September 23, 2020 – January 10, 2021



Scales of Chaos: The Dance of Art and Contemporary Science is the result of a required practicum course for Art History majors called The Curatorial Project (ARTH 331) taught each spring with the exhibition topic coinciding with the university’s COLL 300 theme.  For spring 2020, the theme is SCALE, and the course was taught by Xin Conan-Wu, Associate Professor of Art History.  This exhibition approaches the theme of “scale” from the unconventional perspective of Chaos Theory, presenting new ways of reading art, and a selection of abstract and figurative works of art that embody sensible intuitions of complexity.  Different from our familiar notions, Chaos Theory introduces a new kind of scale that is based on change and dynamism in nature.  A small impact on a complex dynamic system can cause either orderly or disorderly behaviors and results, depending on the level of complexity.  This has ushered in novel models of perceiving and engaging with contemporary issues such as the environment and climate change.  Art and science explore one and the same world, each with its own tools and lens, and at its own pace.  As this exhibition shows, art has either been responsive, or intuitive, in its dance with science.

The project came to fruition amid the unprecedented chaos of the COVID-19 outbreak worldwide.  In spring 2020, the ten members of the class accomplished all curatorial tasks including the production of the catalogue and an online 3-D virtual exhibition based on the Sheridan Gallery.  The physical installation took place in fall 2020, when the exhibition was moved to a different gallery of changed size and layout, and the exhibition design was altered accordingly.










Opening our eyes, the world presents itself in all its clarity.  However, complex systems, like the environment and economics, challenge the human will to order.  In 1963, the mathematician and meteorologist Edward N. Lorenz stated “one flap of a sea gull’s wings would be enough to alter the course of the weather forever.”  He echoed an artist, the author Ray D. Bradbury, whose 1952 science fiction short story about time travel, A Sound of Thunder, had imagined that the death of a butterfly could ripple through time and change the future.

Chaos Theory explains complex systems by delving into their underlying randomness and bringing to light hitherto hidden patterns.  Like scientists, artists have observed and responded to the dynamism of the myriad world.  Many of them relied on visual practices to express an intuitive grasp of ideas that are explored and explained by science.  The thirteenth-century Chinese handscroll Nine Dragons, for example, illustrates the ancient insight that order and chaos are paradoxically intertwined and are an integral part of each other.  Acknowledgment of the intuition of the realm of complexity in visual arts increases our appreciation of the arts while making cutting-edge science accessible to a wider audience.





We take it for granted that the degradation of order into chaos is the common fate of humans, animals, plants, and the whole world.  Specialists of Chaos Theory think otherwise and stress the complicated relationships between order and chaos as forces of equal and rival powers, not opposites but mutually embedding phenomena.  Although it may seem counterintuitive, order and chaos are created in a reciprocal fashion.  Order and chaos can coexist in the same site, masking and evolving into one another.  Artists who entertain an intuition of such a dynamic balance — in human life or history, in cities or natural settings — represent order and chaos sometimes juxtaposed, sometimes in harmony.  They create a complex art that purposefully descends from order into chaos and then points to a new order.


Eleanor Pschirrer-West and Alejandro Algarra Gonzalez










Works that seem to be chaotic may reveal an underlying order or form.  Their exploration evokes discovery, which prompts further investigation.  Order and meaningful clarity may emerge from scrutiny of the creation process of artworks that look obscure or chaotic at first sight.  This patient exploration may reveal an emerging form.  Furthermore, dedicated observation may also reveal an artist’s deep intention hidden behind a bland veil, the meaning beyond appearances.  Such art is more conceptual.  Its formation may evince a state of mind or a sense of place or motion.  These artworks challenge us into observing the emergence of a very simple order out of apparent chaos.  They move us into a world of wonder beyond our initial taken-for-granted understanding.


Caroline Katz and Elizabeth Dowker










The notion of the Butterfly Effect has fostered advancement in many domains of science, including a renewed attention to never-ending irregular patterns known as fractals, a subset of a Euclidean space.  Today, a growing number of contemporary scientists think that nature is made of elementary “fractal forms” that engender a different geometry.  Generated through successive iterations of a simple basic element, complex systems in nature tend to preserve the structure of their details at finer and finer dimensions.  They exhibit self-similarity; that is, similar patterns at increasingly small scales — also known as unfolding symmetry.  Such fractals evoke a deep recognition in the mind, something akin to that afforded by the convoluted and interwoven designs on the decorative backing of a Bronze Age Celtic mirror excavated in Desborough, UK.

Figurative — and even more, abstract — arts have often manifested an intuition of the fractal geometry of nature.  However, understanding the fractal scale requires abandoning established conventional concepts altogether.  It demands that we re-examine our relationship with regular and irregular stimuli around us.  To appreciate this aspect of art we must pursue new modes of perception and imagination.





Some phenomena, like a Freudian slip of the tongue or a visual pun by the artist M.C. Escher, present a baffling complexity.  Fractal dimension can be thought of as a measure of that complexity.  Humans can make sense of it, since perception is also a complex and natural phenomenon.  A thread of wool appears one-dimensional when seen in your hand and two-dimensional when knit into a scarf.  Neither one- nor two-dimensional, it displays a fractal dimension measured by a number between one and two.  One does not normally perceive it because one does not see the same wool thread in both states at the same time.  Here, we shall discover how contemplating some works of art reveals the human capacity to perceive fractal dimensions not only in abstract but also in figurative art.


Kristin Rheins and Yinuo Zhang









The words, forms, and objects that structure our understanding of the world cannot express all the nuances that we experience.  Most subtle nuances are the shades of perception, feeling, or meaning beyond words that make us respond to fractal scales.  To express delicate shades of meaning, feeling, or value, some artists introduce in their work one or multiple self-similar forms that create visual tension within their composition.  They constitute a visual counterpart to the fractal scale of nuance.  Their nuances span all emotions between anxiety and love, and all situations under the heavens.  These visual metaphors result in a poetic feeling beyond words and lead the viewers into a deeper dialogue with the artist.


Laura Yuhua Luo and Charlie Parsons









Fractal perception allows us to experience nuance between the intuitive dimensions of space.  Irony displays an explicit meaning that is bluntly contradicted by an underlying tone.  It makes us smile with pleasure.  It is irony, a fractal between reason and absurdity.  Contrary to nuance, which hones subtleties, it sets in motion a fractal imagination that delights in self-contradictions.  In the visual arts, both nuance and irony call upon self-similarities and tension — however, they do so differently.  Most often, irony in art presents an image that is contradicted by similar images in another context, such as artistic taste, social conventions and mores, which may be forgotten as the time passes.  Please enjoy seeing them come alive again in this section.  The artworks selected here entertain the indeterminacy of relationships between text and image, form and representation, illusion and reality, and challenge our ways of looking and thinking.


Elizabeth King and Yilun Zhuang









Fall 2020 in the Cheek, Graves & Burns Galleries



















Spring 2020 based on the Sheridan Gallery





Nature is ever at work building and pulling down, creating and destroying, keeping everything whirling and flowing, allowing no rest but in rhythmical motion, chasing everything in endless song out of one beautiful form into another.
John Muir (1901)


















Photos by Adriano Marinazzo