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At the Frost Art Museum, "Nela Ochoa: Genetic Portraits" features an intriguing collection of complex pieces referencing the genetic code of human and plant life. The Venezuelan artist's work embraces the intersection of art and science in bold, imaginative ways that burrow deep under the skin. She creates provocative installations and sculptures that unravel the mysteries of DNA.
Outside the museum, one of her sprawling, serpentine sculptures resembles a giant centipede squirming across the lawn. Buccaneer Helix alludes to the DNA of an endangered species of a Florida palm tree. It was crafted from 868 sawed-off plastic baseball bats that stretch more than 50 feet across the ground. The stubby bats have been encased like sausages in hot pink, turquoise, cobalt, and black Lycra skins. Each of the corresponding colors symbolizes one of the nucleotides in the sequence of the palm's DNA structure.
For her fascinating pieces, Ochoa typically selects four colors, evoking the four nucleotides, A, C, G, and T — adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine — in the DNA molecule. She combines certain colors with others to represent the way nucleotides bond or pair with each other on opposite strands of the DNA double helix: A with T, and C with G. Genes, which determine all the hereditary information, are made up of specific sequences of nucleotides.
Ochoa's deft configuration of unusual materials was designed to convey the threat of ecological extinction of a botanical species in our environment.
Curated by Julia P. Herzberg, the exhibit features ten arresting works reflecting Ochoa's efforts to transform genetic code and chromosomes into art. Inside the museum, the artist delves into the indigenous plant life of her native Venezuela in a work titled Theobroma cacao, which means "food of the gods." Ochoa's homeland is known for growing some of the finest cacao beans in the world.
The giclée print on paper extends nearly seven feet across a wall. Ochoa photographed a piece of chocolate molded into the form of a cacao pod, repeating the image 60 times in 29 rows. She used eight shades of chocolate to render a ribosomal portrait of the exotic treat. Botanists often use the genetic sequence Ochoa references to determine the evolutionary history of plant species. The savory piece almost looks like a luxurious box of chocolates seen from a bird's-eye view.
Another botanical-based work nearby deploys 1,512 silk roses to convey a sense of blooming optimism and a fertile spring field. Ochoa began working with the gene sequences in flowers in 2002 during a time of political upheaval in Venezuela and furor over the Chávez administration. That year, she joined nearly a million protesters during an all-day general strike. Later, she found consolation in the image of a field of flowers she saw as a balm for political strife.
The resulting De todas maneras rosas/Anyway Roses, created in 2003, extends 7 by 13 feet, engulfing a wall. Her largest floral composition to date, it captures the genetic code for Rosa gigantea, a species of rose native to India and China, using oranges for A, yellows for T, deep pinks for C, and light pinks for G.
The refrain "Rosas, de todas maneras, rosas" comes from a popular song. The artist's rosy interpretation of the lyrics parallels her hope for political change: "It means no matter what happens, there will always be roses," wall text informs.
Other works that effectively bridge the divide between science and art include Ochoa's studies of human genes associated with life-threatening diseases or fear and violence. A particularly clever piece includes plastic brassiere hooks on a plastic panel to convey the sequence of the breast cancer gene. BRCA 2 was created using 4,290 of the bra clasps arranged in 37 horizontal rows in light yellow, tan, light pink, and flesh tones. Her maternal aunts had breast cancer, so the artist investigated to learn about her own risk of developing the disease, which affects 192,000 American women each year.
Ochoa's keen eye for unexpected materials is also evident in her tapestry-like fabric-and-ribbon opus, which riffs on neurodegenerative disorders and is strung from floor to ceiling. Materia gris incompleta/Gray Matter Incomplete measures a whopping 17-by-7 feet and is composed of what appears to be camouflage fabric netting. Its 16 x-shaped bases, each hand-sewn in 45 rows, allude to the loss of a brain's gray matter associated with generalized violence. It references the MAPT gene that indicates an antisocial personality disorder.
In Desentierro/Unbury, conceived over the past eight years, Ochoa focuses her penetrating microscope inward. The massive wall installation measures 11 by 28 feet and is rendered from latex, ink, hooks, and asphalt. Here the artist uses a series of latex sheets branded with ink bands of her own DNA to create a self-portrait of her invisible self. Beneath the sheets, a velvety black row of asphalt rocks — petroleum byproducts — is arranged to remind us that microscopic plants and animals were slowly converted to oil over eons.
By combining her own DNA with a geological reminder of the past, she inspires wonder at the role DNA will have on future scientific investigations.
At the Frost, Ochoa's ingenious immersion into the mysteries of life aspires to leave your cerebrum reeling with infinite questions... and to teach you some science in the process.