Can 'the invisible' be pictured? Minnesota artist and astrophysicist team up to try

By MARYA HORNBACHER Special to the Star Tribune

January 25, 2018 — 6:16pm














ANTHONY SOUFFLÉ • “A search for beauty” underlies both science and art, says astrophysicist Liliya Williams, left, with artist Mary Simon-Casati. They posed at an exhibit of Simon-Casati’s work at the University of Minnesota.


One snowy afternoon in December, several women gathered in artist Mary Simon-Casati’s southwest Minneapolis home for a little lunch and a lightweight chat about astrophysics and art. The firelit living room crackled with energy; conversation sparked and flared, bouncing from philosopher to art historian to physicist and back, traversing the cosmic terrain of dark matter, energy, quarks and their quasi-poetic names.

“The thing about particles,” the artist said offhandedly, “is that none of us can see them, ever. We don’t know what they look like. Science can figure out what sort of spin they have and what it interacts with. But otherwise, we’re dealing with the unknown.”

Her latest paintings and sculpture explore, in visual terms, phenomena that are largely intangible, ineffable and unseen. The result of three years of research and an intensive yearlong exchange of ideas with University of Minnesota astrophysicist Liliya Williams, her solo show “Smashing the Invisible” is on view at the university’s Regis Center for Art through Feb. 10.

Simon-Casati’s lifelong fascination with the unknown was brought into sharp focus when her mother passed away. Grappling with the enormity of absence and loss, she began to wonder: What happens to matter after we die? Where does energy go? “I liked the idea that we become stars, because we come from stars,” she laughs. “That’s not quite the case.”

Her questions unfolded into further questions, leading her eventually to Williams’ work, which maps the location of dark matter in space.

As their intellectual conversation evolved into friendship, Williams and Simon-Casati sought a common lexicon with which to describe their disparate visions of the world. In the process, they found a few fundamental concepts — symmetry, clarity, ambiguity, objectivity and subjectivity, the abstract and the concrete — that underlie and inform their understanding of reality itself.

Smashing the Invisible

What: Exhibit of art by Mary Simon-Casati.

When: 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Tue.-Sat. Ends Feb. 10.

Where: Quarter Gallery, Regis Center for Art, 405 21st Av. S., University of Minnesota West Bank campus, Mpls. Panel discussion: Simon-Casati, Liliya Williams, Kerry Morgan, and Jennifer Manion talk about seeing the invisible from the perspectives of art, physics, philosophy and history (1-3 p.m. Feb. 3).

“What physics strives for is clarity in the perception of the world,” Williams says. “In art, it’s the other way around — you want the viewer to read whatever makes sense to them into that particular piece of art. Your eyes perceive the painting itself, but what that means for you and what you get out of it goes beyond that painting.”

‘A beautiful question’

The historical relationship between scientific inquiry and visual art predates even Leonardo da Vinci, though his artistic renderings of scientific subjects are perhaps the best-known example of this overlap.

Our most basic understanding of the natural world is derived in part from the sketches and drawings — the art — of early scientists, naturalists and physicians. Until the invention of things like the microscope, the photograph and the computer, scientists had no tools other than art with which to present their discoveries in visual form. Similarly, Simon-Casati points out, “Artists have always used close observation and research to help them understand how things work.”

But there are other commonalities, as well. Both science and visual art require an extraordinary level of focus and precision in their observation of the world. Both are fundamentally experimental in nature. And although science holds fast to the notion that there is an objective reality that can be located and named, while art cleaves with equal fidelity to the belief that subjective reality is a more accurate and more interesting way of looking at the world, scientists and artists alike are faced with the problem of representing reality in some new, unprecedented way.

“So when Liliya shows me a ‘map’ of where they think dark matter is, I am instantly fascinated,” says Simon-Casati, whose project was supported by a State Arts Board grant. “The practical question for me was: How do I interpret this? How can I make something that addresses an entity like dark matter, when no one knows what it is? How can I imagine it materially, spatially? How can I communicate the bigness of this stuff that exists in the universe but is invisible? Essential but invisible!

“When I started making the paintings, I did it almost like I was blindfolded, to let my hands understand something that is invisible but essential. I felt that idea intuitively.”

Starting from nowhere

Simon-Casati was born and raised in rural South Dakota.

“One of the biggest influences on me was growing up on the prairie, out on that farm in the middle of nowhere,” she says. “There are times and places out there that you can almost see the curvature of the Earth. And then there’s the constant wind. I found that fascinating as a girl, the movement. And you do feel a certain disorientation when you go out there — you’re in the middle of all this wind and the grasses are moving and the colors are moving and it’s undulating, like the ocean. I loved that. I found it oddly comforting.

“When I was a really little kid, my mom brought me a coloring book. I was all over the place with it. And she goes, ‘No. That’s not the way you do it.’ It was a peach hanging on a stem of a branch. And she showed me how to blend orange and yellow to make a peach color. And I was like, ‘Whoa. This is pretty cool.’ ”

When her mother died, “I didn’t know what was going to happen,” she says. “I just went to the art store and got paper and took a brush and ink and made all these marks. I probably made 200, 300 of them. At one point, my mentor and I had them all over the living room and the dining room and on the table. And I could see that this was a language, a visual language.

“That’s why you make art,” she says. “Because there aren’t words. There are no words for grief, not really. There are no words for how much I miss my mother. Even now, today, how much I miss her, and how pissed I am that she’s gone because she can’t be at the show.”

These large-scale works — most of them acrylic and mixed media on aluminum — are Simon-Casati’s interpretation of some of the most central ideas in physics. Her gestural brushwork, executed using everything from feather dusters to massive horsehair brushes that she made herself, gives the viewer a sweeping sense of motion, gradation, dimension and depth. Titles like “Complementarity,” “Turbulence,” “Broken Symmetry” and “Transformation” suggest both theoretical and metaphorical interpretations; the viewer experiences the works as a vertiginous encounter with space.

“The whole idea of making an equation and making a work of art are very similar,” she says. “I think that underneath how Liliya [Williams] represents the world, and how I represent the world, there is a beautiful question. If a work of art or an equation elicits in you a question, even if there’s no answer for it, I think that is what you strive for — a question like, ‘Well, how does that work?’ ”

The creative leap

“There are many things we don’t know about dark matter,” Williams says a few days later, perched at her desk in her U office like an especially alert bird. “We do know some things. Or, equivalently, certain classes of hypothesis have been ruled out. We know dark matter has to be a particle. Some would propose that it’s a modification of laws of physics, but no. We’re pretty darn sure that it is actually stuff.

“What I’m doing is quite exact, in the sense that there’s a physical problem and we’re trying to solve it. And for this problem, there is an answer. But when you embark on a specific question within research, the answer can be profound. It can be trivial. It can be reachable. It can be 100 years beyond your reach. All of those possibilities exist.”

Science and art both require precise processes of thought, perhaps even a precise sort of mind, but it’s not as simple as a left/right brain dichotomy. Williams says of scientific research, “Sometimes all the existing data and experiments are there, but it takes a leap of creativity to bring them together and make collective sense out of it. And that’s the part that you want to say is magic. You really do go from one place, conceptually, to a different place, but how that ‘a-ha’ moment occurs, I don’t know.”

She and Simon-Casati use strikingly similar language to describe their creative process, echoing and even quoting each other on the subject. “Liliya says that creativity depends on a prepared mind,” Simon-Casati says, pointing out that this holds true whether you’re working on canvas or code — and in either case, you get stuck.

“Oh, there are the little stucknesses that you experience more than once a day,” Williams says. “Then there are stucknesses that persist for a week or a month, and there are others that persist for years. The little ones, the local ones — you just need to stare at it and you’ll figure it out eventually. The bigger ones, there’s really no guarantee that there is even an answer. So for those, you have to be prepared. If it’s there, then it will occur to you.

“Both science and art are human endeavors,” Williams adds. “In both cases, I think it is about a search for beauty.”

Simon-Casati agrees, saying, “In physics, you can express this huge idea in a single equation. And a great artist can show you the beauty and the horror in the same piece. You have to look for it and it’s very subtle, but you see it. And I find that very interesting, and necessary. Human beings need to see beauty, and they need to see behind that beauty.”



Space and Stroke: Mary Simon-Casati at the Regis Center for Art


Posted February 4th, 2018 by Russ White


Even before you notice the wall vinyl quotations from Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson, there’s a sense of the cosmological in Mary Simon-Casati’s exhibition of new paintings and glasswork. The work is elemental, each painting either pitch black or titanium white, a series of monochromatic meditations on the violence of a brushstroke. Crashing waves of paint, glossy and splattered, twist and coil on thin aluminum panels. From a distance they’re like windows onto the void, so flat they’re almost cut out of the wall.

There’s a severity and an elegance to the paintings, a simplicity of motion on a scale that points to forces bigger than ourselves. With the help of a 2017 Artist Initiative Grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, Simon-Casati developed her own tools for this work: repurposed brooms and a giant, homemade horsehair brush. Her paintings are records of action, of forces both purposeful and accidental — strong, intentional strokes and their accompanying splatters, where a brush thick with wet paint impacted the panel. Cosmology is, in part, the study of our universe’s “beginning” (if you can even call it that). Here, Simon-Casati’s paintings begin not with a big bang but a big splat, recorded on each panel before trailing away and out of view. Spiral, for instance, is just that: a single, powerful motion, like a mighty Charybdis or a wet black kiss from Fibonacci himself. It stares you down with the fearsome, impersonal power of a force of nature.

After Simon-Casati’s mother passed away in 2011, the artist wondered where the energy of a human life went after death. She eventually became interested in particle physics and, in a moment of curiosity, reached out to Dr. Liliya Williams, an astrophysicist studying dark matter at the U of M. The two struck up a friendship, sharing notes about art and physics over months of conversation. Dr. Williams was so impactful on this exhibition that the artist invited her to be part of both her artist talk and a panel discussion of the work.

A quick primer on dark matter, as I understand it: over the past two decades, researchers have discovered strange phenomena in the cosmos, the apparent results of unseen forces. The hypothesis is that there is a certain amount of invisible matter out there (and right here around us, as well) that is only detectable through its gravitational effect on celestial bodies and the photons they emit. In a pie chart of the matter & energy content of the universe, this “dark matter” makes up about 23% of the whole, while visible matter is just a sliver at 4%. The other 73% is so-called “dark energy,” which is thought to essentially be an anti-gravitational force of its own that is not only pushing galaxies away from each other but accelerating their travel through space. Dr. Michael Turner at the University of Chicago explains that this acceleration could lead to a number of eventualities: galaxies so far apart that fewer stars would appear in the night sky (not that we would still be around to see them by then), a slow-down and recollapse of the universe ("the big crunch"), or perhaps even a ripping apart of space and time itself ("the big rip").

But I digress. The connection here between the art and the science is not just the color palette, but the process of recording and analyzing. Physics and mathematics are essentially abstractions themselves, a means of understanding the natural world by reducing it to numbers. In a way, Simon-Casati’s paintings are not dissimilar to graphs on a Cartesian plane, reducing a history of data points to a flat two dimensions. And while the impact of these paintings comes from their wide, forceful strokes, up close you notice tiny embellishments in pencil and paint: subtle highlights and tonal shifts pushing and pulling different aspects of the strokes and splatters forward and backward. Speaking about one piece in particular, the artist explains, “Maybe this painting took one minute, maybe two, and then probably three or four months to finish.”

Throughout art history, a painter’s brushstroke (or lack thereof) has often been their signature. Think of van Gogh’s thick impastos or Seurat’s precise pointillism. In the mid-20th century, a whole movement built up around the importance of a painter’s interaction with their materials. The works of art were documents of the Abstract Expressionists’ emotions through their actions: their gestures, their strokes, their splatters. The goal was purity of aesthetic and intention, stripping painting down to a universal visual language. (Although, as Andrea Carlson points out, this “universality” came from a predominantly white and male perspective.) The expressionist brushstroke was even made into an overwrought joke by Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein, thumbing his nose at the self-important art heroes of the previous decade.

Nevertheless, Smashing the Invisible continues this investigation of the brushstroke, calling to mind the bold and assertive work of Franz Kline and Joan Mitchell. One piece, Dark Matter, even brings some of Simon-Casati’s strokes into the third dimension in the form of black glass. There is also an installation of individual glass ribs hanging from the ceiling, fragile and delicate, casting an ever-moving drawing of shadows on the walls like quick flicks of the wrist. For a moment, I thought of Adam’s rib and that first divine surgery in Genesis, but Simon-Casati insists that religion played no role in this work. “Maybe spirituality,” she allows.

The rational may take center stage, but there is ample room for magical thinking in both art and science. In an episode of the StarTalk Radio podcast, Neil deGrasse Tyson points out the difference between the creativity of scientists and artists: “If Beethoven were never born, nobody would ever compose the 9th Symphony. That came out of him and nobody else. Whereas, if Einstein were never born, somebody would’ve eventually discovered relativity… So the creativity of the scientist is wrapping our head around a preexisting reality, whereas the artist has no preexisting reality. They can create a reality.”

I don't entirely agree with that last part. It seems to me that artists and scientists, like all of us, share the same reality: cosmologically, biologically, politically, and otherwise. Where science seeks to understand and quantify the world around us, art is a reaction to that world. For her part, Dr. Williams expects that we will, sooner or later, answer the question of just what dark matter is. Here Simon-Casati draws another distinction between the two disciplines: “The last thing an artist wants is total clarity.” And for as black and white as this show may appear, there is a great abundance of grays to be found as well.




Installation view

Review of: Smashing the Invisible

The World is in the Work

by Kerry Morgan

Director of Gallery and Exhibition Programs

Minneapolis College of Art & Design

October 2017

The monochrome paintings of Mary Simon-Casati are something to behold. The modulated black or white surfaces beckon the viewer to step in for a closer look. And still, her wave-like undulations and ripples of paint cannot be experienced from just one angle; they change dramatically when viewed from different positions and in different lighting conditions. This act—of perceiving, of seeing, and not really knowing what you are looking at—conjoins the senses with the intellect. Like the artist, we are wrestling with the unknown.

It started with the human body: some ribs, that became thinner and thinner, then cast in glass so as to be translucent, almost not visible, and finally, forms suspended in space, transmuted. In the process of deconstructing this supportive cage that protects heart and breath, Simon-Casati starting wondering where energy went when the body was gone. For answers to this fundamental question she turned to physics, first in books and articles, and then to setting up conversations with astrophysicists. What has evolved over many months of discussions and ponderings are works of the imagination, black and white gestural expanses that are visual distillations of the knowledge that “energy changes shape and force, but never goes away,” and that “the air is filled with things that we cannot see.” 1

Making visible the invisible is what both artists and physicists do. Achieved by different processes and often for different ends, nonetheless they similarly ask how we know the world. They are speculators. What exactly is color, shape, space, volume, and light? For these are the means by which artists have long flirted with the limits of representation. And they are part and parcel of the lexicon of the physicist.

Far from some art for art’s sake experimentation, or utopian or dystopian exploration, Simon-Casati uses the communicative properties of abstraction to bring us viscerally closer to the problem of knowing what we do not know, and contemplating the nothingness that is everything.

 1 Conversation with the artist, 11 August 2017.


Review of  Memento Mori: Cartography of Grief

Grief-Be-Gone, One Stroke at a Time

By Gregory J. Scott

Minnesota Monthly –On Line

November 27, 2012

What does your grief look like?  Is it stiff and bloodless, muzzled beneath a funeral suit and dark shades?  Or is it lavishly grotesque, a daggers-to-the-eyes orgy of regret?

Too often, we expect mourning to be one or the other.  We crave the cathartic release; we marvel at the stalwart courage.  And when it comes to art inspired by grief—or art made as a grieving process unto itself—we similarly crave a signaling or some recognizable, obvious emotion, even if (especially if?) it’s an ugly or dysfunctional one.  Death sucks.  It should rattle to the core.

So Kudos to Minneapolis artist Mary Simon-Casati.  In a solo show opening Friday, November 30, at Traffic Zone Center for Visual Arts, she works through the death of her mother in a way that is gorgeously ordinary calmingly repetitive, and satisfyingly sane.  “Memento Mori” is an exhibition of mark-making.  When her mother died, Simon-Casati found herself reaching for the paintbrush—not to vent or to furiously create, but to absently and hypnotically trail a solitary brush stroke over a scape of paper.  She did this over and over.  These markings-loose jabs of black acrylic, vaguely reminiscent of language or primitive maps-forms the basis of her exhibition.

“Often the expression of grief comes out in a repetitive activity, one we know very well, and perhaps do every day,  “Simon-Casati recently told Minnesota Women’s Press.  “Years ago, my grandmother lived in Ipswich, South Dakota.  Following her husband’s death, she sat in her rocking chair and crocheted edges on handkerchiefs.  She made hundred s of hankies.”

Far from Rorschach blots, Simon-Casati’s marks don’t feel like abstract vacuums waiting for us to fill them with association.  They stand on their own as markers of time, artifacts of moments that piled up while waiting for something to pass.





Images & Content © Mary Simon-Casati 2018. All rights reserved.