The art of seeing
August 31, 2010
Devorah Sperber likes to stand back and watch people explore her art. More often than not, she says, the initial reaction is "Wow" – a compliment to the artist, but not exactly what she is looking for. She prefers to wait for the moment of incredulity to pass and to observe people as they begin to truly understand what they’re seeing.
"Watching people experience the work is the final part of the creative process for me," she says. "I love when somebody comes in with an attitude of, ‘I’m just here with my wife,’ and by the time they leave they have all sorts of questions for me."
Sperber, who is based in New York, had a chance to view Parkites experiencing her work for the first time on Saturday at the opening reception for her exhibit, "Threads of Perception," at the Kimball Art Center.
While there were numerous "wows" heard throughout the Main Gallery, there were also plenty of engaging conversations about art, science and technology – just the type of subject matter Sperber likes to overhear.
Her artwork focuses on the "art of seeing," or how humans interpret raw visual data and decipher reality. The intuitive part of art comes before the science, she says, but they are intrinsically linked.
Sperber uses everyday materials like spools of thread, Swarovski crystals and chenille stems (more commonly known as pipe cleaners) to create abstract images that, to the naked eye, look like pixilated, inverted versions of famous works of art. When viewed through optical devices such as an acrylic sphere or convex mirror, however, they morph into realistic reproductions of the original works.
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The centerpiece of "Threads of Perception," for example, is a reconstruction of Leonardo da Vinci’s "The Last Supper." Sperber used more than 20,000 spools of thread in a wide range of hues to create a large-scale, upside-down depiction of one of the world’s most recognized paintings.
Without the use of an optical device, the work resembles da Vinci’s masterpiece but lacks the level of detail. With the help of an acrylic viewing sphere, the original image springs into focus as the brain fills in the missing details.
"The works function like the raw data that makes up our physical universe," Sperber explains. "What’s out there is different from our perception of what’s out there." Much like how the brain interprets images projected onto the human retina, the sphere inverts and corrects what the eye can see.
Sperber developed the idea for her thread-spool and chenille-stem work from examining computerized images of sculptures. She was amazed that despite the nature of the pixel – "There’s nothing there," she says – the colors came together to form a cohesive picture. "I wanted to put the pixel in the physical realm," she explains.
The benefit of using optical devices came about inadvertently while she was working in a 250-square-foot studio in New York. She was trying to experience her work from a wider angle but she didn’t have enough room, so she flipped around a pair of binoculars in order to condense her view.
Her interest in how the brain functions and how to take advantage of its capabilities in her artwork sparked when a neurologist noted that her pieces serve as neurological primers – they prime the brain to make sense of visual imagery.
The first images Sperber created using spools of thread were landscapes and random items. It wasn’t until later that she ventured into creating replicas of well-known masterpieces.
The theme of "Threads of Perception" is recreating artwork that has links to the science and technology of its era. Sperber also chose paintings based on the concept of eye-centeredness, which means that one eye of the subject is centered near the vertical axis. Examples include Jan van Eyck’s "Portrait of a man in a Red Turban" and Johannes Vermeer’s "Girl with a Pearl Earring," both of which are featured in the exhibit.
Sperber’s artistic process starts with converting a photographic reproduction of a painting into a digital template that can be enlarged to reveal the color-field breakdown. The pixilated image acts as a map in guiding the color choices and construction of the piece.
Once she has determined the size of the piece and matched the individual pixels to the palette of hues available (whether in thread spools or chenille stems), the assemblage begins. "Doing is the fun part," she says. "It’s deeply satisfying because at the end of the day, you can see exactly what you did."
There’s not a lot of room for mistakes, she notes. "It takes longer to dissemble 10,000 spools than it does to assemble them."
"Threads of Perception" debuted at the Brooklyn Museum in 2007 and has appeared at three other sites. The Kimball Art Center is the final stop for the traveling exhibition and select pieces are available for purchase.
The goal for the Kimball, says public relations coordinator Corinne Humphrey, is to draw in people who haven’t visited the center before.
Sperber’s goal is for the art to be accessible to everyone, from art history buffs to the man on the street. "I want the work to be relatable to the person I would be had I not become an artist," she says. "You don’t have to know anything to appreciate the work. The longer you look at these works, the more you see. The more you think about it, the more you understand."
"Threads of Perception" is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays and noon to 5 p.m. on weekends through Oct. 31. Admission is free. For more information, visit http://www.kimballartcenter.org and http://devorahsperber.com .