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