, who worked before the age of computers and computer-aided design software. Do you ever build on his ideas? Do you use Photoshop or other computer programs to help you start drawings?
BP: M.C. Escher was a keen observer of nature and an amazing draftsman. Like Escher, my practice developed before the availability of computers and computer-aided software. One way that computers have effectively changed the way I see is their ability to make instant shifts in scale and point of view. As you look at the paintings in the show you see that there are disorienting changes in scale throughout.
BP: In one painting you see a leaf under magnification, in another you are telescoped into distant space. There is no fixed point of view. Digital technology has made this experience commonplace. Scrolling in and out, enlarging and reducing your point of view can be performed with a simple touch. Zoom in or out of any place and the view can become beguilingly abstract. This is a new perspective on nature that presents new challenges for painting.
EJ: You blend very realistic and symbolic views of plants, water, smoke, planets, the sun, and the moon, recalling Vija Celmins, René Magritte, and Hilma af Klint, artists that engage mystery and the Cosmos. What artists excite you?
BP: What is exciting about art and the artists engaged in “mystery and the Cosmos” is their inquiry into the relationship of art to nature, an awareness of the infinite in all things and a personal relationship to the infinite.
I have titled my show Nature because what I am trying to do is to bridge the separation between nature and art. The fuzzy areas where nature looks like art and art looks like nature.
EJ: Has climate change affected your work in specific ways? When you speak of the relationship between art and nature, do you consider art inherently unnatural but versed in mimicking nature? Thinking about all the correct and incorrect observations that humans have made of nature over centuries, do you feel it is temporary or illusory that we get closer to it?
BP: I am trying to envision the non-physical or spiritual part of nature. The forces and forms that are the motivation of growth and are hidden from view. A vision of nature that is expanded to embrace micro and macrocosmic points of view. A common notion is that nature is without spirit, that it is separate from us and only here for our use. I see this as an incorrect view. The crises we are facing such as climate change will only bring us closer to this realization. We will either come to see this or destroy ourselves.
EJ: Can you expand on the shift between detailed Realism and using symbols or patterns in your work? It is quite a jump. In each series it seems like one or the other will dominate. Are you motivated by a perceived gap between the patterns of nature and what you observe?
BP: My show at Gross McCleaf contains three bodies of work that share a singular concern for the realism and patterning of natural forms. The Ciphers are paintings of natural fractal patterns and forces commonly found in nature. The Fractal Forests explore the fractal of a tree. They use a basic algorithm of a tree: “a trunk that keeps branching,” and following a set of branching rules, each branch is just a smaller version of the tree, as each tree is part of a larger fractal forest. Plant and Planet explore the geometry of the spiraling and branching of plant forms and the relationship to the Cosmos.
EJ: How does stillness fit into your artwork since growth, movement, and becoming are vital to your thinking?
BP: Movement and growth are all in relationship to the symmetry in the paintings. Symmetry provides the still point and the vanishing point.
EJ: Do you see fractals as universal, and circles, spirals, hexagons, and polyhedrons as parts of the cosmic fractal language? Are there other organizing principles besides fractals that interest you now?
BP: A “cosmic fractal language” is a good way of putting it. It is fascinating how fundamental geometric forms can be scaled and combined into new forms. Fractal geometry is a new geometry that expanded our knowledge of nature. Where once we saw chaos fractal theory has shown that there is order. There are many levels of organization in nature, symmetry, for example, is widely used in my new work.
EJ: The Cipher series is broad-ranging. You unify phenomena such as moon craters, cracked paint, leaf veins, and wave shadows by focusing on the fact that they are random––but patterned––aftereffects. (Cracking Cipher is especially beautiful.) Do these phenomena involve fractals? Or are you thinking here about how energy and matter always find the path of least resistance or maximum efficiency?
BP: For the Cipher paintings I set out to paint images of familiar fractal patterns. The Crack Cipher painting is taken from the cracking in the glaze of a ceramic bowl. Translating the drawing to canvas I was confounded trying to anticipate the patterns’ irregularities. The geometry of the pattern is highly organized and yet uniquely irregular...
BP: My interest was not in copying the pattern but to understand the set of rules that nature employs and how randomness enters the pattern.
Leaf Cipher is of the reticulated cellular pattern of a Maple Tree Leaf and Crater Cipher is the random pattern of craters on the moon’s surface. What interests me is how a simple set of rules creates such beauty and complexity.
EJ: Have you always steered away from using figures?
BP: I have not yet been concerned with the human figure in my work. I am trying to create new forms, to paint things that have not been seen before or to bring things out that are hidden from view. I find that photography and film can deal more powerfully with the human condition.
EJ: Your pieces titled Caracol (Spanish for “snail,” “spiral,” or “shell”) mix a branching tree form with a spiral. Is mixing more than one kind of movement or evolution a new development for you?
BP: The Caracol paintings unite upward spiraling growth with the spiral of the expanding earth plane. This image appeared to me in meditation. Many of my motifs express a metaphysical reality that comes about through my yoga and meditation practices.
EJ: Inspiration from meditation and yoga makes a lot of sense to me. Does the color come with the image? I wonder because some of your pieces are unified by a specific hot or cold color.
BP: Color reinforces reference to something real like the sky or a leaf. I use a lot of blue. Blue is spacious and ethereal. Red is the opposite: it concentrates and focuses. Color also affects the overall space and atmosphere of a painting.
EJ: Recent works such as Branching 2 and Folium 1 are three-dimensional yet leverage subtle modulations of color and light, compared to, for instance, the Fractal Forest series that showcases drawing.
Is this a new trend?
BP: My home and studio are in the city. The Plant and Planet paintings began during the pandemic, when I spent more time at my new home on the Delaware Bay in New Jersey, surrounded by nature, watching plants grow, and absorbing the landscape. My approach to painting was changed by this, not so much in a scientific or botanical way but with a concern for expressing the spirit and dynamics of plant life, landscape and ecology.
EJ: Douglas Hofstadter, in Metamagical Themas, says of Mondrian: “You can see, if you trace his development over the course of time, exactly where he came from and where he was headed. [. . .] Looking at just one work in isolation is like taking a snapshot of something in motion: you capture its instantaneous positing but not its momentum.” Where did your art come from? Where is it going? Do you feel pulled in a specific direction or are you hoping it goes some place you can’t foresee?
BP: My art comes from my curiosity for the interconnectedness of forms in nature. My intention is to create an opening to this awareness for others. I have been on this path for fifty years and plan on continuing the exploration, wherever it takes me.
edited by Matthew Crain
Bruce Pollock is an Associate Professor in the Department of Art and Art History at Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts and Design, Drexel University, Philadelphia, PA. He has exhibited widely including solo shows at the Shenzhen Art Museum in Shenzen, P.R. China; the Santa Monica Museum of Art, Santa Monica, CA; and other public and private institutions across the country. His work has been acquired by the The National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts Museum, the Woodmere Art Museum, Cigna Corporation, Comcast and many others. His work has been featured and reviewed by many magazines, newspapers and art publications. He is the recipient of many grants and awards including the Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant, a fellowship from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and the MacDowell Colony Fellowship. Bruce Pollock lives and works in Philadelphia and the Jersey Shore.