New York’s Heller Gallery has been playing host to beautifully rendered glass pieces modeled after fatal infectious diseases. British artist Luke Jerram (who the Hot Sheet wrote about in October 2009) has brought his rogue’s gallery of deadly viruses, from H.I.V to Influenza, to New York in pristine clear glass models that are as hauntingly beautiful as they are, apparently, controversial. Writing in the New York Times Science section earlier this week, Donald G. McNeil, Jr. transformed for a moment from science writer covering viruses to art critic taking on glass art about viruses when he presented an essay with a question for its title: “Are Killer Viruses, Rendered in Glass, Also Things of Beauty?“
“The outer spikes that pierce cells are exaggerated into medieval battle maces,” writes McNeil. “Did he, I asked, do that to make them look scarier? Real viruses, in electron microscopy, resemble fuzzy, irregular balls.”
The essay included a paraphrased response from Jerram, who explained why his virus renditions are in their natural colorless state. “Science journals always color their pictures of viruses — sometimes for clarity, but sometimes just to make them look scarier.” As a partly colorblind person, himself, Jerram feels that coloring viruses inserts bias.
McNeil argues that Jerram is also altering the image of these diseases by making them larger than scale. This is a ridiculous argument. To make the work life-size, an artist would have to create a glass piece at 10 to 300 nanometers in size, which only justifies Jerram’s argument. Other issues, such as what these diseases end up looking like, also accompany the works, and perhaps add unintentional meaning to the pieces.
Whether or not you side with McNeil or Jerram in this debate about the appropriateness of the work on view at Heller through July 31, 2010, one cannot deny that just this sort of controversy is in itself a sign that this is artwork that matters. If there seems to have been a head-on collision in perceptions then maybe we can safely say that provocative and highly contemporary artwork can be made in glass.
You can read the entire New York Times article here.