Christine Romanell’s fascination with science and math is evident in her artwork. Her installations typically involve kinetic elements, light, and at times she is also collaborating with scientists, engineers, or other artists. Romanell shares with Art Spiel the impetus for her work, process, and exhibitions, including her current exhibition at “Everything Is Connected” at 1978 Maplewood Arts Center in NJ, a culmination of a year of work investigating rotational symmetry.
AS: Tell me a bit about your background as an artist.
Christine Romanell: My BFA concentration was in graphic design at The School of Visual Arts which led to a 20 year career as an art director. On and off, I made art in my spare time but was never happy with the result. As time went on, I trusted my hand less and focused more on my digital skills, taking every opportunity to illustrate my own designs on the computer. I had a definitive wall between the digital and analog sides of my brain which inhibited the progress of my art practice. My paintings resulted in repetitive mark making which I found unsatisfying – I felt trapped in the rectangle of my process based painting.
During my MFA at Montclair State University my thesis research focused on pattern, which was a logical starting point from my previous mark making. My interest became more focused once I discovered the Penrose pattern. This pattern never repeats and fills space with no gaps using just two rhomb shapes, one skinny and one fat. It is considered a fractal because of its connection to the golden ratio and its self-similar properties. The fringe benefit of making work with this irregular source material was that I was finally freed from the rectangle.
AS: Your work refers to math, patterns, Non Euclidean geometry. What draws you to that?
Christine Romanell: When I look up at the stars or at rain drops on a windshield I see patterns. As an artist, I have the freedom to make visual connections that might not be considered in other disciplines. I have a hunch that there is an underlying order that rules the universe that has yet to be discovered.
Math seems the most likely method of finding it. Numbers expressed as point, line, plane and volume, harbor beauty through precision. I’m always surprised when a shape or pattern shows up when I don’t expect it to. For example, when I begin a piece with a different set of grid lines or a new shape, I anticipate a new result but often I’m surprised to find that a 10 point decagon will emerge repeatedly. I’m sure if I were a mathematician, geometry wouldn’t seem nearly as magical. Perhaps ignorance is bliss.
AS: There is also an element of physics and technology in your work, for instance, you mention Penrose tiling. What can you tell me about your fascination with science and how does it enter your art making process?
Christine Romanell: I grew up watching the original “Cosmos” with Carl Sagan which planted the seeds of curiosity about what makes the universe tick. I’ve always believed that you can’t be inspired if you don’t seek out the inspiration. Reading about science and technology is a great source to pull from when I make new work. The 2 dimensional Penrose pattern, created by mathematician Sir Roger Penrose in the 1970s, has something of what I call a ‘science novella’. Later In the 1980s, a materials scientist Dr. Dan Shechtman created an aluminum magnesium alloy with an atom structure sharing the aperiodic nature of the Penrose tiling but in 3 dimensions. Initially, Shechtman’s colleagues disparaged him, but he ultimately won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for the discovery. This new material, called a quasicrystal, is somewhere between a solid and a liquid.
In the 1990s physicist Dr. Paul Steinhart at Princeton University wanted to know if quasicrystals could be found in nature. After 10 years of searching, he tracked down an obscure meteorite in a dusty cabinet in an Italian museum with connections to the black market. This meteorite sample had been originally found in a Siberian river bed and dated back to the beginnings of our solar system, which meant that this new substance was not of this earth. If that isn’t interesting enough, roughly 600 years ago in Iran, architects were using the same geometry, making these same patterns on the walls and ceilings to decorate medieval mosques.
That is either an amazing coincidence or perhaps these patterns are tapping into a more universal truth about our origins.
AS: You say that that source material for the permutations in your work come from the properties of self-similarity, like fractals. Can you elaborate on that and how it’s expressed in your work?
Christine Romanell: Fractals are based on the same form at different scales using rotational symmetry. The Penrose pattern has that same quality. If you rotate a form at a specific angle and repeat that rotation, eventually the form will land in the same position from where it began. For a common example, a square is based on 2 fold rotational symmetry. If a single square is rotated at 90 degrees it will look exactly the same and also the same at 180 or 360 degrees.
It’s very easy to tile your bathroom floor using a square tile.
If a Penrose tile is rotated at 72, 144, 216, 360 degrees the shape will then appear in its original position after each rotation. To complicate things further two shapes are needed not just one. This makes it very hard to predict how to lay down the pattern with any certainty.
In “Prismatic Motion” I rotated the skinny rhomb tile of the Penrose. I broke down the rotation further using multiples of 9 which resulted in the outer points working out to multiples of 10 in a total of 40 points. In “Dah Noqte” I used the same rotation method using a rectangle as the base form and I was surprised when a 20 point decagon appeared in the center of the painting.
I have found that the degree of rotation is the key to affecting the resulting form, not necessarily the base shape. Breaking down the integers into different degree angles and using a variety of shapes produces a myriad of results.
AS: Tell me about your current solo show – can you share the genesis, premise, and collaborative process?
Christine Romanell: My current solo show “Everything Is Connected” at 1978 Maplewood Arts Center in NJ is a culmination of a year of work investigating rotational symmetry. Each painting and sculpture investigates how geometry behaves when it’s rotated using the golden ratio as a guide. The painting “Prismatic Motion” was the seed that gave birth to the trio of strobe sculptures, “Circle Circle, Circle Square & Circle Star.”
I began with simulating motion using 9 degree rotational increments and graduated color. The simulation was powerful enough to trigger an investigation into actual motion using motors. I have been lucky to partner with a company called Unilux that specializes in motion analysis using stroboscopic lighting.
I worked with a team of engineers at Unilux to create a custom program that creates a harmonic relationship between flash rate and the geometric form that is in motion. Each rotating sculpture has a designated strobe light with its own custom program, designed for its geometry.
Strobe lights are a natural addition to my toolbox. I use light as a primary medium in my work, which allows me to expand beyond set boundaries. In “Everything Is Connected,” the addition of industrial LEDs permits my work to be seen in ambient light. In pieces such as “Conceal” & “Reveal” the stronger light source makes it easier to “paint” with light by mixing colored acrylic sheets, rods, and films. Using a combination of light, motion and pattern, my simulation of the infinite is enhanced.
AS: Tell me about your approach to site specific projects – can you give me an example of a project you see as particularly challenging?
Christine Romanell: Each location will always have its challenges but that’s part of the fun to find solutions on the fly. I try to make a site visit before installation and have a plan in place. I ask a lot of questions about what’s allowed and what’s not, trying to anticipate as much as I can before arriving. Even with the best preparations things come up that you don’t expect and you have to improvise.
Last year for instance, I installed a painted grid & string installation in a show juried by Dorothea Rockburne, an art hero of mine. I didn’t know the exact location of the installation until I arrived. I originally requested a corner but I didn’t anticipate that the corner would have a large 3 ft bump out. I took a deep breath and adjusted the dimensions of the wall grid. I repurposed my carefully laid out plan and positioned the wall painting several feet higher than originally planned. The final result “Grid Theory” was a success. Later, I received a congratulatory email from Dorothea, which I will always treasure.
AS: I have a twofold question: Where do you see your work going from here? and what are you working on now?
Christine Romanell: The motorized strobe sculptures have given me many ideas about new work. I plan to spend more time with the geometric effects of strobe lights and geometry. I look forward to the results that the addition of time and movement to my work will have.
It would be interesting to push the forms into 3 dimensions and see what emerges. Right now I’m working with another artist, Tony Robbin, on plotting the intersecting vertices of aperiodic patterned points clouds in 3D software. My goal is to work on a light sculpture using electron diffraction patterns. My hope is that my next body work will build upon the ideas of the multi-faceted aspects of pattern as a underlying structure of our reality.