Contemplating Complexity

Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background? 

Amie Esslinger: I’m a visual artist living in Atlanta, Georgia. I make objects, paintings, free formed panels, and site responsive installations. My work incorporates a variety of processes and motifs that stem from microbiology and cellular biology. I’ve been actively working as an artist for about 8 years now. I’ve always had a fixation with anything miniature and so it’s no surprise I would start my art career completely locked in on the hubbub of microscopic worlds. As life has unfolded, I’ve had a few major run-ins with biological chaos created from these hidden landscapes. Out of fascination and self-preservation I continue exploring particular microbiological and cellular biological structures and processes to better understand my life and experiences in the terms of order and disorder. Because I’m 100% artist and 0% scientist, I’m extracting and sifting out information and concepts from science for my own meaning and use.

RB: Have there been any particular influences to your art practice?

AE: My experience growing up in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in northeast Georgia has most certainly shaped my art practice. My family’s home was located on a twenty-one acre plot encased almost entirely by National Forest. This is where I had a kind of a wild childhood. I know this already sounds folksy, but from a young age I was exploring creeks, building hideouts with my siblings, playing survivalist, hiking the adjoining logging roads, and poking at the abundant flora/fauna. Most importantly, I had lots of time alone spent lost in my imagination, absorbed by curiosity and childhood nonsense. The ability to manufacture endorphins from the unremarkable act of sitting comfortably alone, happily amused by my own thoughts, has been essential to my creative life. My earliest memories seem to be some version of this thought drifting exercise and I think it was really enhanced by the surrounding landscape.

Both my parents are/were working artists and artisans, self-taught and self-propelled as they made their living from their art. They built our home as well as four studios/workshops, much of it from the timber cleared on our property. I had an unencumbered access point to tools and art supplies (permission not always granted, but still…). I unknowingly received an education of what is required to be a working artist. I was also able to piece together the value of creative freedom.

Later on I received my BFA from Georgia State University. During my time at GSU I started collecting reference books on anatomy, entomology, microbiology, and geography. I loved sketching the organic structures from medical illustrations and models. During a summer session abroad I visited the 18th century medical and natural history museum La Specola in Florence, Italy. I saw the seductive entanglement of art and science in a way I had not seen before. Compromised wax bodies are splayed out in glass boxes, some with their anatomy spilling out and others having limbs cut exposing the cross sections of muscle and bone. There are rows of peeled heads and organ systems, each nested on aging cream silk. Possibly my favorite part of the collection are the flayed eyeballs and optical nerves that resemble surreal anthropomorphized botanicals. These powerful visions of medicalized drama, or dramatic medical history, really imprinted on me and I think I’ve been expanding inward ever since.

RB: What is the underlying focus of your work?

AE: Complexity is the underlying focus of my work. My work is not rigidly representational but rather it’s suggestive of the very real and very complicated parts and systems that compose and surround us but that cannot be seen by the naked eye. Using motifs from microbiology, I experiment with material, scale, and replication to create abstract biomorphs of vivid color, hyper-texture, and dedicated detail. The forms found in microbiology and cellular biology are not only visually compelling, they are also governed by uniform laws, yet influenced by chance and opportunity. I stress the physicality of the world through a labor-intensive process of painting, drawing, cutting, stacking, and aggregating a variety of materials. By mimicking cellular and microbial structures and processes, my practice conflates randomness and mutation with order and life-generation. I attempt to generate an aesthetic that echoes the complexity inherent in natural systems, while creating new mysterious organisms, both alluring and repelling.

RB: Your work draws inspiration from microbiology. Is there a particular area of microbiological research that interests you?

AE: Immunology and cellular biology occupy much of my work right now. I’m always imagining this epic and eternal battle, the immune system fighting against genetic mutations and pathogens that pop up and threaten the body’s systems. Cellular form and function are found throughout my work. The unknowable changes that can erupt deep in the cell’s DNA can set in motion a chain of events that can dramatically alter the course of one’s body and life. I find it baffling considering the scale of the error. Leaving the Crash is a recent painting that tries to capture the immeasurable space or elusive moment after a cell undergoes a minor transgression, an accidental misspelling of DNA. This tiny crash in the DNA will shift the course of its daughter cells and the new generations will not contain the instructions to self-restraint. Mutations happen.

RB: You work with a diverse range of materials, often within the same artwork, creating a multi-layering. Can you say more about this and the interplay between the 2-dimensional and 3-dimensional? 

AE: I try to stress the physicality of the world. My methods of combining paper cut-outs, with materials like enhanced acrylic, magnifying lenses, handmade cotton nets and false eyelashes add texture, depth, and weight to the work. The practice generates an aesthetic that echoes the chaos inherent in orderly, natural systems. Objects comprising repetitive marks and tiny pieces of inert matter are seemingly in motion, forming new mysterious worlds demanding investigation. Images mimicking cellular bodies and processes conflate chaos, competition, and violence with order, cooperation, and life-generation. Through this approach, I wish to compel the viewer into an act of visual dissection. By drawing her into an increasingly complex system of detail and material, the viewer ultimately confronts the physicality of the aesthetic object – an object laden with mystery, yet revealed as nothing more than layers of paper, glue and glitter.

RB:  Can you say something about your working process?

AE: What I am certain about is that when it comes to my work process the best results come from always working. Not particularly insightful, I know. How I compose the work is highly instinctual. I often have such a hard time conveying to others my plans for new pieces. How I map out a new painting or installation is usually very challenging to explain and it’s probably pure gibberish to hear. I’m a visual thinker and I find myself planning in layers, but again I can’t always break it down verbally. I make notes and sketches as reminders for myself, and they too are a form of babble. Always having multiple pieces in production, oscillating between projects in a wall-to-wall packed studio, inexplicably helps maintain the momentum and keeps me focused. I collect new materials all the time, many get stored away for future use, that way I keep a material-rich studio space that is very useful when I hit a roadblock while working. New materials generate new forms and ideas.

RB: In many ways our human brains interpret information through pattern recognition and re-arranging pattern, which is an evolving dynamic process. What importance does pattern play in your work?

AE: Pattern: my lover, my mistress, my muse. It is undeniably the most fervent motivating force in my work. I fully indulge the compulsion to generate, arrange and disrupt the arrangement of pattern. There is a strange harmony that arises from the random aggregation and mix of repeating and non-repeating forms. Chaos has a point of saturation as it morphs into something often familiar and alluring. The hypnotic attraction to pattern is something I’m happy to exploit. I use pattern as a mechanism of enticement, inviting you to come closer to scrutinize or pushing you back to take in the entirety. Pattern directs the eye in subtle ways, a small but not insignificant interactive element.

RB: How important is scale in your work in influencing both the conceptual interpretation and the overall experience?

AE: Increasing the scale allows me to pack in more visual information, creating more depth, and hopefully making the experience richer for the viewer. As mentioned, I want to invite you to investigate the work closer. I also want you to scale out, walk back and see the whole, visually metabolizing the entire piece. I think this is best achieved by using scale against intricate detail in my site responsive installations. Conceptually, I think it’s interesting to inflate these microscopic entities. The over inflation signifies the beauty, mystery and danger of microbes and cellular malfunction.

RB: Interactions between the arts and sciences has the potential to create new knowledge, ideas and processes beneficial to both fields. Do you agree with this statement?

AE: Although there are many credible artists that are equal part scientist, I’m not one of them. I’m not generating new knowledge that is applicable to the research from which I derive my inspiration. But I do think there is a credible use for the merging of audiences. Broadly speaking, I see the relationship between art and science as one of activation.  Art holds the potential to enlighten and decode scientific knowledge for the public, or at least command their attention concerning it. But please, do not take medical advice from artists.

RB: What projects are you currently working on or have coming up in the future?

AE: Right now I’m putting all my time into several large installation pieces that will be included in an exhibition at the Michael C Carlos Museum, Emory University titled And I Must Scream. The show’s curator Amanda Hellman, Ph.D has gathered eight contemporary artists that consider the way in which monsters and grotesque figures and forms are used to understand incomprehensible man-made problems—from environmental destruction and human rights violations, to governmental corruption, displacement, and public health crises. The exhibition is scheduled to run from January 22-May 8, 2022.

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