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Essay

I am interested in limits, specifically, in their
ability to generate surprise, even freedom.

—Linnéa Spransy

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.

—Wendell Berry

 

THE CANVASAS IN LINNÉA SPRANSY’S studio explode with images rich and strange: ribbons and lobes reproducing like bacteria in a petri dish, organic forms invading intricate grids, patterns emerging from islands of chaos, and all of it on a grand scale. I’d seen reproductions of her work before, but to stand in their presence—to feel in my body the physicality of her work—summons bewilderment and awe. Part of that sensation derives simply from the size, like standing before Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece or Rodin’s Gates of Hell and understanding for the first time how big the thing actually is. Her paintings are also entities in themselves, complex systems somehow familiar yet profoundly other. I get the same feeling when I walk a rocky ocean beach and stumble upon a tide pool alive with colorful sea anemones, wriggling eels, and gaping mussels. I know I can describe later, if asked, what I saw, but the state of wonder occasioned there will stubbornly defy words.

My visit to Spransy’s Los Angeles studio is my first direct encounter with her work. I want to say something more profound than “Wow,” but nothing comes to mind. She notices my unaccustomed silence and offers reassurance: “Fine art has intrinsic physicality. The only real way to experience it is to share physical space with it.” I step closer to the painting before us, sizing up its intersecting diagonals of orange, white, and blue. “Our bodies have a certain scale,” she says, “and our responses depend in part on that scale. Presence transforms our experience. There’s also an aspect of pilgrimage in seeing fine art that is demanding, as so few things in our culture are demanding.” She smiles, and I smile back, feeling a bit like the star pupil. Is she saying I get her work? Maybe so, though whatever I “get” comes in the same way I “get” quantum physics: superficially, metaphorically, descriptively, with scant understanding of how the stuff of things should be that way. I lack the mathematics to grasp the “how” of the quantum world. Here, I lack the necessary vocabulary. I understand just enough to sense how much I don’t understand. Linnéa Spransy’s work sweeps me into mystery.

“What I do is actually quite simple,” Spransy says. “I build small units into large entities.” Easy for some, perhaps, but those entities appear anything but simple to me. As she explains it, however, the process is straightforward: start with a set of well-defined rules flexible enough to remain open to chance and development, toss in moments of chaos, and see what happens along the way. Spransy’s process is at least as important as the end result, the latter as much a surprise to the artist as the viewer.

PLATE 12. Linnéa Spransy. Accretion Stack, 2004. Ink on paper. 18 x 36 inches.

PLATE 12. Linnéa Spransy. Accretion Stack, 2004. Ink on paper. 18 x 36 inches.

Consider, for example, her 2004 drawing, Accretion Stack [see Plates 12 and 13]. Here, the basic module is a lobed line, like a number six or nine with an extended tail of variable length. The modules are drawn on paper, one at a time, assembling into mid-range units that accumulate into larger systems. The module itself never varies except in the extent and contour of the tail. Systems further organize along a horizontal spine, like fern leaves from a central stem. Some of those “leaves” come into contact with others. Patterns cross, overlap, and interfere, generating new levels of complexity.

Each individual module in Accretion Stack is of limited interest at best. It’s how they interact with one another—their collective behavior—that makes the whole more compelling than the mere sum of its parts. Spransy speaks of “information” embedded in her modular systems, much the way a simple pattern of ones and zeros underlies the workings of the computer on which I write. The analogy is apt, even if it only goes so far. What distinguishes Accretion Stack from a computer program is, among other things, its necessary physicality. Unlike a line of computer code, what “information” it contains can’t simply be extracted from the physical object in a pure and uncorrupted form. Information and drawing are inseparable: a deliberate, manual, and aesthetically guided arrangement of ink on paper.

Spransy finds the repetitiveness of drawing module after module absorbing, though not always a joy. “There are times when it’s just work and I have to push through it,” she admits. “But I need to remember that the next system will be so exciting that I’ll have trouble going to bed even at midnight. I want to know what’s going to happen!”

No matter how thought-out her process, the resulting whole comes as a surprise. She concedes that the method looks machinelike and predetermined, but that’s not her experience. The rules she imposes at the start of a piece are simple enough to permit, perhaps even require, “a certain intuition for proper tension between freedom and limits.” In her artist’s statement, she elaborates: “Chaos and emergent system theory tell us that these limits need not be elaborate, or even obviously visible; in fact, it is often the most humble and self-evident limits, which, in time, behave in the most sophisticated ways. They form bizarre chandeliers of crystal, guide the catacomb construction of ant colonies, the spread of cities, and the swoop of flocks. All, often, with eerie similarity. Awareness of these limits does not guarantee predictive power, or the ennui of omniscience. This is good, and fascinating.”

PLATE 13. Linnéa Spransy. Accretion Stack (detail)

PLATE 13. Linnéa Spransy. Accretion Stack (detail)

As a completed work, Accretion Stack is indeed fascinating. It’s also unique. To my eye, the end result resembles an anatomical rendering of some deep-sea creature, the contours of which could not have been anticipated by the basic unit, though each unit is recognizably part of the whole. Start over with the same initial limits and conditions, and the result would be different. A tiny change in detail along the way—a larger bulge here, a tighter curve there—and everything that follows is altered. There’s magic in the process.

There is, of course, nothing new about working creatively within clear limits: sonnets, villanelles, or sestinas in poetry; motets, fugues, or theme and variations in music; Madonnas, Annunciations, or miniatures in visual art. Though high modernism rejected or marginalized many traditional forms in favor of fragmentation and novelty, the fertile discipline inherent in following pattern and form was never abandoned, only transformed. Spransy’s work weaves together diverse threads from a complex history, with a clear preference for the modular and organic: Bridget Riley’s dazzling op art, Sol LeWitt’s structural minimalism, and especially Antoni Gaudí’s baroque organicism. One critic compares her work to the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, who pushed the sonnet form to its breaking point. W.H. Auden also comes to mind, with his determination to write in as many verse forms as possible, ending his career with a fondness for haiku. Contemporary musical analogs lie in minimalism, where short, repeated chords or tonal phrases interact in complex ways, as in the rhythmically intricate compositions of Steve Reich.

As Spransy’s terminology (“modules,” “systems,” and “information”) and references to chaos theory and predictive power suggest, however, there’s also a deep engagement with the sciences in her work. In a sense, Spransy is making art from what are called “self-organizing systems.” As she acknowledges in her artist’s statement, the natural world is full of instances of order arising from interactions between basic initial components: the flow of heat through a contained fluid (convection), schooling fish, and neural networks in the human brain. The difference between the natural world’s systems and Spransy’s is that hers begin with a choice, are continually guided by the artist, and are directed toward an aesthetic unity. Substitute “creation” for “natural world,” however, and that difference begins to shrink. The analogy—however distant and fraught—between her work and God’s is not lost on Spransy. Commenting on the indeterminacy of her process, she says, “I hope to be surprised by what comes out. I’m asking to experience something a little like what maybe God experiences.”

She’s describing a resemblance, not equivalence, echoing J.R.R. Tolkien’s vision of artistic “sub-creation.” For Tolkien, creating “secondary worlds” with robust internal cohesion honored the Creator who made humans in the image of God. He thought the “inner consistency of reality” of any satisfying secondary world demanded loving attention to the “primary world” (creation as it is) and judicious application of the laws and patterns found there. In persuasively mirroring the primary world, a well-made sub-creation draws the beholder in, leads to a place of wonder, and clarifies vision.

Each of Spransy’s finished pieces is a window into a particular secondary world, internally consistent to laws extrapolated from creation as we know it. Like scientists, poets, philosophers, and artists before, Spransy has paid considerable attention to the created world and found it wondrous. Here again, it helps to understand her vision if one knows something of her process—in this case, how she came to her life’s work.

Spransy grew up in rural Oregon, in an intentional, agrarian, “Jesus people” community surrounded by mountains and Douglas fir. Her Swedish-born mother, Siv (named for the wife of the Norse god Thor), and her father, Matt, called her Linnéa. It was her mother’s middle name, derived from the Swedish word for the lime tree. It’s also the family name of Carl von Linné, also known as Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist who invented binomial nomenclature, the scientific system for naming species. It doesn’t hurt that her name also resembles the word “line.” In hindsight, Linnéa’s name looks prophetic—a seemingly inevitable conjunction of sciences, arts, and traditions—but the road to that destiny was anything but straight.

The communal setting of her childhood wove together necessary rules and considerable freedom. Members shared a common purse, limited resources, and high ideals—a fertile incubator of creativity. Her father was, among other things, a musician in the Christian rock group Servant. When the community disbanded, her family moved to the Midwest and enrolled her in public high school. Linnéa found the busyness and social conformity of her new surroundings discouraging and took solitary refuge in drawing and painting, displaying obvious talent. There had been no museums or galleries in her Oregon childhood. Her visual palette there consisted of trees, rocks, fields, mountains, and sky, and she cultivated a sense of wonder that formal art training could not extinguish. In the course of that later education (Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design as an undergraduate and an MFA from Yale), she had what she now describes as “a spiritual awakening brought forth by crisis.”

“I grew up in the context of belief, with earnest art and faith in productive relationship. That was not my experience in art school, so these worlds were pried apart over time.” Her early work is figurative, expressionistic, and—to my eyes—finely done, but faculty critiques were relentlessly brutal and unforgiving. She listened to what her mentors said and struggled to meet their expectations, but without success. Wonder nearly yielded to despair.

“In grad school I had a terrifying opportunity in finding I couldn’t please anyone, not even myself,” she says. “If that was the case, then why paint? Why live? This was an opportunity to examine my motives for art making. I realized my work was done mostly to please others. They at least liked how I arranged things. Now I make my figurative work for me, and my non-figurative art for others.

“I also realized then that when I wasn’t busy with my obligation to ‘make art,’ I was reading books on science—mostly quantum physics—as well as theology and science fiction. Later I began to read the desert fathers. In reading these different texts, I found patterns, but the logic escaped me.”

In the depths of her crisis, she began to explore the ineffable logic of those patterns. Along the way, she discovered not only a new way to do art, but a new understanding of her relationship to the divine. “I recognized that I had made the mistake of self-reliance. I was trying not to fail when, in fact, my value was not dependent on what I did. God’s love is unconditional, so I could fail—in art and in life—and fail spectacularly.” That’s an extraordinary discovery for someone to make in her mid-twenties.

There’s a drawer in Spransy’s studio filled with drawings. Many are portraits of her friends. The colors are startling, the faces rich with emotion, the lines confident, decisive. I ask her if she ever shows them.

“No,” she says. “I love and often miss figure drawing, but those are for me. I don’t regret all those hours trying to grasp what was so hard to master. And it was hard. Mastering the human figure makes it possible to master other forms. But art that’s called ‘realistic’ is, in fact, an abstraction arranged in a peculiar order. Humans are code-finders. We search for patterns. We give them names. The naming of the thing makes it visible. Naming brings about realities. Language is powerful and dangerous for artists, who always flirt on the outskirts of recognition. The artist needs to keep herself off-kilter.”

For several years now, building on her experiments with modular systems like Accretion Stack, Spransy has been keeping herself off-kilter by deliberately introducing chaos into her paintings. She works out an initial system on prepared canvas, building it up in stages. She then covers parts of the system she chooses to preserve with clear adhesive plastic, a process she likens to duct-taping windows before a hurricane. Next, she lays the canvas on the floor and pours paint over exposed areas, often tilting and turning the piece, letting the new paint spread. When that dries, she starts another system. Some pieces undergo repeated chaotic intrusions. She compares this to the life of a forest that is devastated by wildfire, grows back, and then is flooded, only to grow once again. As a biological system, the forest strives to maintain its integrity, responding as it can to changing and periodically cataclysmic environmental factors. Spransy leaves behind a visible record of development and cataclysm, each former system peeking through gaps in its successors. Accumulating layers reveal hints of wholeness like fossils in ancient rock strata, clues to a series of life forms once abundant and flourishing until they were devastated in one or another of the earth’s great extinctions.

Spransy sometimes describes her artistic process as a power struggle, a wrestling match between artist and system. When the initial rules point to a predictable result, “chaos is welcome. I give a lot of control over, but the paintings also completely depend on me.” Some attempts fail, break down, and must be discarded, she admits, but “sometimes the shattering can be more revelatory than the slow building-up.” She pauses a moment, then adds, “An artist has to be full of faith to trust in a process which may lead to no tangible result. You learn from it and go on.”

PLATE 10. Linnéa Spransy. Repeat, Like Nothing Ever Has Been, 2015. Acrylic on canvas. 51 x 78 inches.

PLATE 10. Linnéa Spransy. Repeat, Like Nothing Ever Has Been, 2015. Acrylic on canvas. 51 x 78 inches.

A recent success emerging from this process is her 2015 acrylic painting Repeat, Like Nothing Ever Has Been [see Plates 10 and 11]. Spransy prepared the surface of a large (nearly thirty square-foot) canvas with light blue coloring, wound it up with plastic wrap, and poured darker blue ink over the entirety. With the ink dry and the wrapping removed, a chaotic pattern of light and dark blues formed the initial field upon which to build.

The unit this time is a ribbon, or rather a set of ribbons, the characteristics of which follow the sequence of the first five prime numbers. Two pale ribbons split into three, then five, then seven, then eleven. The system then takes a right-angle turn and starts again from two. After four turns, another cycle begins in another hue—yellow, light green, orange—for a total of five cycles. The result would be predictable and tedious if it weren’t for the chaotic ground around which the ribbons must meander. The system strives to maintain its integrity but is thwarted by dead spaces within the initial blue ink chaos. In circumventing them, ribbons diverge, disappear, fail to connect.

PLATE 11. Linnéa Spransy. Repeat, Like Nothing Ever Has Been (detail)

PLATE 11. Linnéa Spransy. Repeat, Like Nothing Ever Has Been (detail)

Chaos then reenters, this time in the form of clear tar gel, dropped randomly on the canvas from above. Smooth, transparent globs of hardened gel become new obstacles around which the ongoing system must work. The prime-numbered ribbons return, this time in saturated blues and greens. Again, the system’s integrity is thwarted by underlying chaos, resulting in a strangely satisfying unity, quivering with energy. Once more, a seemingly rigid process leads to a surprising result.

I ask Spransy if she ever begins with an idea of how a particular piece will look when finished. “Hardly ever,” she says. “I draw and paint to find out. There’s a sense of anticipation that builds while I work. I’m eager to see what will happen, and there’s so much risk along the way. I want to know. It’s pure curiosity.”

Before some of her projects, she may do preparatory drawings or paintings. She calls them research—small-scale experiments to explore what a system might do. But her research, she concedes, is always preliminary because of its scale. “While a smaller piece can tell me something of the range of possibility in a system, it’s still not telling me the totality of its behavior when I scale it up. Scaling up changes the very logic of a system. [A research drawing] is like using a flashlight, which can tell you something about a landscape, but there comes a time when you have to turn on the searchlight. Or the lighthouse.”

When pursuing the logic of a system requires greater scale than flat canvas, Spransy turns to Mylar. One such installation, Chronos [see Plate 14], came from Spransy’s 2013–14 collaborations with New York-based visual and performance artist Lia Chavez. Chavez’s performances often use “durational analytic meditation”—deep meditative states lasting four or more hours—during which she becomes conscious of bright flashes and violent eruptions of light. Through various means, including emerging from deep meditation to draw the light patterns she’s experienced or coupling a modified electroencephalographic (EEG) sensor to a strobe light, she shares her meditative encounters with an audience—and with Spransy during their collaborative performances.

PLATE 14. Linnéa Spransy. Chronos, 2014. Acrylic ink on frosted Mylar. Dimensions variable, approximately 9 1/2 x 30 feet.

PLATE 14. Linnéa Spransy. Chronos, 2014. Acrylic ink on frosted Mylar. Dimensions variable, approximately 9 1/2 x 30 feet.

For Chronos, Spransy drew ribbons of hand-mixed red and blue acrylic ink on frosted Mylar, following number-based rules derived from Chavez’s biological rhythms while in deep meditation—such as heartbeats and breaths per minute or EEG cycles per second. The title of the piece—Greek for “time”—comes from Spransy’s attempt to visually render time in a body. Hand-drawn ribbons intertwine in three dimensions, mimicking the intimate spatial relationships of brain structure and supporting blood vessels. When the completed piece is installed in a gallery corner, the long right arm stays close to the wall, taking only short flights into the third dimension. In contrast, the left arm finally breaks free of the supporting wall, tendrils reaching outward and upward like petals on a blossom.

When I ask what it’s like to collaborate with someone like Chavez, a talented artist who shares Spransy’s fascination with the sciences, her answer—as usual—surprises me: “You need to find the connections and points of strength to support one another’s work. It’s interesting, because I think of my own work as collaboration with these rules and a submission to them. Collaboration with another artist is similar, so in some ways I’ve had a lot of practice.”

Collaboration and community are recurring themes in Spransy’s life, dating back to her childhood in a rural commune. When she was already a full-time artist but before moving to Los Angeles, she lived in an intentional community in Kansas City, Missouri. She’s now interested in developing a visual arts-centered community in LA. She continues to read widely and stays in conversation with scientists, writers, and religious thinkers as well as fellow artists. When I speak with her, our conversation quickly goes deep, though I can never predict whether we’ll be talking about physics, philosophy, aesthetics, or theology. Such categories are of a piece for her, not divergent silos of thought. Like her systems, they invade one another’s territory and interact in surprising ways.

In a 2012 address at Biola University, Spransy introduced her concept of a “theology of innovation.” She encouraged her Christian audience to be artistic and cultural leaders rather than followers aping popular trends but with an added “Christian message.” In the course of her remarks, she considered what it means to have seven billion humans alive on the planet at the same time, each uniquely formed in the image of God. Scripture, she reminds us, says that the heavens—and indeed all creation—proclaim the glory of God. Since humans are part of that creation, it must follow that seven billion humans don’t exhaust God’s capacity for unique self-expression.

Spransy’s work suggests that the same can be said for the entirety of creation God called “very good”: crystals and ant colonies, bird flocks and branching river deltas, forests and floodplains. It reminds me of a comment attributed to the British evolutionary biologist and public atheist J.B.S. Haldane, who allegedly said his study of nature revealed that the Creator—if any existed—had “an inordinate fondness for beetles.” If Haldane actually said this (the available evidence is, at best, second-hand), he clearly meant it as a putdown. Perhaps he didn’t recognize that there’s nothing about an “inordinate fondness” for any part of creation that would be alien to Jewish or Christian theology. God, Scripture says, delights in creation with all its modular complexity and inexplicable overabundance.

Sometimes, as I look at Spransy’s work, I picture Linnéa as a girl on that Oregon commune, training her eye in a vast outdoor museum of natural wonder. It was in the Oregon redwood forests that she had what she calls her “first mystical experiences.” She recalls walking to the river one morning and coming upon a tree so massive she thought she was hallucinating. She likens it to being in a temple.

“God has always spoken to me through beauty and also through being overwhelmed—a vastness that, to me, is not hostile,” she says. It sounds like she’s gesturing toward the sublime, the ineffable conjunction of beauty and terror that has preoccupied philosophers and writers from Longinus to Lyotard. Similarly—if not quite identically—Rudolf Otto writes of the numinous: the encounter with the wholly (and holy) Other that is at once fascinating and terrifying. The Hebrew word yirah appears often in the Old Testament and is usually translated as “fear of the Lord”: not abject fright, but a paradoxical union of dread and wellbeing in the presence of divine mystery. A better rendering might be “reverent awe.”

The best scientists, including those without religious faith, experience this in their own way. Albert Einstein called the mysterious “the most beautiful thing we can experience…the source of all true art and science.” Haldane, the thoroughgoing atheist, suspected that “the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” In each case—philosophical, theological, and scientific—wisdom emerges from bafflement, beauty from apparent chaos, freedom from an encounter with the limits of human understanding.

However we name or describe the human encounter with overwhelming mystery, it is a place where supposedly impenetrable borders between the sciences and faith grow porous and start to crumble. There are, of course, some who utterly reject such blurring of boundaries. I appreciate their caution without endorsing it. Perhaps that’s why someone like me, more often than not immune to the charms of abstract art, is drawn into Spransy’s sub-creations and cast once again into the clarifying light of the wondrous. It’s on this uncommon ground where art, faith, and the sciences meet that Spransy works, making windows on mysteries of pattern and chaos that are disturbingly alien yet hauntingly familiar.


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