Merging Art, Science

Liquid Nitrogen and Charcoal Powder 2013 by Dan Jay.
Liquid Nitrogen and Charcoal Powder 2013 by Dan Jay.

By Christine Tannous
BU News Service

For 30 years Daniel Jay has kept his science career and his art career safely hidden from each other. Like two electrons, they were to never meet. But things were about to take a different turn when Jay found himself attending an experimental painting workshop in Provincetown, Mass.

In the mid 1980s Jay was among eight to be nominated for a fellowship by the Harvard Society of Fellows. As a junior fellow, he was given a lab and an artist studio. During the day, Jay, the biochemist, would develop a new laser technique for turning off key cellular proteins. At night Jay, the artist, would paint.

And so it went. And for the next 30 years, science and art cohabited but never coexisted.

In August 2013, Jay attended an experimental workshop at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. He had begun pondering the “reciprocal nature of art and science,” as he put it. He wondered whether he, too, could combine art and science like many other academics involved in interdisciplinary thinking. And if there’s a place that’s profoundly emblematic of interdisciplinary thinking, he said, it’s the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown.

The workshop’s mission was to push students to think about novel ways to paint. Jay used liquid nitrogen in his lab, but what if he used it to paint? And so on a hot August day, he drove to his first workshop in Provincetown with a four-liter liquid nitrogen flask in the back of his car.

“I hoped it wouldn’t explode,” he joked.

The flask didn’t explode, and thus “Cryoart” was born – a drawing technique that uses liquid nitrogen to alter the interactions between the media (paint, charcoal, etc.) and the paper. The first liquid nitrogen drawings, done at the Fine Arts Work Center, “catalyzed the whole series of experimental drawings” that followed, Jay said. Thereafter, he experimented with using chemical elements, iron to visualize invisible magnetic fields, and silver chloride precipitation among others.

Now, 13 months after that August morning, Jay is showcasing his chemical drawings at Tufts University’s Slater Concourse gallery. Archemy: Chemical Drawings by Dan Jay will feature 21 of Jay’s paintings until Oct. 31, 2014.

“Liquid nitrogen and charcoal powder 2013” is one of Jay’s first liquid nitrogen drawings. When pouring liquid nitrogen and charcoal, the freezing followed by the rapid rewarming of the liquid nitrogen alters the physical properties of both the paint and the paper and creates explosive effects.

Co-Cu-Ca-C 2013
Co-Cu-Ca-C 2013

In “Co-Cu-Ca-C 2013,” Jay uses four chemical elements starting with the letter C – Cobalt, Copper, Calcium and Carbon. Japanese sumi-ink and liquid nitrogen provide a Carbon background into which Jay draws with a charcoal stick. Copper wire, cobalt blue paint, and carpenter’s chalk are also used. “The nervous energy I put in it for the fear of losing my hand adds a little bit to the power of it,” Jay adds.

Jay insists his paintings are autobiographical, and perhaps the one painting that most vividly echoes this is “And I wept for both people’s shame 2013.” The piece deals with his inability to relate to his heritage in the face of a changing China. Vermilion and yellow echo the colors of the Chinese flag, and the compositional gold leaf symbolizes the “importance of gold both historically,” he says, and “as a driving force of contemporary China.” The explosive effects of liquid nitrogen are also visible in this piece.

And I Wept for Both People's Shame 2013 by Dan Jay.
And I Wept for Both People’s Shame 2013 by Dan Jay.

“Dan Jay’s proposal stood out for its uniqueness and its experimental approach to trying to merge scientific and artistic processes and combinations of materials,” says Amy Schlegel, Director of Galleries and Collections at Tufts University. She’s confident the university audience will understand Jay’s work if intrigued enough to take a closer look.

“Whether they think it is more art than science or vice versa is an interesting question to think about,” she adds.

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