Affecting Perception: Art & Neuroscience

BackPropagationC (1)
Nicholas Wade, Back Propagation, 2012, digital print, © The Artist

Flashes of inspiration seem to come at the strangest times; an idea just before you go to sleep, or your best essay of term, written in a drunken haze after a night out. So what of the sources of creativity and inspiration? This is what the O3 gallery’s exhibition, Affecting Perception: Art & Neuroscience, explores.

Tucked away in a corner of Oxford Castle, the O3 is a small but inviting space. Upon entrance we are greeted by a description of the brain with an interactive system telling us all that needs to be known about the cognitive functions; useful for those of us with whom Biology GCSE has not stuck.

Armed with knowledge about the brain, we move on to the first part of the exhibition that is inspired by visual perception. Nicholas Wade’s pieces, Back Propagation and Dahlia, focus on the message that light and darkness are relative. Through their film, White Lives on Speaker, Yoshimasa Kato and Yuichi Ito explore the topic of science through the medium of art in an ingenious manner. Kato and Ito’s work inventively gives brain waves physicality by converting them into sound which is played through a speaker filled with potato starch, giving spectators the ability to “see” brain waves, otherwise invisible to the human eye.

Ito & Kato White Lives on Speaker
Yoshimasa Kato & Yuichi Ito, White Lives on Speaker, 2007, video footage of installation, © The Artists

As we move to the body of the exhibition, the collection of work is by artists who are all affected by different neurological conditions, ranging from dementia to migraines. There is huge diversity in the styles of work, as each artist also has a unique response to their condition, and conveys the different characteristics associated with it in their artwork.

The first two artists on show, Jason Padgett and Jon Sarkin, are especially interesting in that they never trained as artists. Padgett only began to produce art when his perception of the world changed after a violent attack. Padgett has conceptual synesthesia, when one sees abstract concepts as shapes; in his case, he sees mathematical formulas in everyday scenes. The detail and geometrical accuracy of his work is extraordinary as he uses only a ruler and compass in depicting mathematics, often seen purely as an abstract concept, as an artistic representation in its own right. Sarkin, often referred to as the “accidental artist”, suffered a stroke, and had a section of the left hemisphere of his brain removed. After recovery, he experienced compulsions to draw and paint, a condition known as “sudden artistic output”; one of only three cases caused by brain injury to be documented. The works on display, including Little Richard and The House We Live in are created with permanent marker, with bold lines and colours. Sarkin fixates on certain words, and depicts them repeatedly and obsessively, highlighting the compulsive nature of his artwork.

Brennan Always look on the bright side of life no 3
JJ Ignatius Brennan, Always Look On The Bright Side of Life No.1, 1993, pastel on paper, © The Artist

In contrast to artists like Sarkin whose work emerges from a neurological compulsion, there are artists such as William Utermohlen, for whom producing artwork is a therapeutic, cathartic release. Utermohlen, in an attempt to understand his own mental decline as his Alzheimer’s disease progressed, documented it through a series of self-portraits. There is a clear difference between his self-portraits of 1997 and 1998; it is clear that over the course of the year he lost the ability to depict himself in 3D. The heavier brushstrokes, less subtle shadowing and bolder lines in his later works all show how his visual perception changed with Alzheimer’s.

A personal favourite of the exhibition was the three-part piece entitled Always Look on the Bright Side of Life by J.J. Ignatius Brennan. As a child he suffered from migraines, and began his artistic career by painting these experiences. In all three, the soft texture of the pastel background is juxtaposed with the harsh black zigzag lines, representing the loss of vision he suffers. The piece of fruit balanced precariously on the zigzag lines gives a sense of instability – perhaps akin to what Brennan felt when having migraines – and, coupled with the bright yellow background in the final piece, boldly depicts Brennan’s experiences of the attacks, and the sensations accompanying them.

Affecting Perception: Art & Neuroscience encourages a dialogue between art and science, as we can learn more about one from the other. Science can never rationalise creativity, and a series of paintings won’t explain why migraines happen, but learning more about it can never be a bad thing. So next time you have an essay crisis, or your problem sheet isn’t quite going according to plan, try asking the scientist or the arts student; they might be surprisingly helpful.


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