In these benighted days of the early 21st century, we have crises galore to haunt our dreams. Another form of dreaming comes from art, which can shape our consciousness and heal our psyches. Works of art that do that are precious and worth experiencing. I search them out and will from time to time recommend them to family and friends. Most of the works themselves will necessarily have to be viewed online. If you can, you might want to visit them up close and personal.
One of the most creative sculptors I know today is Julian Voss-Andreae. (He’s in my forthcoming essay in American Scientist magazine.) He embodies difficult science ideas in his large works, which have attracted me to him over the last ten years. His Quantum Man series is startingly beautiful, emotionally moving, and communicates complicated ideas.
This example is from 2011 and can be seen “when one takes a stroll on the southwest waterfront” says Voss-Andreae, in Portland, his home base. It’s made of bronze and stands 100” tall and 44“ wide. The sculpture viewed head on projects a solid abstract form of a human being seemingly made up of layered plates.
It appears as something of a metal embodiment of Duchamp’s painting, Nude Descending a Staircase (1912). That work tries to trace motion over time by painting each step in a series of overlapping images conflated into two-dimensional space.
Quantum Man from the front looks like a human being striding toward us, but from the side, we see through the thin, evenly spaced shapes and the figure seems to disappear.
This can represent the very odd, unseen world of quantum physics where sub-atomic particle theorists posit that reality itself at that fundamental level is insubstantial and changes depending on our perception of it. Symbolically, the sculpture likewise disappears depending on our view points of it.
Voss-Andreae’s sculptures like this have the power of pulling us into their postures and shifting substantialities. We feel the weight, tensions and energies of his human forms, bent, stretching, walking or sitting, but when we can open up to their effervescent transformations, they become chimeras, or angels, or airy spirits. We then become Alice in Wonderland ourselves, with figures appearing and disappearing as we move around them, some of them with little more remaining than a shoulder or a mocking smile, like the Cheshire cat.
These sensed postures we feel are intrinsic to our experience of human-form sculpture, as our brain and body respond to the poses in front of us, our muscles and bones imitating mentally or even actually the forms we see. There is a special term for this kind of bodily seeing and responding—proprioception, our felt sensations of what we see.
And, with Voss-Andreae’s quantum figures, our proprioception gets the added treat of responding to their changing forms, and we may feel magically lightened, disembodied, ourselves changing into airy creatures by seeing them. This may not actually allow us to experience the quantum world as if we were transported inside some sub-atomic reality, but we may virtually get the idea of what an unfathomable and spooky world might lie at the core of existence. That’s an awful lot for a work of art to give us.
Art that moves us, delights us with its imitative forms, allows us to stare and contemplate the beauty of human form is a rare sensuous treat that can make us love and respect our humanity in all its dignity. Despite our potential dark view of humanity these days, Voss-Andreae’s figures are typically composed, secure, both centered in themselves and immersed in reality, and still dignified. When they seem to disappear, we embark on a journey to another way of seeing ourselves and the phenomenal world itself. We will have to trouble ourselves even more about how fascinating and miraculous we may really be.
Many more of his works can be experienced on his Instagram account: