Undersea: Baker Piece Is Window to Another World

Alyson Shotz

Recently I’ve found myself spending more time than usual at Baker Library. As the days start getting colder you may be similarly inclined to limit your exposure to the wintry air and look for shortcuts through campus (and perhaps a quiet place to prepare for exams).

The main floor of Baker houses an amazing work of art that always catches my eye. It is located on one of the large walls in the atrium, near the flat-screen TVs and Bloomberg computers. At first glance you may think this abstract diptych is made of glass, an assumption I made until I had the chance to see it up close.

The work has a very polished and smooth surface that reflects the light and makes it seem translucent. The artist, Alyson Shotz, uses a technique that involves layering heavy coats of resin between applications of oil paint to achieve this glassy look. Also infused in the work are digitally manipulated photographs taken directly from nature which add a sense of texture and depth. The base is an opaque, off-white color that matches the creamy marble tiles and makes the painting look like it could melt into the wall and drip down to the floor.

This sense of liquidity is part of the work’s success. The title, “Undersea,” reminds the viewer that this is like getting a chance to take a glimpse into another world. The artist herself likens the piece to “looking into a pond,” where the biomorphic shapes float around in the milky-murky waters. With the recent surge of flu bugs circulating the campus, I can’t help but also associate it with a Petri dish full of amoebic-shaped germs.

Many people have strong opinions about abstract art and often ask the best way to look at such pieces that seem to have no real anchors in a reality we can quickly relate to. The best answer is to bring it down to basics – just look at it. Let your eyes take it in and give your mind an opportunity to wander. Let it remind you of something (like a Petri dish), or provoke a reaction (do you like it, or not?).

Consider appreciating the work in the context of its setting. For example, the juxtaposition of this very abstract and contemporary piece of art, hung in one of the most refined and traditional pieces of architecture on the campus, is pretty compelling to think about.

I also try to let the overall composition inspire me. For instance, in “Undersea” the artist is brilliantly able to create balance and harmony within the frames. When you first look at it, the eye is drawn to the top right left corner by the bright greens and then almost forced to follow the fluid diagonal lines down to the densely populated bottom right. Creating this sense of movement is a powerful tool artists use to engage the viewer and get them to take in the entire piece before moving on.

If you like this work by Alyson Shotz, you may want to check out pieces by Miro, a famous abstract painter who worked through the first half of the 20th Century and who used similar biomorphic shapes and flowing lines.

Whether you are glancing at this piece from a distance as you bustle through Baker, or have a moment to get up close and really see the detail, take a minute to “just look” at this beautiful abstract work of art and let it challenge you to think about things a bit differently than you would otherwise allow.