On a hot August evening, a friend and I found ourselves under Westway in West London. If you’ve ever taken the Oxford Tube, this is the bit which looks like the cross between a scrap yard and stables. We were supposed to be heading to an exhibition opening in Latimer Road, like the sophisticates that we are (or at least trying to be). Needless to say, we were desperately lost. Sweaty and miserable, we were looking at an evening which finished with a shared packet of quavers and a pepsi; the promise of free prosecco wafting away with the dusty rush hour traffic. However, magically, we finally got the map the right way up, asked a bemused staff at the sports’ centre for directions and sensibly got a little help from my phone and arrived at the Griffin Gallery.
Cool, clean and wonderfully white, it is, in short, everything that Westway is not. Their latest exhibition is perfectly suited to their plain, scientific décor. It is entitled “Insight Radical: Where Science Meets Art” and displays the work of 7 Australian artists who have responded to the work of chemists who are researching free radicals.
For those of you who don’t know, and I certainly didn’t until that evening, free radicals are molecules with unpaired electrons making them very reactive. To satisfy their need for paired electrons they will steal them from neighbouring molecules, turning those molecules into free radicals and creating a chemical chain reaction. This has engineered their reputation as molecular recalcitrants whose highly reactive nature can cause aging related illnesses and cardiovascular disease and some cancers. But, actually, we depend on them; amongst other things, we need free radicals to transfer oxygen from the air in our lungs into our blood stream.
The artists spent time in the lab of the scientists, bouncing off them in the same way that free radicals feed off other molecules (oh so clever) and producing work inspired by the science. Each artist has responded to the scientists and the scientific theory in different way and they also bring their own artistic education and interests to the project. Steve Lopes “UV Portrait” is the sobering oil painting which you meet first. It reproduces a photograph of the Australian adventurer Andrew McAuley who died trying to kayak the Tasman Sea in 2007. A memory stick containing photos and video that McAuley took during his trip was retrieved and the images show how his face and body were degraded by continuous exposure to the elements.
The aging process, caused by free radicals, was accelerated and the painting shows a man whose whole face has been eroded. With his cavernous cheeks, the whole skeletal structure has become visible. Lopes accepts that the effects of free radicals are not always positive and champions the science which develops our understanding of them so that we might harness their positive effects. His other portraits are of the scientists themselves, figured as curious, cheerful and sensitive. “Calculated, Figure III” is a women with hair dyed in an outrageous colours and a massive grin. This is a celebration of the discovery of knowledge.
For me, the best thing about this exhibition (apart from maybe the air con) was the fact that it reflects the work of Griffin Gallery itself. It is the exhibition space for ColArt – the company behind art materials such as Windsor and Newton and Conte pencils. Their offices are above the gallery. ColArt has an artist in residence who has a studio right next to the labs where the products are developed. The artist has ideas for potential products and trials them in the first stages of their manufacture. Upstairs is the mirror of downstairs, where science uses art (and artists) for inspiration.
Insight Radical: Where Science Meets Art runs at the Griffin Gallery until 31st August. Entry is free.