Michal Gavish: Neuro Land at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)

Photo Story
Synapsing 2023, mixed media on translucent architectural paper 76-82” H X 200” W (5 panels)

In planning her new exhibition at the AAAS gallery, artist Michal Gavish envisioned painted images of neurons enveloping the spiral-shaped gallery space, extending upward, downward, along, and away from the walls. Following an extensive phase of research and creation, spurred by personal family tragedies, Gavish created Neuro Land, a field guide to neurons. She devoted a piece to representing each type, painting a set of larger-than-life nerve cells images on fabric and paper. Gavish later assembled these pieces layer by layer, echoing the scientific method used in constructing representations of the unseen—similar to how MRI technology captures internal snapshots in segments and reconstructs them in three dimensions. While engaging with this invisible realm, Gavish reflected on her former practice as a scientist, interrogating the expansive vistas revealed through IR, X-ray spectra, or under the electron microscope.

A colorful painting on a wall

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BrainBow, 2024, acrylic on layered canvas and fabric, 86” H X 64” W

To capture the intricate complexity of these biological networks and grasp the essence of each neuron, Gavish immersed herself in the exploration of new 3D models and the historical illustrations of Ramón y Cajal, the revered progenitor of neuroscience. She meticulously grounded her aesthetic approach in the rich, illustrative tradition of 19th-century botanical field guides.

A person standing behind a plastic curtain

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Neuro Guide (Multipolars) 2024, mixed media on fabric installation, modular, 80” H X 120” W X 70” D (2 layered panels)

In painting her field guide, Gavish drew from her chemistry background, employing an old scientific practice by assigning a freely associated color code to each neuron. In Neuro Guide (Multipolars), she assembled and coded five groups of neurons or nerve cells. Each type is distinct in the shape of its core, and its extensions—axons, and dendrites—serve as conduits through which neurons transmit signals throughout the body. Each portrayal was visually based on an actual cell, tasked with either transmitting its unique electric signals or modifying their intensities.

One of the first in this series was Field Guide (Pyramid Neurons), 2023. Gavish painted magnified troops of pyramid neurons. She reflected on the scientific imagery of crowds of elongated neurons, each stemming from a triangular-shaped core, resembling an assembly of pyramids. These, among the longest cells in the body, send alerts through their extended axons, firing signals from the brain to the extremities, reaching our fingers and toes.

A transparent curtain with red and white design

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Field Guide (Pyramid Neurons), 2023, mixed media on paper and fabric installation, modular, [80” H X 210” W X 120” D] (5 layered panes )

Gavish based her Chandelier Neuron installation on electron microscope photos of their complex arbor of axons. These cells extend to touch pyramid neurons, modifying their signals by firing simultaneous signals and instantly illuminating their multiple curved extensions. She painted these light-like neurons on translucent fabrics, installing them in a three-dimensional triptych structure of layered fabrics.

A white curtain with yellow paint on it

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Field Guide (Chandelier Neurons), 2024, acrylic on fabric installation 80” H X180” W X 50” D (3 layered panels)

Gavish devoted the final section of the show to Neurotransmitters. These chemicals, released at the tip of each neuron, flow into our cells and affect our moods. They are the invisible signals of pain and joy, the unseen forces that break our hearts and tear our guts.

Field Guide Neurotransmitter (Melatonin) 2024, Acrylic and ink on paper 65” H X 36” W

Through her artwork, Gavish articulates the brain’s fragility, complexity, and preciousness. Reflecting on her work, she describes the project as a profound journey, particularly over the past two months as the neurons visually intertwined with the full Northeastern spring bloom. In her studio, her neuro guide grew in volume and parts, evolving into multiple screens that she painted to cross the boundary from science to “the perpetual theater within.”

All photos courtesy of the artist.

Michal Gavish: Neuro Land at AAAS Lobby Gallery, 1200 New York Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20005 through September 30, 2024.