Art of science and silence

Dec 21, 2005 at 12:00 am

Most people know Helen Bevan as the co-founder of Detroit’s ambitious and now-defunct Tangent Gallery. Along with artist and friend Mitch Cope, she launched the venture in 2001, a couple of years after the two of them arrived in Motown fresh out of the Pacific Northwest.

Bevan had always dabbled in art but she had a bachelor’s degree in environmental science, so she started working for a biotech company in Novi. When the corporate grind began to make her feel more like a specimen than a scientist — a lab rat instead of a lab technician — she went back to school to study art full time. Last spring, Bevan graduated from Wayne State University with a master of fine arts degree. This solo show at Madonna University in Livonia marks her solo debut.

Her work here consists of paintings and prints that continue her lifelong interest in the natural environment. The show is titled Assimilation/Adaptation, two terms that have specific meanings in natural science; the first describes the physiological process of metabolism by which nutrients are converted into living cell tissue, and the second describes biological change that takes place over time as a function of evolution. These scientific definitions, however clinical they seem, are useful in thinking about the metaphorical connotations of Bevan’s work.

Assimilation refers to the physical and social changes that take place when someone’s environment changes, when they move from one part of the country to another that has a different climate and culture. But assimilation can occur intellectually too, such as when Bevan moved from studying science to art. Some level of adaptation also takes place when an artist incorporates the external world into her production, a process that, in this case, is in its initial stages.

Bevan’s work is a collection of field notes made by a naturalist who’s carrying on her inquiry by other means, much like Marcel Duchamp when he eschewed formal logic to play chess by aesthetic principles.

Her best work bears a trace of scientific illustration but also indulges in casual brushstrokes and a sensuous color palette. There’s a certain “something more” in Bevan’s work, and it unearths the difference between science and art. Science gets lost in the abstract and universal — what’s known as “the view from nowhere.” Art, on the other hand, immerses itself in the interaction between mind and matter — the richness of unique experience.

The artist’s mixed-media paintings “Michigan Landscape I and II” are scenes of marshy lands in the exurbs surrounding Detroit. In both works, late-autumn grays and muddy earth tones suggest the twilight of the life cycle before the onset of winter dormancy. A dried milkweed pod in one and frail hanging berries in the other are sentinels standing guard over memories of lost time. There’s a particularly Midwestern sensibility here, made all the more poignant in the Motor City, where the idea of progress became extinct long ago.

Deep down, Bevan is an expressionist, like so many Detroit artists before her, but she still seems to be coming to grips with it. In this show, artworks that are too tightly executed are less successful. It seems as if the painting is less about her personal journey as an artist and more about achieving an “artfully” finished product. “Skull” shows a little too much influence of Postimpressionist master Cezanne and more obviously Georgia O’Keefe. “Animal I,” though colorful, is composed of brushstrokes that are a little too deliberately put down. Unfortunately, this deliberateness lays bare the mystery of more evocative works, such as the wonderfully indistinct “Ratcicle.” There’s hope in the more allegorical art works “Animal II and III,” which seek to reintroduce mystery with fantasy creatures — Bevan combines a rabbit’s upper body and head with a woman’s lower torso. Still, they don’t quite get there.

Helen Bevan has her work cut out for her, showing at Madonna University. The curating is ambitious, but the exhibition space is basically an oversized foyer with solarium windows that overwhelm work with a blast of uncontrolled light. Several of Bevan’s paintings are mounted in glass cases that hermetically seal off their surfaces from the viewer. It’s a far cry from Tangent, whose soaring main gallery and upstairs loft were as nice as anything this side of Soho or Chelsea in Manhattan. But even in this inhospitable setting, Bevan shows she likely has what it takes to thrive in her adopted habitat.


Helen Bevan: Assimilation/Adaptation runs through Dec. 26, at Madonna University, 36600 Schoolcraft Rd. (near I-96), Livonia; 734-431-5300.

Vince Carducci writes about art for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]