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Gambit Weekly Echoes of a Dancing Universe

By D. Eric Bookhardt

July 14, 1997:  Our world is built on order and logic, and within these limits we feel secure. But now our scientists tell us that these limits are illusory. Quantum physics shows us a "dancing universe" of energy flowing ceaselessly through an infinite variety of patterns. This is the Dionysian energy ... the flow of life that unites us with heaven and earth. -- from Ecstasy by Robert A. Johnson

The idea of the "dancing universe" noted in Robert Johnson's classic tome on the history of ecstasy in world culture conjures up some fairly vivid mental images. Of course, what he had in mind was not exactly ballroom dancing, or asteroids doing a funky fandango with meteorites or anything like that. What Johnson was referring to was the seemingly whimsical or even illogical energy patterns that, according to quantum physics, make up the universe.

Indeed, quantum physics argues that all things are made of subatomic particles vibrating in an interwoven circular motion -- a pattern that evokes not just the myth of Dionysius but also the Hindu myth in which the dance of Shiva gives form to everything in the universe. It is a theory that turns the old scientific method on its ear by denying that matter even exists, arguing instead that vibrating fields of energy only seem solid.

This dancing, shape-shifting vision of the universe is a far cry from the linear, industrial logic that to date has defined everything considered "modern." Modern art has been a seismometer for the existential shocks that modern science inflicts -- a fact that will enable the arts to be a bridge between the modernist rigidity of the 20th century and the more fluid reality that is subtly unfolding with the new millennium.

Quantum implications are coyly intimated in Steve Kline's metal sculpture in the lobby of the Entergy building on Loyola Avenue. While reflecting his tendency to reduce everything to essential shapes and forms infused with a healthy dose of whimsy, these often large pieces evoke the rhapsodic energy of a dancing universe (or maybe subatomic particles doing a funky fandango). A cursory glance reveals a conglomeration of improbable geometry arranged in chaotic clusters seemingly held together by not much more than flirtatious attraction.

Some suggest a Dr. Seuss take on Einstein or Heisenberg, though art history flashbacks crop up now and then. That Is Not My House may be the most classical. A kind of stylized whirlwind bearing down on some ovoid cage-like structures, this suggests a clash of energies -- one rigidly enclosed, the other spinning out of control -- and evokes the tendency of overly rigid structures to explode into chaos. House is a take-off, of sorts, on early modernism, cubism, vorticism and the Russian constructivists.

Mythic energies of another sort appear in Martin Payton's steel sculpture at Heriard-Cimino. Payton, from a long line of local musicians, fabricates heavy-duty structural steel into sleekly rhythmic abstractions that hark to the totems and spirit effigies of Africa. Not that these are knock-offs or anything of that sort -- Payton's flair for formal composition is as sleek as any modernist -- yet there is a mojo-like kinetic charge present in these works that lends them a distinctly talismanic aura.

Clipper is cubistic, almost Picassoid, while Griot melds a rakish tribal mystique with near-industrial gravitas. Dexter is perhaps the most emblematic, an amazingly simple arrangement of rectangles, circles and bars that shapes the space around it like a saxophone riff made visible. Very cool. But the musical analogy is pertinent because, in African mythology, sound and light reflect similar energies -- the rhythmic tonalities of the cosmos from whence all creation arises. Potent vibes, in other words.

Meanwhile, at D.O.C.S. on Camp Street, more mythic vibes abound in some ceramic sculpture by Cara Moczygemba and Penelope Barlow. Barlow's Aphrodite is a flat ceramic panel in which faces of the goddess are depicted. And we are reminded that Aphrodite was a cousin of Dionysius, a sunny female counterpoint to his older, more primal ekstasis. But in Moczygemba's freestanding clay sculpture Mars, the world of the archetypal goddesses and gods has unraveled and now exists only in ruins and disarray, a state that corresponds to the disarray in the modern psyche.

The mythic Greek deities were never gods in the sense of the Almighty, but rather models (or archetypes) of the energies that we all share. Moczygemba brings them down to earth in sculptures that are as personal as they are mythic--mysterious theatrical totems in which gods and mortals, heaven and earth all interact in a dance of identity, change and evolution. Or, as the ancients put it: "As above, so below." Indeed. And so it goes. ...

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