Abstract paintings provide maps of concrete truths

March 17, 1996|By Glenn McNatt

IF ONLY Tennessee's lawmakers would listen, Sally Carstensen and Michael Weiss have something useful to say about the proposed ban on teaching evolution in that state's public schools.

Ms. Carstensen and Mr. Weiss are painters and graduate students at the Maryland Institute, College of Art. Their work explores the gray areas of mental life "where definitions break down and the dynamics of abstract and intuitive thought begin," according to the exhibition brochure.

The Tennessee legislature is suspicious of gray areas. It likes its truths literal, unambiguous and rendered with biblical certitude. So, 70 years after John Scopes was convicted of teaching evolution, lawmakers there want to fight the battle all over again by passing a law that would let school boards fire teachers who present evolution as fact rather than as theory.

Now, evolution is indeed a theory, in the sense that it constitutes the overall framework for explaining certain observed facts. But the truth of the explanation is no more in doubt than the reality of electromagnetism or the laws of planetary motion. Evolution is so well-established that abandoning it would require jettisoning much of the scientific knowledge gained over the last 100 years along with it.

In any case, I have never found the biblical account of Creation to be incompatible with evolution. Indeed, the two perspectives complement rather than contradict each other. Science is based on rational inquiry and experiment; religion is based on faith. They are, quite simply, two different but equally valid kinds of truth.

This is heresy, of course, to people who believe the Bible ought to be interpreted literally. Yet the Bible speaks on many levels, and it expresses its greatest truths through metaphor.

Remember the famous exchange between William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow during the Scopes trial, when Darrow asked Bryan how long the first "day" was? Since the Bible doesn't say, Darrow suggested, it might have lasted millions or hundreds of millions of years according to our present calendar.

The Bible itself is wonderfully poetic and metaphorical on this point: Before the first day, it says, "The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep." Then God created light, divided it from the darkness and called the light Day and the darkness Night. "And the evening and the morning were the first day," the Bible says.

So how long did all this take? We believe we know what the passage means, though there simply is no other way to describe it except through the words of the prophecy, which are maddeningly ambiguous if read literally.

Paradox of time

Also consider this paradox: Although evolution depends on the concept of time, we haven't the slightest conception of what time itself is. We experience time only as duration, which is to say as a category or attribute of our own limited human consciousness. We are aware of time's passing, but we haven't a clue as to what it is that actually passes.

Which brings me back to Sally Carstensen and Michael Weiss, whose exhibition at the Maryland Institute last week offered a fascinating visual map of the invisible structures of consciousness.

The 14 works Ms. Carstensen chose to exhibit were mostly small oil paintings of vividly colored, powerfully imagined abstract forms. Though many of the paintings are less than a foot square, they convey an impression of immense interior space that defines a psychological landscape at once oddly familiar and utterly original.

Ms. Carstensen, who is 27, described her paintings as abstract works, but the designs of her pictures have an incongruous photographic quality. Some look like underwater pictures of primitive seabed life. Others recall the teeming world on a microscope slide. One of the paintings, of a green globe swathed in flowing lines, suggests some distant planet without ever quite ceasing to be merely a green globe and some flowing lines.

Many of Ms. Carstensen's pictures look like nothing we've ever seen before, yet through an uncanny deja vu, they evoke fragments of thoughts or concepts that mirror the viewer's own mental processes. It is as if the painter crawled around inside the viewer's brain, then emerged to paint what goes on there with the cool precision of an architectural draughtsman or an electrical engineer.

Mr. Weiss' paintings are somewhat larger and less intense than Ms. Carstensen's, though his designs and sense of color are equally pleasing to the eye. Some of the 28-year-old artist's paintings incorporate long, curving lines of color whose edges are indistinctly defined against a background of many thin layers of paint. Others seem to suggest biological forms organs, muscle groups, vein networks.

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