Osmo Rauhala is a Finnish artist, close to sixty, who makes paintings that reflect his interest in science. He lives both in New York and Finland, where he maintains a small organic farm. His show, entitled “Mirror Test,” mainly concerns the issue of self-awareness beyond the human species, across to such creatures as elephants, dolphins, chimpanzees, and, remarkably, even to stingrays, who demonstrate such consciousness. The conceit of the exhibition is based upon Mirror Self-Recognition tests, in which these and other animals are shown a reflection of themselves in mirrors, at which point it is then determined whether they can recognize themselves by sight. “Forms of Silences,” Rauhala’s series based on the test, concentrated on the stingray, which amazingly is self-aware. Beautifully rendered with anatomical accuracy and abstract-expressionist splashes of paint, the rays often show the marking devices implanted into their body, which stand as the visual key to showing awareness in the test. We must remember that Rauhala is an artist with scientific preoccupations, rather than the other way around. The exhibition succeeds because Rauhala is an excellent painter, whose images of the rays are all the more compelling because of his technical skill. And knowing about the origins of the depiction, his audience can take pleasure in contemplating the deeply complex, riveting conundrum of consciousness.
Using scientific subjects as the basis for artistic inquiry is still a relatively new field, practiced by a small minority. But such artists may well have arrived at a cutting edge of new interests and themes, buttressed by their technical skills. In Rauhala’s case, we see someone preoccupied with a scientific question that has implications for human concerns—philosophy and art included. How can awareness be proven? What does it mean that an animal as ancient—and supposedly primitive—as a stingray can recognize itself? How do we share consciousness with species we had assumed did not reach our level? These questions have much to do with how we view ourselves—whether we are a distinct entity or part of a spectrum of existence, which would likely prove humbling to the majority of people. And maybe that’s why Rauhala’s project carries weight beyond its simple design. Scientific findings have the tendency to show us that we are less—likely far less—important than we think we are. I don’t imagine that everyone would care to know that elephants can see themselves in mirrors (indeed, they are excellent abstract painters—de Kooning said so himself). It is important, though, that we acknowledge our common traits with animals we may think less of.
The other major series in the show had to do with the building blocks of DNA, represented by the letters, TCGA, which define the make-up of DNA but do not explain the narrative of its sequence. In the painting Guardians of the Word (2016), Rauhala depicts the letters TCGA as plunging randomly downward, white on a black background. Their free fall seems to represent the chance mutation possibilities of the sequence, and like most of the artist’s work, their reason for being needs to be explained intellectually and scientifically as well as visually. One is often torn between work that explains itself as it is seen in the moment, and work that needs outside information to be fully appreciated. Somehow Rauhala’s work falls into both categories at once. A video from 2001 uses the same imagery—letters falling through empty black space—to make a similar point about the disconnected DNA sequence. Both painting and video deliver sharp visual interest and can be expanded greatly, from their intellectual point of view, by understanding the scientific origins of the imagery. It is certainly difficult to meld the analytic core of the scientific mind with the intuitive heart of art, but Rauhula’s does this with high success.
One of the strongest paintings of the “Mirror Test” series is Challenge (2016), a horizontal painting consisting of two halves. On the top, toward the ends of both sides of the composition, are the black-and-white forms of a ray, with a blue square in the middle—perhaps the patch implanted in the ray to determine whether it can recognize something foreign. Beneath is is a black horizontal bar with a bar-like stub protruding from its middle. In the stub is a colored representation of a ray, not abstracted but closer to its real image. It is likely that Rauhala is illustrating the Mirror Test, but the composition is remarkably balanced and conceptually interesting. Visually, it is a bit of a puzzle, but that adds to its mystery and effectiveness. I think Rauhala is at the forefront of a way of seeing that will become a very rich lode for exploration. There is another person, the Canadian-American artist Naomi Campbell, who also works with scientific concepts—in her case, both world food supply and genetic investigation. Her work and Rauhala’s have developed an esthetic based on experimental knowledge, consistently offering food for thought. They are visionaries using science to make their way.
Writing by Jonathan Goodman