Natale Adgnot: What We Are Really Seeing

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Portrait of Natale Adgnot in the studio. Photo courtesy of the artist.

What does Cognitive Bias and Fallacy Look Like? Natale Adgnot’s Work Tests What We Are Really Seeing. Natale Adgnot’s work explores the power of psychology and the impact that cognitive bias has on our everyday life, routines and choices. Her work incorporates patterns and systems to explore different cognitive biases such as stereotyping and pareidolia (seeing patterns in random information) to reflect on the elusiveness of truth. Best known for wall sculptures made of painted thermoplastic adhered perpendicularly onto birch panels, she challenges the viewer to consider her work from multiple perspectives. Her new series, Bird Brains, continues to delve into her exploration of bias and fallacy. Bird Brains matches entries in the cognitive bias codex with the birds that best exemplify them. From black swan theory to the duck test to the proverbial canary in the coal mine, she taps into this rich language to point out the stunning variety and sheer magnitude of ways we humans misconstrue the world.

The Ostricht Effect, 2022, Acrylic, enamel on thermoplastic and panel, 14 x 11 x 4 in

How did your fascination with psychology, inkblot drawings, and Gobolinks begin?

I’ve always been curious about why certain people hold certain beliefs and why so many of us are incapable of seeing other points of view. While growing up in Texas, I felt like a square peg in a round hole but it took decades of living in wildly different places for me to grasp the reason why: not everyone holds the same values dear and an intolerant environment makes the whole atmosphere tense. I’m a peacemaker by nature. My exasperated cry of “why can’t we all just get along!?” turned into an actual question.

It turns out that the answers to that question are “cognitive bias and logical fallacy.” Those two phrases sum up why we as a species misunderstand the world and each other so consistently – and how. There are so many fascinating ways! We see things that aren’t really there (the phenomenon that makes us interpret inkblots as butterflies and monsters is called pareidolia). We take mental shortcuts. And to feel like we have a firm grip on reality, we seal it all up into a hermetic worldview.

I left Texas in my early twenties and then lived in Washington, Paris, Tokyo, and New York, becoming a French citizen along the way. A lot of that wandering was about discovering other points of view. So when I took up my studio practice in earnest back in 2013, I decided to mine the depths of these psychological weak points to hammer home the point that we are all fallible.

One of the more familiar references to psychology in pop culture is the Rorschach test, but before Rorschach used inkblots as tests, there was a Victorian book called Gobolinks that became a parlor game. I made a series of three-dimension inkblots and named them after the book.

Gobolink 31, 2021, Acrylic, enamel, metal leaf on thermoplastic and panel, 6 x 6 x 1.5 in

What is the Cognitive Bias Codex? How did you use that as a resource for the Bird Brains Series?

A cognitive bias is a mental blind spot that diminishes our ability to think rationally and results in false conclusions. Since there are literally hundreds of recognized biases, a couple of smart people beautifully organized them into this visual chart. It is a great starting point for much of my research.

I began my Bird Brain series by gathering up a list of the stories and expressions in English that make reference to birds. It became clear that the vast majority of them were clever metaphors for human irrationality. So I cross-referenced them with entries in the Cognitive Bias Codex to come up with a flock of birds that each represent one bias or one logical fallacy.

Do you have a favorite bird idiom?

I delight in the story of how the term “Black Swan” came to evolve over the centuries because it’s such a great illustration of my point that we don’t always know what we think we know. The term is based on an ancient logical argument that presumed all swans are white and therefore black swans do not exist. Black swans were later discovered in Australia.

Black Swan Theory (Diptych) 2022, Acrylic, enamel on thermoplastic and panel, 18 x 36 x 2.75 in

The other one has come to be called The Duck Test. It goes like this: “If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.” The problem is, sometimes it’s not a duck at all. Even though it sounds perfectly logical, abductive reasoning (syllogisms) can lead to probable conclusions, but not irrefutable ones.

The Duck Test 2022, Acrylic, enamel on thermoplastic and panel, 30 x 30 x 3.5 in

What’s a typical day like for you in your studio? Can you walk us through your artistic process?

I am typically working on 5 or more sculptures at one time because my process has so many steps. On a given day, I might be painting panels, sanding their edges, cutting and finishing thermoplastic elements, adhering those elements onto the panels, or all of the above.

I usually begin the day by knocking out all the things that have to happen on the computer so that I can focus on making sculptures in the afternoon and into the evening.

If I’m beginning a new piece, I hang the blank panel on the wall and post my inspirations next to it. Maybe I’ll dip some detail elements for another piece in paint and hang them on the rack to dry while I cut out shapes for the new piece.

If the panel needs a background color, I’ll paint that (on the floor if it’s a big one) and then sit down at the oven to shrink another batch of detail elements that have been waiting for me since the day before. After they are shrunk, I settle in for a podcast or three while gilding the edges of them with gold enamel.

Once the panel and the details are all dry and ready to go, the hardest part of the process begins. I place all of the detail elements on the table and organize them by size and similarity so that I can create the final composition of the piece. The position of each detail is determined on the panel by feeling and then adhered with brass hardware or using a super strong yet flexible adhesive. I usually need to get into a state of flow for this part of the process and I prefer to do it all in one go, sometimes working without a break for hours at a time until it feels finished.

You have several shows coming up, including showing with Myta Sayo Gallery at the Affordable Art Fair and a show curated by Marly Hammer and Lisa Wirth of Work in Progress Advisory at the Nevelson Chapel. What can viewers expect to see?

At the Affordable Art Fair, I will show a combination of works from my Chromatics series and Bird Brains series. Most of them are brand new. I just had a two-person show (with artist Kate Casanova) at Myta Sayo Gallery this summer, so they will be showing additional new pieces from the same body of work.

Two of my Bird Brains pieces were selected by Work In Progress for “Sacred Pause, Sacred Fertilizer” at the Nevelson Chapel. The show will be up from September through January 2023. As a fellow woman sculptor, Louise Nevelson is one of my heroes. She designed a chapel within Saint Peter’s church on Lexington Avenue that includes her work built into the walls. It’s intimate and stunning, so it’s hard to express how honored I am to be showing in that setting.

What else is coming down the pipeline for you?

Right now, I’m working on commissions that are going into public collections in five different states, all between now and February. I’m very excited that half of these commissions are from my new Bird Brains series – it seems like it’s resonating!

In parallel, I’m developing a large mixed media installation that interweaves materials from the places that formed me as a person. I plan to weave them into the thermoplastic structures I’ve been making for years. First I was the daughter of a horse trainer in Texas (rope, leather, saddle blankets). Later, I worked in haute couture in Paris (thread, embroidery and pattern-making supplies). More recently, I spent three years living in Japan (washi paper, kimono silk, traditional candies). As an abstract self-portrait, this new work will force me to delve even deeper into the reasons why I’m obsessed with human psychology, specifically my own.

Negative Interpretation Bias (Chicken Little) 2. 2022, Acrylic, enamel on thermoplastic and panel, 14 x 11 x 4.25 in

Natale Adgnot is a Franco-American artist who uses abstract drawing and sculpture to explore cognitive bias and logical fallacy. Best known for wall sculptures made of painted thermoplastic adhered perpendicularly onto birch panels, she challenges the viewer to consider her work from multiple perspectives. Adgnot earned a BFA in graphic design in Texas and studied fashion in Paris. Her experience making garments for haute couture runways led her to focus on sculpture. While living in Tokyo, she began using thermoplastic to work three-dimensionally. She has been featured in solo and two-person exhibitions at Established Gallery in New York, Myta Sayo Gallery in Toronto, and Midori-so in Tokyo. Recent group exhibitions include “Black & White” at BWAC – a show juried by Jenée-Daria Strand of the Brooklyn Museum – where she won an award and “Sound and Sight: A Duet” curated by nAscent Art and The Brooklyn Conservatory of Music. She lives and works in Brooklyn and New Paltz, New York.

Alexandra Israel graduated from Bates College in 2010, and has been working in PR ever since. A museum aficionado since her introduction to Jean Dominque Ingres’ portraits as a small child, she enjoys spending her free time at museums and finding off-the-beaten-track gallery shows. Alexandra is a freelance publicist, specializing in book publishing, lifestyle, and arts & culture clients. She has held positions at Penguin Book Group, Aperture Foundation, and Third Eye among others

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