When I first walked into Feature Inc. to see Sue Gurnee’s exhibit The Fulgent Cadences, I was both surprised and intrigued by the fact that the gallery included a set of instructions for how to view the exhibit. Immediately I thought of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, which exemplifies how context shifts one’s perception of art. Rather than following the instructions that were laid out for me, I decided I would allow myself to experience the exhibit twice – once without any outside influence and taking it for its bare face value, and then once after having read the instructions. I wanted to form my own ideas and opinions about the art before having the lens in which I viewed it swayed by whatever these instructions called upon me to do.
The Fulgent Cadences is a very unique exhibit. Painted on 24x24 canvases with supersaturated latex paint, the pieces that make up this exhibition depict rhythmic brain patterns, specifically in reference to the decision making process, that Gurnee calls the fulgent cadences. ‘Through her independent observational research that was begun in 1989, she has identified a cross cultural/cross generational set of seven distinct rhythmic brain functions, the fulgent cadences, that drive our decision-making process. These paintings have been made as a way for viewers to balance their rhythmic brain functions so to embrace growth and development through the quality of their choices.”
There are seven fulgent cadences, all of which are displayed and broken down individually in Gurnee’s series. It is scientific fact that humans do not utilize one hundred percent of their brain’s power and capacity, so Gurnee deconstructs the fulgent cadences in order to give her audience a clearer perspective of the neurological processes of decision making. It is within her mission statement of this piece to inspire her audiences to concentrate enough in order to actually use the full potential of all seven fulgent cadences. “This experience is supposed to improve people’s decision-making processes by integrating diverse functions of consciousness.”
Viewing the exhibit, round one: I went into the exhibit knowing only that the paintings I was about to see are meant to display and educate me about the patterns in my brain while I’m making decisions. Immediately, I’m brought back to Dr. Jeremy Tesseire’s neuroscience class, Mind & Brain. During one of our lab days, we conducted EEG experiments. In my personal experiment, I concentrated on phobia, and the brain patterns that were created when my test subject, a friend of mine deathly terrified of ostriches, watched online videos of ostriches breaking car windows and pecking at the people inside the vehicles. When comparing my subject’s brain patterns when in a neutral position versus when she was watching these videos, there was a drastically clear distinction that showed a much more hyperactive and scattered neurological pattern during the state of fear. Remembering this, I expected Gurnee’s paintings to display something similar, interpreting and expanding it creatively in the same way that a novelization of a film screenplay acts.
But this had me thinking. Science is rigid, structured, formulaic, and most importantly, based on facts. It does not accept truths unless they are proven to be completely accurate. Art, on the other hand, is based entirely on perspective, and the truths that are presented are in fact simply manifestations of the artist’s personal truths, which are not universal. Plato’s famous “bed argument” stated that an artist painting a portrait of a bed does not actually understand the bed at all. Only the actual maker of the bed truly has a truthful idea of what that bed is. Anything the artist may paint, therefore, is instead only a specific personal perspective for how they see the bed, meaning no truths about the bed can be employed from the art. If this is true, then how much of Gurnee’s paintings can be taken as literal truthful reproductions of our neurological patterns, and further, how are these pieces meant to inspire us to use all of our fulgent cadences if we don’t even know that what we’re seeing is accurate to what’s in inside our heads? If art is biased exclusively to the artist’s perspective, how can I, as a viewer, trust Gurnee’s paintings for their scientific precision the same way I trusted the EEG readings of my experiment? Can artistic neurological imaginings constitute as scientific evidential data?
As I walked through the gallery, I noted that the paintings were arranged in what seemed like a sequential order. All the pieces are titled as Fulgent Cadence with a number after them. Fulgent Cadence #1 seems rather tranquil, with a combination of bright and dark colors slowly blending into one another yet sharply being contrasted into their own exclusive areas of the canvas without any overlap. It is almost as though the colors create borders that the rest of the colors on the canvas cannot cross, creating a rather neat portrait.
This tidy order, however, does not last. By Fulgent Cadence #3, the colors have spilled out of their boundaries and begin to layer on top of one another. It is as though the color gates had been opened, allowing chaos to spread across the once pristine canvas. In addition, lightly colored thin blue orbs appear on the painting, varying in size from small to large and scattered across the painting. These orbs represent changes in our brain occurring as the waves shift and travel. Unlike the area defined colors in Fulgent Cadence #1, these orbs are on the entire canvas, unconcerned with being locked into a specific area and instead roaming freely amongst the mind’s terrain. This evolution continues as in Fulgent Cadence #4, the amount of orbs multiply severely, to the point where by Fulgent Cadence #6, there are so many of these orbs that they cluster together and form a sheet above the original colors. The focus is then entirely on these orbs, showcasing decisions being made, as opposed to the actual physical setting of the brain.
So what exactly does this mean? Is this to say that when we make decisions, weighing possible outcomes and considering various outside factors in fact clutters our brains rather than put things into a tidy perspective? Does trying to make logic out of a situation overwhelm our brains and confuse us more? Or is Gurnee simply trying to make the claim that so much goes into decision making that the brain becomes nearly entirely dominated by everything that goes into it until that decision is made? Which then begs the question – after the decision has been made, is there calm after the storm, or do the patterns not resort back to their hiding places and stay permanently scattered? The last painting in the series depicts the terrain of the brain with completely chaotic colors splattered everywhere, and the once nearly translucent, thin orbs are now big, thick, and solid black, littering the majority of the canvas. Is this to show the impact decision making has on the brain, or does Gurnee merely end her series at the grand finale, when the decision is made, and not giving the brain time to resort back to its pre-decision mode? It is left unclear.
After having observed the pieces in this gallery once without reading Gurnee’s instructions, I decided to take a quick break and then come back for round two. I had made my initial opinions and reactions and was ready to have the context in which I viewed these paintings altered in an attempt to have a new experience viewing them. I went to go read the signs that I had avoided before upon my initial arrival to the gallery. “Let the image’s vibrations contact you,” they read.
Feeling disappointed from how anti-climactic these instructions were, I still decided to go look at the series again. I couldn’t get past the questions I had about science and I wanted the instructions to educate me in a way that would make me trust these paintings more. Sadly, I went in for my second time just as perplexed and philosophically troubled by what I was seeing as I did the first time. However, I did try to allow myself to be “contacted” by the “vibrations.” I stared harder and longer at the cumulative works, but again, just found myself asking the same questions over and over again. This is not to disprove Berger’s theory of context because I do strongly agree with him, but these events also made me realize that after having experienced this art already, personally manipulating my own context would not mean that I was started from a fresh slate like I previously had. Instead, I was trying to use Gurnee’s instructions to answer the questions I had proposed the first time I was viewing the exhibit, yet still came out blank.
Leaving Feature Inc., I felt underwhelmed. I had expected this exhibit to be an interdisciplinary marvel. It wasn’t until I was face to face with Gurnee’s paintings, however, that I realized how naive those expectations had been. While Gurnee does seem to present a chronological narrative of the fulgent cadences, not having a written indication of the changes occurring made viewing this exhibit confusing. I do not come from a scientific background and I wanted to really learn what I was seeing. Yes, art is meant to be analyzed, but is that the case when art is trying to depict science? Science is not something where the line is drawn at possible interpretations of truths, which seems to me to be at the polar opposite end of art, which allows for a lot of personal interpretation. Unlike in science, people’s truths don’t have to be the same and match up in art. It is accepted to disagree and have two people come to completely contrasting conclusions about art, but if this were to occur in science, either other parties would need to get involved or one would have to start from the beginning in order to detect an error somewhere. Therefore, how much credit does Gurnee’s work have? Does it make someone uneducated to blindly accept what they’re shown as fact if its very foundation negates that of the science it is attempting to display?
As with the science versus art debacle, I was troubled by one other aspect of Gurnee’s exhibit. She stated that the purpose of her work was to inspire people to utilize all of the fulgent cadences because humans don’t use enough of their brain and its capabilities. This claim disturbed me. Not because of the idea that I’m not using enough of my brain, but that I had some sort of control over how much I actually do use. If the purpose of Gurnee’s paintings was to inspire more brain activity, does that not suggest that it is our conscious choice to only use a small fraction of our brain? If we had the ability to use more of our brains, wouldn’t everyone already be doing that? It is almost insulting to the human psyche for Gurnee to suggest that we have the ability to use our brain’s full potential but decide not to, as if we’d rather not advance our evolution. Furthermore, it is even more presumptuous of her to suggest that her art can instigate that type of evolution, especially if it something, as she believes, that humans have been instinctly suppressing their entire lives.
Visually, Sue Gurnee’s Fulgent Cadence paintings are stunning. They are gorgeous compilations of vibrant versus muted colors, and the artist’s ability to layer her canvas with such intricate detail is truly exceptional. There is no doubt that Gurnee is a talented artist. The problems in these paintings are not the actual artistry, but rather their intent. As abstract paintings alone, these pieces are beautiful. However, they cannot be accepted as the truths Gurnee is trying to market them as. Even if these paintings were done as replicas of EEG readings, the fact of the matter is nobody has ever been inside of a brain and watched precisely what happens to one’s brain patterns during the decision making process. Therefore, it is impossible to document that. Even if there were a video camera installed in someone’s brain, the images that would be produced would still only be from the camera’s perspective and there could be missing pieces of the puzzle going on around said camera, showing an inaccurate rendition of what really goes on in our heads. And even then, a painting of the events in that video would be only the artist’s perspective of what that video is showing, making the painting already far too many times removed from the actual process of decision making to accurately portray it.
Logically, Gurnee’s exhibit makes no sense. It has too many holes in it. I consider myself an art enthusiast. Galleries always inspire and warm me. However, I do think that science is a line that if art decides to cross, must be observed with great amounts of skepticism and questioning. It is once art attempts to cross this line that the magic of art begins to disintegrate, because rather than presenting perceptions of truth, it is attempting to display 100% factual accuracies, something that no form of art can do. All art, even photography and video, is somehow manipulated by their artists or mediums, so to present art as scientific data is immature and unrealistic.
I don’t regret going to this exhibit. As previously mentioned, it was definitely a visually pleasing collection of work. While I may not have gotten out of it what Gurnee had intended, this exhibit did educate me. It taught me to think about art in a way in which I had previously not. The philosophical aftermath of this gallery experience showed me how dangerous art can sometimes be, as it can really manipulate one’s self-perceptions if it is blindly accepted for its face value. This exhibit is a classic case of needing to dive beyond the surface in order to understand or come to logical conclusions from it. Either way, Gurnee’s work did inspire me to think – just not with my entire brain.
“Sue Gurnee ‘The Fulgent Cadences’” by Anonymous. NY Art Beat. March 2010.
“Sue Gurnee ‘The Fulgent Cadences’” by Ken Johnson. New York Times. March 19, 2010.
The Republic. Plato. Penguin Classics. New York. 2007 Re-print edition.
Ways of Seeing. John Berger. Penguin Books. London. 1990.