Bending Space

At Bernal Gallery, two art profs exhibit work that’s brainy and bodacious

Who says math can't be beautiful? Or that science isn't sexy?

The two artists exhibiting in Cellular at Pima's Bernal Gallery (both of them professors at ASU) make art that plays on the elegance of geometry and the intricacy of biology.

Mark Pomilio transforms geometry into something sensuous and sumptuous in a series of gorgeous abstractions in charcoal on paper and in paint on linen. "Early Catastrophe II," a drawing from 2015, is a mesmerizing cascade of curves in black, white and gray.

But Pomilio has used straight lines and angles to divide up his arcs, splintering the surface into a kaleidoscope of harmonious shapes. And then he deploys his charcoal stick like a paintbrush, "coloring" his trapezoids and triangles in an impossible range of tones from velvety black to medium gray to palest pearl. Some are left alone, remaining pure white. And in the background, Pomilio wields the charcoal as a pencil to sketch a network of delicate lines that are barely visible.

As if this dazzling homage to the marriage of math and art were not enough, Pomilio also makes "Catastrophe" defy gravity. For a backdrop, he steamed a piece of plywood until it became soft and pliable, and then bent it into a curving square; after that, he carefully glued the drawing onto this rollercoaster base.

The finished work hangs on the wall but just barely. Its corners sweep upward and outward into the gallery, flying into space like a kite, as gallery curator David Andres puts it. You could stare at "Early Catastrophe" for hours trying to decipher all the layers and strategies. It's a magnificent piece of work.

A nearby companion piece, "Early Catastrophe," 2015, has an identical palette and shape but it has zig-zags instead of curves. But wavy stripes that parade vertically across the paper tame the zig-zags' sharp edges, and black color fields play hopscotch against the lines.

Pomilio uses the same techniques in large paintings in limited palettes. "Titian's Triangle," a 2013 oil on canvas about five feet wide by eight feet high, is a striking work that alternates fields of rich blacks and pale blues, with little upstart patches of pink and violet. The artist has fun with his brushes here, sometimes painting textured brushy strokes, sometimes layering paint to thin that it turns transparent, revealing other colors—and other geometries underneath. The biggest painting, "CB.05," is a complicated three-parter whose pieces float back and forth from wall to space.

Sometimes Pomilio leaves behind pure geometry to make works inspired by nature. "Muley Point II," from 2003, is a simple drawing of charcoal lines criss-crossing over overlapping slices of circles. Pomilio had hiked in Muley Point in southern Utah, Andres says, and the drawing is a schematic—and artful—rendering of the fractured rocks he was when he looked down into the canyon below.

Ceramic sculptor Susan Beiner is intensely focused on nature and its discontents. She makes startling 3-D works that suggest explosions—of plant cells or cancer cells or even, more obliquely, of urban sprawl spreading disease-like across the landscape.

A profusion of pods and stems and stamens burst out of two bases on the floor in "Germinating Drones 1& 2" from 2013. They're colored delicately in woodsy hues, in greens from earth to leaf, in sunny apricot and a dash of purple, along with patches of pure white. The pieces look a little like a fairy habitat, and you almost expect to see tiny elves among the sprouts.

But Beiner's intent is serious; she notes in an artist's statement that the stark white carries a warning. It stands for the sterility of plants caused by human damage to the environment, she writes; "the chemical makeup and nutritional value of our foodstuff is being altered."

"Unintended Consequences," at the gallery entrance makes the point explicit. It's a ceramic of lovely flowers spilling from a rounded vase attached to the wall. A black sludge is seeping out of the pot, though, and only a few traces of healthy green remain on the blooms.

The plants are the color of bone, the color of the grave: sickly white and drained of life.