Reproductions seldom do justice to original works of art. No matter how high its resolution, a photograph like that accompanying this review can't capture the texture, the effects of lighting or, most importantly, the personality that an artist imparts to a painting or sculpture. These limitations are particularly pronounced in regard to the 26 highly original pieces that make up Bruce MacDonald's show at Havoc Gallery in Burlington's South End. The eye-popping impact of several of his 23-inch-square "light sculptures" can be fully experienced only up close and in person.
Each of the stainless steel panels has been scraped, scratched or slashed with markings that convey MacDonald's interpretation of the properties of a specific element on the periodic table. He plans to create images of all 118 elements, including a few oddball entities that the wiry, spiky-haired Burlington artist finds especially appealing. And because the entries on the periodic table serve as the essences of everything, MacDonald calls his show "Visible Indivisibles."
Hydrogen, the first element on the table, is depicted as a circle with a choppy, churning interior that looks like the turbulent surface of the sun as seen through astronomers' telescopes. Hydrogen accounts for about three-quarters of the sun's mass.
Similarly, MacDonald has envisioned cesium, listed as No. 55 on the table, as a series of thin vertical bars positioned at precise intervals because, he explains, this element serves as "the basis of time." The oscillation frequencies of the cesium atom are used to set atomic clocks, which, in turn, set the standard for the world's timekeeping, down to the nanosecond.
The photo of the cesium piece on the Havoc website gives no indication of its actual psychedelic appearance. MacDonald has invested this and a few other of his elements with a powerfully convincing illusion of three-dimensionality. The white bars look as though they're emerging from or floating above a deep, dark background.
The artist's representation of protactinium, No. 91, is equally trippy. Wavy gray-and-white vertical bands appear to sway or pulsate as a viewer's eyes shift across the surface of the panel. This piece also has a visual depth of the sort perceived in holograms.
Because MacDonald won't necessarily be present when visitors come to see his show, even though he owns the gallery, we asked him during a recent walk-through to explain the reasoning behind only a couple of his compositions. (It's more appropriate if a reviewer, like an average viewer, approaches a show without insider information. That distancing allows the work to be seen on its own terms, as should be the case.) It's hence not clear — except maybe to atomic physicists — why he has given protactinium this visual representation. Maybe it's because the element is highly radioactive and, in its metallic form, has a silvery luster.
MacDonald achieves some of his chimerical effects with the aid of a ceiling track of blinking, colored lights. In his rendering of element No. 113, ununtrium, semicircular slashes and carved shapes resembling fish skeletons give off alternating and combined red and blue flashes. The random squiggles and flashes that animate this piece seem consistent with the peculiar properties of ununtrium, an element that can be created in laboratories but isn't found in nature. Its name, which means "one one three" in Latin, has been affixed to the element as a placeholder until scientists figure out something more suitable.
As another visual fillip, MacDonald has painted the portion of the gallery wall where a particular piece is hung in the same color assigned to that element on the periodic table. Elements are arranged in color-coded groupings on the table in accordance with their chemical composition. Magnesium, for example, belongs to the family of alkaline earth metals, which are colored purple on MacDonald's version of the periodic table. So the backdrop for his image of magnesium is purple, too.
The artist also imbues a couple of his pieces with a visual twist. When viewers come upon a circle that MacDonald has left unworked in the center of a panel, they'll likely expect to see themselves mirrored in it. But they won't. The pale gray circles produce no reflections.
That's one way in which MacDonald's art differs from what might be considered its antecedent: the op-art movement of the 1960s. Most of its adherents relied on recurring patterns and other predictable visual tricks, but with MacDonald's pieces, you never know what you'll be seeing next.
A few of the items in "Visible Indivisibles" do resemble the black-and-white optical illusions devised by British artist Bridget Riley. But MacDonald objects to the suggestion that his work can be regarded as a subspecies of op art. His motives, he says, are entirely different from those of artists like Riley. "I'm not doing this for the sake of creating visual effects, like they are. Each of my pieces is based on the properties of elements as I see them."
"Visible Indivisibles" is a wonked-out display in some respects, especially coming from an artist with no scientific background apart from being a self-described "science-fiction fanatic." But unreconstructed tripsters and those who sat befuddled in chemistry class are still likely to appreciate MacDonald's work on purely aesthetic grounds.