By Hank Hoffman
John Arabolos is not a scientist, but he strives to think like one when creating his art. For the past 15 years, Arabolos has created mesmerizing photographic imagery – early on by hand, more recently with digital technology – based on a combination of natural, organic images and mathematical and scientific principles (chaos theory, in particular).
The photographic results are provocative abstractions. The large-scale images tug viewers’ curiosity in two directions: puzzling over the details and marveling how their juxtaposition creates mysterious patterns. Or, as Arabolos says in an interview at his home studio, “When dealing with a sense of scale and proportion, the big picture is the small picture and vice versa.”
His current work is based on a mathematical algorithm developed by Arabolos and his design and computer technology assistant Jodi Pfister. Arabolos and Pfister have assembled a 500-page patent application for the software process. About five inches thick, the patent application explains through words and diagrams how the software generates increasingly complex geometric patterns through a series of diagonal cuts and juxtapositions. With business partner Harold Meth, Arabolos and Pfister founded Image Terrain to market the software to fine artists, textile designers, photographers, and commercial artists interested in generating their own designs and patterns.
“In science there are some basic principles that are universal and symmetry is one of them,” says Arabolos, who is a professional interior designer and artist-in-residence at the University of New Haven’s Department of Visual Arts.
Symmetry, Arabolos notes, is woven into the fabric of everyday perception. We see it when we look in the mirror each morning; it is intrinsic to the design of automobiles and most other iconic products. Yet, when we look at our natural surroundings, the seeming randomness may cause us to misread complexity as a lack of order.
Symmetry is Arabolos’ tool for imposing order on random, complex patterns found in nature – pine needles on the forest floor, grasslands, stones in a stream, designs on butterfly wings. By introducing symmetry into the visual equation, Arabolos prompts viewers to see organic forms in a different, more analytical way.
His interest in the interplay of art and science dates back to his undergraduate days at the Hartford Art School and post-graduate work at the Pratt Institute in the 1970s. Although he entered college as a surrealist painter, instructors aligned with the nascent minimalist and conceptualist movements lit a fire in Arabolos, changing how he thought about art.
“Minimalist art stripped away all the detail and literal stuff down to the bare essentials. Conceptual art took away the object and dealt with idea in its rawest form,” explains Arabolos. “Where do you go from there? For me, after conceptual art, there hasn’t been much of anything I’ve considered a real movement in art except for people working in the sciences and math. It’s the only place where new stuff is coming from that relates to our understanding of our space, our presence, without rehashing the same stuff over and over again.”
For conceptual artists, the idea determines the medium, not vice versa. In the wake of his conceptualist epiphany, Arabolos left painting behind – he hasn’t painted since – and let his concepts guide his choice of medium.
“Everything got so exciting as far as art goes. I couldn’t stop doing work,” he recalls.
He worked with plastic, photography, wood and – while doing graduate work at the Pratt Institute – light installations using lasers. Because lasers are “coherent” or single wavelength light, Arabolos says, he “could get as close to being able to draw and create shape with line (while remaining within) a non-materialistic medium. I was getting closer to something in the ether.”
Disenchanted with the fine art world, Arabolos left for about 15 years after completing his MFA. While working in the field of interior design he filled notebooks with ideas for installations and other projects, ideas that remain on the shelf. But in the early 1990s, the confluence of a chance observation – noticing random patterns created by pine needles collecting beneath a tree – and his readings into chaos theory piqued Arabolos’ curiosity.
“All pine needles have ‘self-similarity.’ They are of the same genre, have the same actual biological material, but no two are of the exact same size or shape, no two fell at the same time,” says Arabolos.
What appears to be a random scattering on the forest floor, explains Arabolos, is actually “a frozen moment of something in time and space that represents a pattern that evolved.” Chaos theory explains how complex patterns evolve. Arabolos says he read James Gleick’s bestseller Chaos: Making a New Science “cover to cover, and then I read it again.”
In 1999, Arabolos started turning his ideas about nature and chaos theory into imagery. He began with black and white mirror images – his Chaotic Symmetries series – in order to “focus in on tonality, value and form” without the distraction of color.
“The images were very totemic, very primitive. They started taking on facial qualities, the shapes and forms of beings,” says Arabolos. “It almost doesn’t matter what image you start out with. Piecemeal it together and your psyche searches for some kind of rationale behind what you’re looking at.”
Perhaps emulating natural processes, Arabolos’ work has evolved over time. In his more recent Fabric of Life and Ecological Symmetries series, the images are enriched by his incorporation of (naturally existing) color and exploration of symmetry in more complex and methodical ways.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the way nature works,” Arabolos tells me. “It seems to me there is enough there for an artist to spend his lifetime investigating.”
By Daniel Drew and Lawrence Gall
The idea for the latest exhibition of natural history themed art on view at Yale’s Class of 1954 Environmental Science Center - "The Fabric of Life - Ecological Symmetries" by John Arabolos - began in October 2010 when Arabolos was approached by Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History (YPM) Assistant Curator of Entomology Antónia Monteiro, Associate Professor, Yale Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, about using digital images of exotic butterfly specimens at the YPM to create Arabolos’s signature complex patterned artwork. For the artist, the concept was an exciting, yet daunting, opportunity for a collaboration of art and science resulting in a new interpretive aesthetic in exploring and investigating both the natural environment and, in this case, specific species.
Arabolos’s artwork investigates the "chaotic" patterns in nature that have "self-similarity" - that is, compositional elements readily identifiable as the same, yet different in size and scale and existing randomly within space at any given moment. He uses symmetry as a tool to bring order out of randomness. The resulting patterns, created electronically from digital imagery, though organic in origin, are abstractions manipulated from nature that defy identification. The artwork forces the viewer to rely on subliminal past empirical experiences and observations to respond to what he or she is seeing. And everyone sees something individualized and different.
The digital images of specimens used by Arabolos to create these works are taken from a research project of Monteiro and YPM Informatics Director William Piel. The project, funded by the National Science Foundation, aims to explore the evolution of color patterns on the wings of butterflies from the family Nymphalidae and focuses primarily on the origin and evolution of eyespots, the patterns of concentric circles of color on the margin of the wings of many nymphalid butterflies. Dr. Monteiro offered the use of digital photographs from her research team’s work and granted Arabolos access to a Web site of 14,853 images, from which Arabolos’s first selection of 21 different butterflies was quickly reduced to 14 species. The final seven photographs used to create the artwork on exhibit were selected according to aesthetic attributes, including color, contrast, pattern, form outline, size and scale. Four to six artworks were created from each image to provide a variety of interpretive representational images specific to each butterfly.
John Arabolos is a Professional Designer and Artist-in-Residence in the Department of Art and Design at the University of New Haven. He creates his work from materials that come out of the natural environment. "Art for me has always been about the investigation of our natural world and the way we perceive and relate to it," says Arabolos. "It not only has to do with the process of conceiving ideas and creating, but is also about the metaphysical act of experiencing and becoming. As an artist, I want to bring the observer to the phenomenological brink or edge where abstraction becomes subjective and identifiable."
By Lisa Paul Streitfeld
What would happen if humans could rearrange natural patterns to create an environment that mirrored their own perfection? John Arabolos addresses this question in the intrepid progression of his art. Arabolos was already exploring the convergence between physical reality and psychic perception in 1994, when he began to incorporate formal concepts of Chaos Theory into three-dimensional works. In 2000, he began to utilize digital technology to rearrange nature into self-reflecting patterns in two-dimensional photographic imagery.
This deeply disturbing and fiercely beautiful black-and-white imagery is now contained in a book, Chaotic Symmetries. Here we find the artist's equivalent of the 21st-century scientist playing God with nature. While overriding chaos to establish self-symmetry, Arabolos set out to make real the strange attractor - primitive archetypes existing in the unseen realm - as the focal point in his pictures. The purpose was destabilization, typically experienced at random in a chaotic system, leading to transformation through self-organization. The symbol consistently embedded in this imagery is the butterfly.
Arabolos penetrated further into the collective unconscious with mandalas of the infinite displayed at Silvermine Guild of Artists this spring. The large-scale digital prints in the Fabric of Life series consist of infinite lattice patterns extending over the border of the picture. The imagery begins with elements from nature, such as grass in a field, blended into rhythms of vibrant, harmonious colors through digitally produced fractals of self-similarity.
These mandalas, seductive in their order yet repelling in their repetitiveness, represent the self -the wholeness of the psyche and its infinite capacity for self-reflection. In these slick surfaces we discover the present state of human evolution. Is it possible to achieve perfect symmetry where natural cycles are extinct? Arabolos gives us a picture of what such a universe might look like.
By Laurel Foster
John Arabolos, whose work was seen recently at Agora Gallery, 415 West Broadway, makes black and white mixed media images with an intricacy and obsessiveness that calls to mind the legendary California elaborate ink drawings of Bruce Connors.
Remarkably, however, Arabolos achieves his effects through photographs that he takes of natural patterns, which he then manipulates through mysterious processes that transform them into compositions which can only be termed visionary abstractions.
One of those rare anomalies, a visual artist who can articulate his intentions verbally, Arabolos calls his compositions "the study and investigation of chaotic patterns found in nature, whose similarity (form randomness) have been altered through the deliberate application of symmetry to their existing matrices."
In a sense an artist who speaks of altering the patterns of nature is playing God and had better be good. John Arabolos happens to be very good; thus the images that he arrives at are ultimately more faithful transcriptions of natural phenomena than all but the best landscape paintings, in that they capture the metaphysical reality of nature, rather than merely its outward appearance.
In some of Arabolos' compositions, such as "Indigenous Series 1," and "Fetish Scries 1," the definition of nature includes the human figure, images of which emerge from the artist's intricate linear networks. Here, the lines conjure up the notion of nerve endings and indeed the entire cosmology within the human body every bit as effectively as the transparent figures in the paintings of the psychedelic artist Alex Grey. In Arabolos' compositions, however, the figurative images are more totally enmeshed in overall abstraction, suggesting the unity of inner and outer realities. The figure is seen as indigenous to the entire universe and to the swarming cosmos of organic matter that surrounds it, each nerve ending and cell connected to the stars and the planets, as well as to the soil to which all organic matter ultimately returns.
Indeed, the repetitive quality of natural patterns is indicated in other works as well where the sense of landscape is more dominant. In a work such as "Grasslands Scries 1," for example the main thrust of the composition simultaneously suggests verdant hills and the rhythms of moving water. Yet within the flow of the wavering forms one can also read figurative allusions to skull like faces. Such interpretations, however, are admittedly subjective, in much the same manner as the widely varying images that different individuals will discern in a Rorschach test.
Arabolos, who teaches design at the University of New Haven, obviously intends for his compositions to provoke ambiguous responses and to conjure up different strokes for different folks, so to speak. And as titles such as "Indigenous Series," "Fetish Series," "Totemic Series" and "Heteromorphic Series" Arabolos' compositions are also meant to evoke a sense of many different cultures and various stages of the life cycle. Indeed, the art of John Arabolos embraces a multicultural aesthetic and encompasses a wide range of vision.
By Judy Birke
WEST HAVEN - The press material for "Chaotic Symmetries: Investigations in Self Similarity" notes that the exhibition is about "the study and investigation of chaotic patterns found in nature whose self-similarity (form randomness and chance repetitiveness) have been altered and influenced by the deliberate application of symmetrical order to their naturally existing fractal matrices."
That's quite a mouthful, likely to either turn one off or make one curious.
Fortunately, this critic was curious.
The presentation of 60 works by John Arabolos, on view through Sept. 20 at the Gallery at the University of New Haven, may indeed be based on scientific concepts. But, if one just wants to experience a group of fascinating images and not dally with scientific theory, be assured this is still the place to go.
Put as simply as possible (for a more detailed explanation, see the handout at the show), Arabolos, whose work appears to be as much about process as it is about aesthetics, snaps black-and-white photographs of nature's chaotic patterns and manipulates them to create an induced sense of order and symmetry. This most often yields beautiful results that appeal and surprise.
One's immediate response to this provocative body of work is visceral, an intuitive reaction that seems to connect the natural world with the spiritual.
What at first glance appears to be totally abstracted becomes a great deal more, a distinctive narrative that evolves from recognizable figurations that somehow have surfaced within the picture.
Each work contains mirror-like configurations that are derived from nature: pine needles, leaves, rocks, grass, bark, straw, branches, twigs, snow, water and the like. These real objects are fused within a central image that hints at primitive narratives, alive with symbols of fetishes, shaman and totem-like figures, sometimes obvious, sometimes obscure.
At once objective and subjective, identifiable and remote, Arabolos' work inspires the viewer to consider a fictional content within nature's reality, distant cultures and ancient spirits never lurking far behind.
The artist, a professor of design at UNH, notes that the more he explored, the more the imagery seemed to "suggest some underlying pre-existing structure and order that revealed an almost primal or spiritual sense of animation and being" related to "early primitive imagery developed by man."
The series' titles, which include such adjectives as ethereal, geomorphic, biomorphic, preternatural, totemic and heteromorphic, relate to Arabolos' general associations and interpretations.
Speaking simply and from a purely aesthetic viewpoint, there is a marvelous variety of design, depth, texture and contrast in Arabolos' most interesting partnership with nature.