WORKS – The Immeasurable Space by Amie Esslinger

In ALL, WORKS by Katrina Vera Wong

Atlanta-based visual artist Amie Esslinger creates abstract yet exquisitely detailed biomorphs using a variety of material and electrifying colour palettes. Inspired by microbiology, her paintings and almost architectural installations invite us into the microcosmos to ponder our hidden biology and confront our understanding of complexity. 

Equally accomplished as a painter, sculptor, ceramist, and textile artist, Esslinger uses a multitudinous array of material to turn cellular organisms into titanic beings. From acrylic, paint, ink, paper, foam, canvas, felt, and wood to polymer clay, burnt elk leather, false eyelashes, magnifying lenses, artificial sinew, copper crimps, mica glitter and more; anything is up for experimentation.

Ten of her works are currently on view in her solo exhibition, The Immeasurable Space. Presented in the LAMINAproject Online Viewing Room on Artsy, the digital gallery is accessible through May 31, 2021.

In this interview with Art the Science, Esslinger discusses the thoughtful and playful processes behind her biomorphs, how microbiology fascinates her, and the evolution of her work.

Point of Impact (2020) by Amie Esslinger. Vertical ovular shape made of one central oval with smaller ovals inside, resembling a cell with organelles, and numerous multicoloured (blue-purple or orange-green) ovoid bodies stretching and radiating outward of the central oval, overlapped by small branching tree-like figures, into a perimeter of more small ovals. Each of the small ovals contains intricate, brightly coloured patterns resembling layers and/or clusters of objects within. The outermost perimeter of the cellular body glows with a bright neon yellow colour. The background is minimal and white, with a textured pattern that resembles bubbles on the surface of soapy water.
Point of Impact (2020) by Amie Esslinger
A different angle of Point of Impact (2020) by Amie Esslinger. Vertical ovular shape made of one central oval with smaller ovals inside, resembling a cell with organelles, and numerous multicoloured (blue-purple or orange-green) ovoid bodies stretching and radiating outward of the central oval, overlapped by small branching tree-like figures, into a perimeter of more small ovals. Each of the small ovals contains intricate, brightly coloured patterns resembling layers and/or clusters of objects within. The outermost perimeter of the cellular body glows with a bright neon yellow colour. The background is minimal and white, with a textured pattern that resembles bubbles on the surface of soapy water. This angle shows the 3D layering incorporated into the work.
Detail of Point of Impact (2020) by Amie Esslinger

What is your creative process? 

It’s really a mix of planning and intuitive decision making that leads to unexpected results. Sometimes I use sketches, notes, and samples of materials to either get started or to use in mid-process as a guide. If I know I’m including groups of repeating components, then I work out the color and structural issues first before committing. Along with this kind of loose mapping, I’m also really instinctive as I work out problems that arise and follow the lead of what’s looking successful. I’m never worried about scrapping anything that’s not working out. Often, I can revisit things I’ve set aside and reincorporate them into something else that’s better suited. I find that working on multiple rotating pieces helps keep the overall momentum going. It’s really important that I try to work every day, whether it’s ongoing embroidery work that I can keep in my bag, working in my home studio after my child’s bedtime, or spending a proper day in the studio.

Pile Up, Pile On, It Never Ends (2021) by Amie Esslinger. A large cellular body with a bright red border. Within is a multitude of small oval or gem-like shapes to resemble smaller cells with various patterns and colours. One large oval shape, bordered by a ring of alternating yellow and blue, is centred and the size changes and reduces towards the outer edge. Beyond the ovals immediately connected to the central oval is a fringe of flat yellow spikes on blue-black material. Beyond that is a ring of gem-like shapes, similarly coloured with red-orange patterns, gem-cut white borders, and a yellowish wall. The bright red border finishes the piece.
Pile Up, Pile On, It Never Ends (2021) by Amie Esslinger
A different angle of Pile Up, Pile On, It Never Ends (2021) by Amie Esslinger. A large cellular body with a bright red border. Within is a multitude of small oval or gem-like shapes to resemble smaller cells with various patterns and colours. One large oval shape, bordered by a ring of alternating yellow and blue, is centred and the size changes and reduces towards the outer edge. Beyond the ovals immediately connected to the central oval is a fringe of flat yellow spikes on blue-black material. Beyond that is a ring of gem-like shapes, similarly coloured with red-orange patterns, gem-cut white borders, and a yellowish wall. The bright red border finishes the piece. This angle shows the 3D layering incorporated into the work.
Detail of Pile Up, Pile On, It Never Ends (2021) by Amie Esslinger

I love that there’s not just detail in the cellular subjects but, in some works, also in the matrix that those subjects are surrounded by. The title of the show also brings attention to “space.” Is the external environment something you think about in creating these biomorphs? 

Yes, very much. I use lots of layers in an attempt to highlight the complexity and the physicality of the systems and actions I’m trying to convey. Saturating dominant forms in a stew of smaller diverse forms/structures helps create a layered relationship between the imaginary organisms and their environment. I want the viewer to be pulled towards the work and look closer, zooming in or as I like to imagine it, expanding inward.

When I named the show The Immeasurable Space, I was thinking about both the physical space inside these microcosms but also the psychological space from where they came.

A Quiet Loud (2019) by Amie Esslinger. A vertically oriented rectangular work with large central cellular body that has an irregular oval shape. The very centre resembles a single scoop of ice cream. Multicoloured lines radiating out from it connect to an irregularly shaped ring of dots. The same lines start expanding as they go outward. They connect again through a porous red matrix. The pores are large and some are inhabited by more cellular bodies, coloured a swamp-like green with orange dots. Beyond the matrix is where the lines have extended and become their own bright yellow, triangular-shaped bodies within the whole work.
A Quiet Loud (2019) by Amie Esslinger
A different angle of A Quiet Loud (2019) by Amie Esslinger. A vertically oriented rectangular work with large central cellular body that has an irregular oval shape. The very centre resembles a single scoop of ice cream. Multicoloured lines radiating out from it connect to an irregularly shaped ring of dots. The same lines start expanding as they go outward. They connect again through a porous red matrix. The pores are large and some are inhabited by more cellular bodies, coloured a swamp-like green with orange dots. Beyond the matrix is where the lines have extended and become their own bright yellow, triangular-shaped bodies within the whole work. This angle shows the 3D layering incorporated into the work.
Detail of A Quiet Loud (2019) by Amie Esslinger

Why do you use such a diverse range of material? 

I could never settle on one medium or technique. I enjoy the challenges and rewards of introducing new materials into my work. Unexpected results often come from new and expanded territory. It’s one of the great pleasures of the studio, to play and experiment. 

A Small Swath (2021) by Amie Esslinger. A single large oval cellular body, consisting of membranous layers and smaller ovoid shapes resembling organelles. The outer edge of the cellular body has hair-like threads extending outward all along the perimeter. Going inwards, the first membranous layer is green-yellow, followed by a patterned layer of pink, orange, black and dark blue - it also has shorter lash-like threads extending outward. The next layer is composed of multiple thick yellow cilia-like shapes, also extending outward, on a bed of bright green. Layered oval shapes build up towards the centre where multiple organelle-like oval shapes are arranged. Each are patterned and coloured differently.
A Small Swath (2021) by Amie Esslinger
A different angle of A Small Swath (2021) by Amie Esslinger. A single large oval cellular body, consisting of membranous layers and smaller ovoid shapes resembling organelles. The outer edge of the cellular body has hair-like threads extending outward all along the perimeter. Going inwards, the first membranous layer is green-yellow, followed by a patterned layer of pink, orange, black and dark blue - it also has shorter lash-like threads extending outward. The next layer is composed of multiple thick yellow cilia-like shapes, also extending outward, on a bed of bright green. Layered oval shapes build up towards the centre where multiple organelle-like oval shapes are arranged. Each are patterned and coloured differently. This angle shows the 3D layering incorporated into the work.
Detail of A Small Swath (2021) by Amie Esslinger

Your textured paintings and layered installations remind me of miniature worlds, like the kind in model train layouts. They simultaneously magnify the microscopic and shrink a cityscape (or swampscape, as in A Quiet Loud). How do you determine the scale of your works? Is it important to you to create depth for images we usually see two-dimensionally?

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by the miniature. I love the idea of transporting yourself into imaginary or physically inaccessible spaces. I’m endlessly dedicated to detail and texture because I want to make art that has a captivating entry point. In my larger work, I use the graduated range of details to help emphasize the potential impact these microscopic worlds have on each of us. So, increasing the scale in support of the content hopefully gives you a fresh way to think about these invisible worlds. 

Before the Split (2020) by Amie Esslinger. A large layered ovoid-shaped cellular body on the verge of splitting in two, where the position of the two halves suggests they are separating by pulling diagonally away from each other. A small central oval, like an eye, is surrounded by membranous layers of vibrant patterns and other similarly sized ovals resembling cellular organelles. The centre is mostly green, with the smallish ovals arranged in a ring. Some of these ovals cross over to the next blue outer ring punctured with pores through which the small ovals appear to move through. The next outer ring is yellow, followed by a thicker membrane of blue, then a layer of mixed green and pink. Beyond that are several layers of green yellow where several small and tiny oval- and circle-shaped cellular bodies appear to come out of the darker shaded central body. The split is clearest in the green-yellow layers at the northwest and southeast points of the whole work, where there are cracks. Behind the work is a pool of red with some black branching structures extending outward.
Before the Split (2020) by Amie Esslinger
A close-up of Before the Split (2020) by Amie Esslinger. A large layered ovoid-shaped cellular body on the verge of splitting in two, where the position of the two halves suggests they are separating by pulling diagonally away from each other. A small central oval, like an eye, is surrounded by membranous layers of vibrant patterns and other similarly sized ovals resembling cellular organelles. The centre is mostly green, with the smallish ovals arranged in a ring. Some of these ovals cross over to the next blue outer ring punctured with pores through which the small ovals appear to move through. The next outer ring is yellow, followed by a thicker membrane of blue, then a layer of mixed green and pink. Beyond that are several layers of green yellow where several small and tiny oval- and circle-shaped cellular bodies appear to come out of the darker shaded central body. The split is clearest in the green-yellow layers at the northwest and southeast points of the whole work, where there are cracks. Behind the work is a pool of red with some black branching structures extending outward. This close-up magnifies some of the small circle-shaped cellular bodies. The main one's centre looks like an eye with lashes all around, followed by several patterned layers, followed by several spiked orange and black checkered layers.
Detail of Before the Split (2020) by Amie Esslinger

The energetic and contrasting yet harmonious colour combinations you use almost mobilize your biomorphs and show how complex cell biology is. How do you decide which colours go into your work’s palette?

I learn by doing and note when I observe a powerful color combination. The natural world offers anyone a free color theory lesson. When I see a vein of yellow-green sulphur crawling through a viscous burnt umber stone, well, I take note. And color is so specific to our emotional response when looking at images. The hyper-[palette] of my work is meant to be emblematic of the kinetic energy and activity found in the systems I look to for inspiration. 

Cell Grid (Brown) (2019) by Amie Esslinger. A brown textile grid with 6 columns and 5 rows. Each cell in the grid is occupied by an ovoid body resembling a biological cell. These cells have various patterns and colours like green, bright yellow, blue, red, orange. Some are shaped like flowers, some are square with the corners cut off, some are combinations of both shapes, with multiple layers. The grid frame lines extend beyond the frame of the grid holding all the cells, and the bottom has long threads flowing down like a fringe (same material as the brown grid).
Cell Grid (Brown) (2019) by Amie Esslinger
A close-up of Cell Grid (Brown) (2019) by Amie Esslinger. A brown textile grid with 6 columns and 5 rows. Each cell in the grid is occupied by an ovoid body resembling a biological cell. These cells have various patterns and colours like green, bright yellow, blue, red, orange. Some are shaped like flowers, some are square with the corners cut off, some are combinations of both shapes, with multiple layers. The grid frame lines extend beyond the frame of the grid holding all the cells, and the bottom has long threads flowing down like a fringe (same material as the brown grid). This close-up shows 3D layering incorporated into the work.
Detail of Cell Grid (Brown) (2019) by Amie Esslinger

All the works in this exhibition draw inspiration from microbiology. What kind of microbiology research captures your interest? 

Immunology is probably the branch of microbiology that most interests me. The epic and eternal battle between the immune system fighting against genetic mutations and pathogens is so fascinating and dramatic. 

Jagged and Theft (2021) by Amie Esslinger. Vertically oriented canvas. Dark blue background. In the centre is a vertically long irregular ovoid-shape, resembling a cell, with bulbous patterned organelle structures within and yellow cilia-like projections around it. Membranous layers surround it and at east and west points of the outermost membrane, it turns into a tube-like structure, so it looks like the cell is being pulled from the left and right. Beyond that is another cellular wall through which the tube-like structures pass through. This pink wall contains some oval-shaped structures that resemble goat eyes surrounded by wisps of white against a black background. Around the whole structure are red capillary-like structures, like blood vessels, branching outward into a white frame.
Jagged and Theft (2021) by Amie Esslinger
A close-up of Jagged and Theft (2021) by Amie Esslinger. Vertically oriented canvas. Dark blue background. In the centre is a vertically long irregular ovoid-shape, resembling a cell, with bulbous patterned organelle structures within and yellow cilia-like projections around it. Membranous layers surround it and at east and west points of the outermost membrane, it turns into a tube-like structure, so it looks like the cell is being pulled from the left and right. Beyond that is another cellular wall through which the tube-like structures pass through. This pink wall contains some oval-shaped structures that resemble goat eyes surrounded by wisps of white against a black background. Around the whole structure are red capillary-like structures, like blood vessels, branching outward into a white frame. This close-up shows the lower left section of the work.
Detail of Jagged and Theft (2021) by Amie Esslinger

You specifically reference the JAG1 protein in Jagged and Theft. Why did this protein stand out to you? 

I came across JAG1 when looking into the mechanics of tumor growth and spread. It’s one of the pivotal players in an integral system that allows cells to latch onto one another to form tissue. It gets its name because its structure is a jagged form and when aided by other functions it will connect to its counterpart which has an inverted delta structure and is the receptor component. I imagine it’s like a key and lock connection, eventually locking together cells one by one. But apparently, when JAG1 is overexpressed in certain types of tissue, it can aid in the migration of an established cancer. As every JAG1 is compelled to connect to the coordinating receptor, it eventually will be responsible for sourcing local blood supply to nurse along the cancer as it migrates. *Apologies to any scientists, researchers, or oncologists for my possibly poor description of JAG1. 

JAG1 protein stuck with me because it immediately conjured a visual structure. Then I imagined the theft of blood, health, and time. The painting and its title seemed to unfold.

The Pull (ca. 2021) by Amie Esslinger. Vertically oriented rectangular work on a dark background. A rectangular bright yellow-green frame that resembles a cell wall filled with cilia-like structures. Within is a double membrane that is pitch black inside surrounded by a border of orange, separating another section of yellow-green. This rectangular yellow-green section is interrupted by a large oval-shaped cellular body, which looks like it's gone through it and is still going through it from the left and right sides, appearing to be pulled either way.  Within the cellular body are five smaller oval-shaped structures that have smaller and slimmer oval-shaped structures inside them and projecting out of them. The five ovals are cream-coloured inside and the projections start blue at the membrane but turn red as they project out into the larger cellular body.
The Pull (ca. 2021) by Amie Esslinger
A different angle of The Pull (ca. 2021) by Amie Esslinger. Vertically oriented rectangular work on a dark background. A rectangular bright yellow-green frame that resembles a cell wall filled with cilia-like structures. Within is a double membrane that is pitch black inside surrounded by a border of orange, separating another section of yellow-green. This rectangular yellow-green section is interrupted by a large oval-shaped cellular body, which looks like it's gone through it and is still going through it from the left and right sides, appearing to be pulled either way.  Within the cellular body are five smaller oval-shaped structures that have smaller and slimmer oval-shaped structures inside them and projecting out of them. The five ovals are cream-coloured inside and the projections start blue at the membrane but turn red as they project out into the larger cellular body. This angle shows the textural aspects of the work.
Detail of The Pull (ca. 2021) by Amie Esslinger

As most works were recently made for this show, were their creations affected by the existence or impacts of the COVID-19 virus?

I have been interested in spillover viruses since 2015. It’s a curious and unsettling thought to imagine such a small and unlikely mutation could allow a virus to thrive in another species. It also scrambles my brain a little to think of viruses as not technically alive, like ambitious invisible chemical robots…very scary, very amazing. 

Now that our lives are so overtly affected by COVID-19, I feel exhausted by the subject. Suddenly everyone is a virologist and a public health expert, our media is saturated with the everchanging updates of COVID, and many of us have daily anxiety about what feels right and wrong when interacting with people. Simply exhausted with COVID, but really how could it not influence the work. 

Leaving the Crash (2021) by Amie Esslinger. Vertically oriented and multi-coloured work shows two cellular bodies in the aftermath of a collision. The top left cellular body looks like a giant eyeball with layers of red, yellow, blue and white as an iris, surrounded by a mass of branching structures projecting inward toward the nucleus. The bottom right body contains various organelle-like structures. Some shell-shaped and striped black and white surrounded by layers of red and orange. Others small and numerous within a net-like matrix. Between the two bodies is a small obscure triple-layered circular structure that looks like a ripple emanating from the point of impact. Surrounding both bodies is a matrix of colourful and variously patterned organelle-like structures that resemble blue worms or a cluster of eggs or the inner intestine.
Leaving the Crash (2021) by Amie Esslinger
A close-up of Leaving the Crash (2021) by Amie Esslinger. Vertically oriented and multi-coloured work shows two cellular bodies in the aftermath of a collision. The top left cellular body looks like a giant eyeball with layers of red, yellow, blue and white as an iris, surrounded by a mass of branching structures projecting inward toward the nucleus. The bottom right body contains various organelle-like structures. Some shell-shaped and striped black and white surrounded by layers of red and orange. Others small and numerous within a net-like matrix. Between the two bodies is a small obscure triple-layered circular structure that looks like a ripple emanating from the point of impact. Surrounding both bodies is a matrix of colourful and variously patterned organelle-like structures that resemble blue worms or a cluster of eggs or the inner intestine. This close-up magnifies the central part of the work between the two main cellular bodies.
Detail of Leaving the Crash (2021) by Amie Esslinger

In Leaving the Crash, the chaos is clear, and the moment you describe feels tense but exciting, like a state of flux with forward momentum. How do you feel your work has grown? What’s next for you? 

I think you just described it better than I ever could! I’m especially fond of this painting even though it was conceived and hatched under challenging circumstances. I started Leaving the Crash in mid-March 2020 and slowly chipped away at it for 11 months. Its inception was aligned with the unfurling global anxiety that had just taken root. This added to my own grief and processing from being very ill the year before, this painting channels the swirl of madness I felt, trying to make sense of the nonsense.

I think my work is more dynamic than it was a few years ago. There’s been a steady evolution of the work: from paintings to installations to larger installation work to fixed free-formed panels. Currently, I bounce around and make a little of each of these iterations. I’ve just started making a collection of sculptures. The sculptures are still in their infancy as I find my footing, but I’ve made some hilarious material purchases recently. It turns out no one was even interested in outbidding me on the three wasp’s nests I won on eBay. And guess how easy it is to buy 100 small deer antlers? Answer: very very easy. I have a couple of shows in 2022 that I’m excited about and look forward to pushing my work into the direction of sculpture and whatever hybrid forms that come out of the process. 

Mother and Colony (2017) by Amie Esslinger. Horizontally oriented rectangular work with large clusters of circular cell-like bodies. The clusters concentrate towards the top left around a larger circular body and towards the right side in a mass. The circular cells appear to be coloured either blue-grey or mauve, each with its own central nucleus and surrounded by kiwi green hair-like structures projecting outward. The gaps between clusters is white. The inside of the large circular body towards the left contains a layered structure that looks like an open camellia flower.
Mother and Colony (2017) by Amie Esslinger
A different angle of Mother and Colony (2017) by Amie Esslinger. Horizontally oriented rectangular work with large clusters of circular cell-like bodies. The clusters concentrate towards the top left around a larger circular body and towards the right side in a mass. The circular cells appear to be coloured either blue-grey or mauve, each with its own central nucleus and surrounded by kiwi green hair-like structures projecting outward. The gaps between clusters is white. The inside of the large circular body towards the left contains a layered structure that looks like an open camellia flower. This angle shows the 3D layering incorporated into the work and shows that each cell has layers of alternating colours.
Detail of Mother and Colony (2017) by Amie Esslinger

For more, visit The Immeasurable Space on Artsy or Amie Esslinger’s website.

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Featured image: Detail of A Quiet Loud (2019) by Amie Esslinger
All images courtesy of the artist.

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About the Author

Katrina Vera Wong

Katrina is a Korean-Chinese artist, writer, and editor. Learning from literature, botany, herbaria and ikebana, she makes hybrid flowers from dried or pressed plants and calls them Frankenflora. Outside of Art the Science, she currently writes about sciart as a subject editor at Science Borealis, proofreads SAD Mag, and blogs at Lifeology. She also created Seagery Zine, a small annual print publication that explores the overlap between art, science and literature.Her Frankenflora have been exhibited in Vancouver, BC, at the Beaty Biodiversity Museum, Science World, and the VIVO Media Arts Centre. Katrina was born in Hamilton, ON (traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee and Anishnaabeg), raised in Singapore, and is grateful to be living on the traditional, ancestral and unceded territory of the Coast Salish Peoples, including the territories of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaʔ/Selilwitulh (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. She graduated from the University of Victoria with a BSc in Biology and English. Instagram: @furiebeckite