Photographer captures the art of science

Catherine Wagner’s depiction of refrigerated vials, tubes and boxes is consistent with her use of science in art.Photographer Catherine Wagner’s aesthetic sensibilities might not resonate with everyone. After all, few people would consider images of test tubes, bone marrow smears …

Catherine Wagner’s depiction of refrigerated vials, tubes and boxes is consistent with her use of science in art.Photographer Catherine Wagner’s aesthetic sensibilities might not resonate with everyone. After all, few people would consider images of test tubes, bone marrow smears and dead frogs preserved in formaldehyde as viscerally beautiful. But in Wagner’s hands, the nexus between science and art yields something of infinite beauty – knowledge.

Wagner, whose show “Cross Sections” began Nov. 3 at the San Jose Museum of Art, always has produced work that relies on physical space and objects to narrate a story. Her work is often devoid of people, making it simultaneously less accessible and more universal.

Wagner traveled further down her road of scientific inquiry during a two-year fellowship at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. No longer content with what the camera lens was able to discern, Wagner sought help from the tools of medicine and science – tools such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines and electron microscopes. Wagner often used images directly off scientists’ computers to frame her work.

“I am interested in what impact the changes that emerge from contemporary scientific research will have on our culture – socially, spiritually and physically,” said Wagner, adding that the Weizmann Institute was an ideal place to study those questions because of its “purity” and absence of corporate funding. Wagner also was pleasantly surprised to see an egalitarian working environment at the Weizmann Institute. There were just as many female scientists as there were male scientists, Wagner said, adding that science has traditionally been an overwhelmingly male endeavor.

There are no such gender distinctions in her most recent work, however. And while some aesthetic concessions are made, such as the presentations of beakers in luminous, soft tones, what remains is a stark look at the hard sciences. In “Cross Sections” Wagner draws extensively upon her two years in Israel, and in laboratory work across the United States.

In one of the book’s most evocative pieces, Wagner depicts multiple rows of refrigerated vials, tubes and boxes. The interiors of the freezers, in their anonymity, could resemble that of any office break room. Here, however, there are no ham sandwiches, no aging slices of pizza or soft dinks. The contents are much cleaner, more orderly and more sterile. They also contain genetic clues to diseases such as HIV, colon cancer, breast cancer and alcoholism.

Wagner eschewed using a human face (or body) for any of these ailments, instead opting to let the viewer draw his or her own conclusions. Similarly, in Wagner’s hands, a piece of fruit is no longer a luscious object of delight, but an organism with an extremely complex genetic makeup. The centerpiece of her work at the San Jose Museum of Art is, in fact, an enormous transparency of a pomegranate.

In her collection of photographs called “American Classroom,” Wagner took that archetypal institution, and presented images that are at once harrowing, glib and monotonous. Crucifixes and religious statues stare blankly over rows of well-scrubbed desks. Animate objects, when present, are often the subject of inquiry or study, such as a cow hooked up to an extravagant milking device in a veterinary school.

More often than not, animals are lifeless when portrayed: stuffed on walls, preserved in formaldehyde or impaled on the heads of pins. But noticeably absent from any of the photographs is any hint of messiness. The viewer is left to ruminate on the ebb and flow of the life cycle, while at the same time left inoculated to its vagaries.

“I am now much more aware of what the miracles and madness of science can bring,” Wagner said. “I have the utmost respect for research and science.”