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Protein structure paintings
Thursday, 2014/03/20 | 15:37:56

J. D. Talasek

Director, Cultural Programs of the National Academy of Sciences

PNAS 2014;111:3899


When artist Steve Miller met Nobel Laureate Rod MacKinnon at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York, MacKinnon was investigating protein structures: specifically, how potassium ions move across cell membranes. Miller became fascinated with the visual tools MacKinnon used to grapple with the problem: 3D computer models of proteins, graphical equations and diagrams in the scientist’s notebook, and even the architecture of X-ray crystallography equipment. These are all reminders of the role visual tools play in the act of discovery, understanding, and investigation.



Steve Miller, Blackboard Jungle, 2005; dispersion and silkscreen enamel on canvas, 36 × 34 inches. Image courtesy of the artist and the Cultural Programs of the National Academy of Sciences.


Artists have always gravitated toward the ideas and technology of their time as source material. As a result, the artist’s work serves as a form of documentation and preservation of those ideas, while asking the viewer to consider a different perspective, perhaps personal or cultural in nature.


The exhibition Crossing the Line, previously on view at the National Academy of Sciences and curated by Marvin Heiferman, is a result of translating imagery of the scientist from the laboratory to an art exhibition space. The curator’s selection of paintings draws parallels between MacKinnon’s examinations of ions moving across the barrier of cell membranes and Miller’s own exploration of moving imagery from the context of one discipline to another. By doing so, the juxtaposition invites the viewer to consider the aesthetic quality of the tools of science.


Far from the didactic or illustrative purposes often associated with exhibiting scientific imagery, Miller asks us to consider the creative thought processes of the scientist in parallel with that of the artist. How does the human mind traverse the terrain of ideas to solve problems, and what is the role that visual tools play in that process? Artists, of course, have a different set of problems they are attempting to answer, which are often more aesthetic in nature.


Many of the paintings in the exhibit are large in scale, engulfing the viewer’s peripheral vision, thus creating an almost immersive environment. Imagine notebooks transformed into six-foot canvases. Layers of silk-screened images, photographs, and textured paint create areas of visual exploration that encourage a different perspective of the work of both scientist and artist, reminding us that each scientist’s work is, at its core, creative and inventive in nature.




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