As a child, artist Carol Prusa used to lie in bed at night contemplating her place in the universe.
"I would close my eyes and try to get rid of the planets and everything else until all that was left was me," she says. "And then I would be left wondering what that would be. The answer to those questions, I think, can be interesting and devastating."
A lifetime of wondering has resulted in a transformative solo exhibit now showing at the Bernice Steinbaum Gallery in Wynwood.
Prusa, a 52-year-old associate professor of art at Florida Atlantic University, says her interest in popular science inspires her work, as does a fascination with the ways in which all things are connected. Her art, she explains, focuses on not only the farthest reaches of the universe but also interior worlds and everything in between.
Her show, "Entanglement," features 12 three-dimensional acrylic hemispheres that range from one foot to five feet in diameter. The globes contain fiber optics that are arranged to create twinkling patterns with as many as 700 lights flickering across their pristine surfaces. The beguiling celestial spheres unmoor the viewer from an earthbound view of the universe, transforming the Steinbaum gallery into a dazzling, heavenly vault.
The stunning works are meticulously crafted and exquisitely detailed. Prusa sandblasts her surfaces before adding gesso to prepare a curved geometric base. She next uses silverpoint (a thin silver wire) to deposit the metal in hatching marks on the gesso layer, creating the underdrawing. Prusa then heightens the underlying forms with titanium-white pigment bound in acrylic polymer to make forms that mutate and dissolve in a washed matrix of ground graphite before adding metal leaf and the fiber optics.
She says she often spends 100 to 700 hours completing a piece, depending on its size. "Sometimes I feel like I don't have much of a life outside of this," Prusa sighs.
Her labor-intensive process yields beautiful, almost fractal patterns ripe with undulating arabesques, curlicues, and a host of other kaleidoscopic designs that seem to fluctuate between the organic and man-made.
Such is Prusa's virtuosity with her media that in a scene reminiscent of the movie Stargate, a spectator during a recent gallery visit reached out and gingerly touched one of the otherworldly globes as if expecting her fingers to disappear into the shimmering mass.
The artist adds that her works shift from the cosmic to the internal and that she is interested in creating the illusion they are in a process of coalescing and dissolving at the same time.
"My aesthetic is to have them seem to be practically dissolving, and sometimes that plays into notions of physics as well."
She mentions Entanglement, an ethereal star burst from which the show takes its name. The resplendent dome juts outward from a wall in the center of the gallery and measures a whopping five feet across. Like the other monochrome works on exhibit, it oscillates with bright white, black, and gray tones. A peephole at its center allows spectators to peer into its depths, where fiber optics display what appears to be an undulating Rorschach test or a primer on String Theory.
Speaking about the piece, Prusa bounces from the big bang to quantum theory to geometry to the theory of relativity without pause.
"Einstein called it 'the spooky action at a distance.' Think of two objects at opposite ends of town traveling separately yet always communicating. I'm also fascinated with the notion of multiple universes and often think about how we might live out our existence in them in different snapshots. Sometimes I imagine I might be winning the Guggenheim in another realm," she laughs.
Prusa says she was also inspired by the domes of Spanish cathedrals and spent time in Madrid researching them. In Medieval times, those who were commissioned to create church domes sought to impose a vision of the known world that would inspire the faithful via their ornate interiors.
"When I am making my work, I find myself fascinated by thoughts that time is not continuous. Just to realize that we are all part of everything that ever was or ever will be is humbling and gives you a different response to people."
One work that brings to mind the harmony of planets in motion is Chorus, which despite its modest eighteen-inch diameter, sears the peepers with an almost Venetian opulence. It hints at the ancient philosophical concept of musica universalis, which regards the proportions in the movement of celestial bodies as a form of music.
While hinting at life's hidden mysteries or intuiting a sacred geometry, the surfaces of Prusa's ethereal globes are not entirely accidental.
"I play with the curves and the geometry of the surfaces when I'm painting them, and draw the arcs and intersections, but can't always predict how something will unfold," she says.
Her thought process, however, leaves little to intuition. Prusa provokes a sense of wonder with pieces such as Optic Nerve, a jaw-dropping three-foot orb in which she has deftly re-created the biological patterns of a pair of brains.
As the viewer gazes at it, pin lights flicker to configure the form of the optic nerve in a winking display.
"Actually, the image is comprised of pretty accurate renderings of brains," Prusa laughs. "It's a kind of tongue-in-cheek nod at the World Wide Web or Facebook and the systems we use to communicate. Also, we see through light, and I wanted to evoke a sense of that. It also reminds you that sight is how we recognize ourselves."
Circumnavigating Prusa's mysterious firmament and speaking to the artist make it obvious she is on a wavelength uniquely her own. But her vision is so inviting and intriguing one can't help but engage as a fellow traveler.
"Life is short," she says, "so you have to make what you want to see."