Interview with Jim Modiano

Miranda McClintic, independent curator and author of Modernism and Abstraction, Content: A Contemporary Focus 1974-1984, and David Smith: Painter, Sculptor, Draftsman.

Do you have anything to say about the connection between the character of your art and your time as a plant biologist?

From a scientific perspective, my world view has been most influenced by the field of developmental biology. Spanning all scales and levels of organizations, it studies 'the complex'.  Meaning: processes that are are irreducible, that result from the interaction of numerous players, that display system-wide behaviors not attributable to the individual parts, that exhibit emergence.  For example, how does a single cell form an organism? How is positional information specified? What controls the formation of the many specific cell types in an adult organism? The questions are endless.    

One of the major aspects of living systems is the phenomenon of self-assembly or self-organization. In many cases events simply happen - the result of the inherent chemical dynamics or tendencies of the players or agents. You see it especially strongly in cytoskeletal dynamics, in viral assembly, in plant phyllotaxis, possibly even in consciousness - in short a whole host of critical phenomena in biology.

Discovering this for myself and studying it formally had a profound effect on me.  In fact, it guided my research and shaped my perspective as a biologist. To realize that complex, seemingly unintelligible events may in fact be guided by self-organizing phenomena is a real show stopper: no central controller (read genes) required, higher order structures arise on their own. Amazing.  From my perspective, self-organization is one  of a few driving forces in creation! I should point out that embracing self-organization put me immediately at odds with the dominant scientific paradigm - namely that of reductionism. Self-organizing phenomena are irreducible.

So of course, it informs my artwork. At one level, I develop relational compositions to underscore the interactions of parts that define and characterize the biotic world. In nature, everything is dependent on everything else - 'cut it up and loose it.' At another, I am striving to imbue the work with a feeling of complexity and self-organization, something tangible that a viewer can pick up on.

This is an effort to counteract our societal emphasis on reductionism to which I attribute a great deal of the responsibility for our current state of environmental decay.

Can you describe simply the relation of tossing to chaos theory?

Tossing has very little to do with chaos theory. But it has everything to do with complexity and specifically, self-organization and emergence. As I mentioned earlier in my answer to your first question, living systems are complex. They are characterized by having many agents that undergo self-organization and display emergence. In the tossed compositions, I endeavor to embody these phenomena both conceptually and actually.

The individual shapes that are tossed are analogous to agents in a complex system - they could be specific cell types for example. The act of random, tossing is equivalent to the engine of self-organization - individual shapes (agents) are driven to form higher order structures (organize) based on their inherent properties - in this case visual; shape, color, size (as opposed to inherent chemical properties say of some molecule in a cell).

As the randomly, tossed shapes begin to interact visually, they form higher order structures that are not present overtly in the individual shapes, but rather inherently. This is emergence and is equivalent to the phenomenon of emergence that occurs in complex systems. For example, consider the complex shapes formed when individual triangles begin to overlap into a network or when two distinct shapes (triangle and circle, for example) begin to interact. The shapes that arise are unique. They are not found in the agents nor are they formed by a controller.  

The net result of all the tossing is the development of an 'entity' that has arisen through self-organization. It displays novelty by virtue of all the random interactions of agents some of which give rise to emergent properties. In the tossed, cutout compositions, being and doing are one in the sense that the composition is formed by the very processes it describes.

How do you choose your colors?

Simply, I choose them intuitively.  However, I am guided by what I call the principle of threes. Some time ago, when I was just learning to paint, I was walking in the forest and appreciating light reflecting on water.  I realized that it only took three tones of a single color to recreate the highlights and three tones of a second to recreate the shadows.  As time went on, I found this three-ness showing up time and time again in nature painting and so the principle of threes. This is a rule of color parsimony that has wide application in landscape painting.

So today, in working a single color, I typically utilize three tones of that color and in developing color harmonies I frequently work with three colors [also in three tones]. For a total of nine. I find this the minimum number of distinct tones that yields the desired vitality.

What writers on color theory have interested you?

Color is an area of great interest to me and one I do a lot of reading in. I don't get much out of [color] theory and can't say I am guided by any of it. I prefer the view of color provided by the cognitive scientists (Leo Hurvich, for example).  I also like Berlin and Kay and other workers in the area of color anthropology/linguistics.

The evolutionary significance of color vision is to distinguish object from background. I prefer to view color from the perspective of the embodied individual in the environment. In this regard, I love the phenomenon of color constancy (wherein our perception of a color is steady in the face of differing stimuli).

Now in principle, I ascribe to the idea that color has profound effect upon our psyches. This owes to to the direct link of color stimulation to our central nervous system. I like to think that distinct colors have neurological impact beyond their mere perception and that through color there is the potential to influence mood and perhaps behavior.

© copyright 2017, Jim Modiano