Today, the face looking back at Edmark from the glass is still full of youthful enthusiasm, that of a boy turned Stanford University lecturer. He's standing in the Cantor Arts Center gazing into his kaleidoscope-like artwork "The Geometron," which is part of a new exhibition by 13 Stanford faculty artists.
The show features quite an array of voices. Gail Wight's prints of tiny animal bones; Kevin Bean's painting of Jesus, Abraham Lincoln and Maria von Trapp; and Joel Leivick's primordial forest photos all keep company with Edmark's mathematical art.
Edmark's fascination with mirrors hasn't waned since he was a child, nor has the pull of patterns. As he stands with his art, the stripes on his oxford shirt seem especially precise, as though he himself were part of the show. "If change is the only constant in nature," he once said in an artist's statement, "it is written in the language of geometry."
The heart of Edmark's Geometron is three big mirrors forming a triangle inside a framework of wood that the artist built himself. Sit in a chair and peer into the triangle, and you can see that magical silvery universe.
Visitors use plastic cut-outs to create reflected patterns inside the Geometron. They hold the shapes up against a window, and a video camera records the shapes and sends them to a TV monitor at one end of the Geometron. The image in the monitor is reflected in the triangle of mirrors, creating the illusion of a sphere that looks like a disco ball. A black light gives extra pop to the shapes' bright colors.
The piece invites all manner of experiments. Sometimes the simplest cut-out shapes can yield the most intricate results. One basic rectangle can reflect multiple ways, creating triangles or diamonds marching across the sphere. Edmark grins as he tilts the rectangle a certain way, giving the sphere a soccer-ball pattern.
Edmark created the Geometron while he was an artist in residence at the Exploratorium last year. In 2010 it will travel the country as part of the San Francisco science museum's Geometry Playground exhibit.
"I wanted to create an intuitive and exciting experience of geometry," Edmark says. "You don't have to know about geometry to appreciate the piece, but you can learn lessons here about patterns, angles and shapes."
These lessons are accessible to all, he adds, because there's a universal appeal in symmetry. "Our vision system is part of our survival. It has to do with recognizing patterns: Is that a predator, or prey?" he says. "We get a kind of gratification when we recognize a pattern."
Edmark clearly gets gratification from his work at Stanford as well. He came here nine years ago as a student, embarking on a new career after earning a master's degree in computer science from Columbia University and working in virtual environments. "I felt myself longing for a dialogue with the materials," he says.
Stanford drew him in with its unusual design/art collaboration, a joint program between the mechanical engineering and the art and art history departments. "It was the closest thing I found to a program for inventing," Edmark says. He earned a second master's from Stanford, in product design, and teaches classes including one on how to design an Exploratorium-style exhibit.
The Cantor's current faculty show, where the Geometron now dwells, has been enjoyable for Edmark. He says he doesn't get to socialize with his fellow Stanford faculty as much as he'd like, and this show offers him "the joy of learning what everyone has been up to."
Across the room, a large expanse of gallery is devoted to works by art and art history professor Enrique Chagoya, who specializes in painting, drawing and printmaking.
Whereas Edmark looks at patterns, Chagoya focuses on borders. In recent years, he's spent much time exploring, as he puts it, "issues of illegal immigration, racial stereotypes and xenophobia in a post-9/11 world." Born in 1953 in Mexico City, Chagoya lived on both sides of the U.S. border in the 1970s, graduated from U.C. Berkeley in 1987, and later had a residency at Monet's Giverny gardens in France. He became a U.S. citizen in 2000.
Chagoya's 2007 etching "Border Patrol on Acid," like many of his works, has a satirical feel, recalling his days as a political cartoonist in Mexico. An agent with blanked-out eyes fires a large gun; out come helpless, tumbling plucked chickens wearing sombreros.
Along another wall, the long mixed-media monoprint "The New Illegal Alien's Guide to Critical Theory" stretches out. It's a landscape of icons, symbols and images from a sea of cultures and eras. One imagines a new immigrant trying to navigate a strange world, trying to make sense of the Campbell's-esque soup can, the dog wearing a suit, the men in plumed hats and knee pants.
Despite the print's sometimes confusing feel, Chagoya sees it as "celebrating differences and all kinds of cultures," he says in a phone interview. The work is also a tip of the hat to the 19th-century French Symbolist painter Gustave Moreau. In one corner, a woman in a wild headdress and mask asks: "Habla Aramaic? Tu connais Gustave Moreau?"
Chagoya departs from the figurative in a pair of abstract acrylic paintings that swirl and splash like Rorschach inkblots. The paintings have sayings across them: One says "don't do today what you can do tomorrow"; the other reads "illegal alien's guide to greater america."
Chagoya chuckles as he discusses the latter work. "I thought it looked like a painting of the universe, sort of like 'Star Trek.' 'Where no illegal alien has gone before,'" he says. "America is the universe, a cultural galaxy, with so many cultures co-mingling here."
Artistic voices certainly co-mingle here in the Cantor gallery. Passing Chagoya's work, a visitor encounters the eternally-in-motion "Self-Leveler (aka: Tipping Point)," a sculpture by Terry Berlier that can induce feelings of energy or mal de mer. The wooden piece rocks back and forth, its porthole filled with a video monitor displaying a splashy scene of crashing ocean waves.
Nearby, Lukas Felzmann's photos of meticulously arranged found objects take a bleaker look at the ocean world. Toys, buttons, a key, a broken credit card — all were swallowed by sea gulls and then regurgitated into nests on the Farallon Islands. The credit card expired in 2007.
Just beyond the stark feel of Felzmann's "Gull Juju" series is a more cheerful collection of acrylic works on canvas over shaped wood forms. These are by Matt Kahn, the art department's elder statesman (he's been at Stanford since 1949). "Cupola" and "Standing Ovation" play with parallel lines and dot patterns, bright and lively.
Back in Edmark's area, the appeal of patterns carries on. A small crowd surrounds his sculpture "Kinetic Spiral Tower," a twisty tower of stretched-out squarish shapes fashioned from light wood. In places the "squares" are attached together by cloth impregnated with glue. In other places they seem to hover in mid-air, but Edmark swears there are no strings attached.
Edmark planned to make a spiral that could be rolled into a tower, a process shown in a video playing on a gallery wall. This proved successful — with an unexpected bonus.
One day the tower came loose in places, the squares spreading out, and yet the tower still remained upright, airier than ever. Somehow the squares seem to fall into each other, maintaining the tower's stability. How does it work?
"Ask a physicist," Edmark says, laughing. "You never know what direction your work will take."
What: "From Their Studios," an exhibition of 13 artists who teach studio art at Stanford University
Where: Cantor Arts Center, Stanford
When: Through Jan. 3. The museum is open Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursdays until 8.
Info: Go to http://museum.stanford.edu or http://www.johnedmark.com , or call 650-723-4177. The artists are giving periodic talks on their work in the Cantor auditorium; Edmark is set to speak at 7 p.m. Oct. 14, with Chagoya at 7 p.m. Dec. 3.
Chagoya also has a private show of prints through Dec. 16 at Smith Andersen Editions at 440 Pepper Ave. in Palo Alto. Go to http://www.smithandersen.com or call 650-327-7762.
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