Penn on paper: Microscopic art zooms in on big themes

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ART EXHIBITION

Penn on paper: Microscopic art zooms in on big themes

Joburg artist explores science both large and small

Mary Corrigal

Richard Penn has spent the past three months rubbing out his work. It has nothing to do with being dissatisfied with it. In fact the opposite applies: he creates the uniform marks that define his 1s & 0s exhibition at the Everard Readgallery by rubbing out the pigment on the paper. Not that you would guess. His art is so immaculate it sort of looks like it has been digitally generated. This links up with the title of the show, which brings to mind computers and the basic two-symbol system that not only regulated whether it was on or off but became the foundation for the instructions that run the processors.
Joburg-based Penn is fascinated with technology and science and the way mathematical languages and discoveries rely on simple equations that encompass complex theories.“When scientists break these things down there is an incredible complexity and simplicity,” says Penn.
The works in this exhibition exemplify this strange contradiction. The Life series is dominated by uniform lines and dots that overlap to form a pattern. At first glance they appear easy to grasp yet the closer you look, the more the layers and pattern suggest a never-ending depth, as if you are spying a small fraction of a very large ocean. For the artist they represent different forms of titular life: single-cell organisms as viewed through a microscopic lens or conversely super large natural phenomena such as stars. Penn has been closely following and taking inspiration from the imagery and discoveries relayed via the Kepler telescope that has been orbiting in space.“They have been searching for life outside the solar system, capturing black and yellow dots, the main stars in that area,” he says.
Penn has not exactly set out to represent scientific discoveries.
“I don’t illustrate theory; that is not interesting to me. What I have created are microscope images that are entirely abstract. The sticks and lines however seem to possess a sort of gravity as if compelled by physical laws. It is as if they are falling apart or coming together.”
1s & 0s builds on a major solo exhibition held at Circa in Cape Town last year. Titled No Signal, it contained new paintings and smaller works exploring the quantum foundations via the “erasure” technique. It also presented his distinctive drawings, created using the painstaking accumulation of dots, circles or lines.
“I am interested in pure form, one very simple formal rule that creates this complexity,” says Penn.The result could be images derived from a microscope or telescope; the massive versus the super small.
“Reality is not quite what it seems,” he observes.
Penn found his way into abstraction through personal subject matter – photographic studies of his father.
“I took grainy images of him doing banal things like putting on a shirt and brushing his teeth. He looked Jewish in them and he reminded me of my grandfather. I tried to figure out who he was and the essence of that inherited gesture. I spent a lot of time in the dark room zooming in on the photographs trying to isolate that moment.”
It was through the small grainy details, the dots, that Penn eventually arrived at this language able to hold the conflict involved in describing the essence of things while denying an absolute truth. Reading up on scientific discoveries further fuelled this visual vocabulary for he quickly found that the devices, theories and instruments used in this pursuit could never quite keep up with the territories they mapped.
“We know that there are planets light years away, that they exist. We know the atmosphere, how far away they are from the sun and life supporting conditions. We can send our instruments to Pluto but it takes over a decade to retrieve images.  Whatever science tells us about reality it always throws up more questions.  We are pushing our instruments to the limits of their abilities. You can see a land map (of a planet) but there is not much information. It is inspiring but unattainable. There is so much to know.”The uniformity of the lines, shapes and his method somehow implies that he has cut a clean path through complex scientific theory and reality itself. What irks, of course, is that he is only able to map small areas contained in the square shapes of the paper.  Ultimately the area he is penetrating exists all around, ad infinitum. As such he might never run out of subject matter. His work has just begun. 
The exhibition runs at Everard Read Joburg until May 5. Penn will conduct a walkabout at the gallery at 10.30am on April 21.

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