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Installation view, Brain+ Love+ at Ilon Art Gallery

BY VITTORIA PETROL May 2022

Art and science form a radical couple that’s so popular – and publicized – in contemporary art that we forget that a relationship requires an equal give and take. STEAM projects have been dominating the landscape lately, especially with the advent of so much new technology, but Chicago-based artist, director, and collector Ellen Sandor has never cared much about catchphrases. She is passionate about the process of finding the next big thing before it happens.

Throughout her 40-year career, Sandor and her team have been passionate advocates of experimental art (Art)n have spearheaded new possibilities driven by technology, laying the groundwork with notable inventions such as the PHS colograms, which Sandor compares to virtual reality daguerreotypes.

Developed by Sandor and her team in the early 1980’s, the PHSColograms are named after their makeup – photography, holography, sculpture and computer graphics all digitally interlace numerous views to create a virtual scene, iridescent and multi-dimensional. Creating PHS Colograms is necessarily a collaborative effort. “It’s about the artist as director and producer,” Sandor told me. “In another way, we were pioneers.”

“Give me the underdog—period,” she continued. “I honestly believe that all innovation happens with people who think differently, outside the box, from the technical revolution to scientists.”

Installation view, Brain+ Love+ at Ilon Art Gallery

On April 28, Brain+ Love+ reopened ilon art gallery, an innovative new space for outsider art in Harlem. (Art)nPHS Cologram’s latest exhibition there presents sculptures in different shapes and dimensions, a VR experience and pieces inspired by legends such as Victor Vasarely and Man Ray. Artwork dates range from 2001 to 2020, and credits can top ten companies – enduring collaborators like Diana Torres and Azadeh Gholizadeh, and institutions like Fermilab and The Stanley Center at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard – a testament to the teamwork, that is required for art and art to really unify science.

Sandor started out as a school teacher in NYC. She and her husband graduated from the city schools and married at 21. “I had already been teaching for two years, went to Minnesota and taught there for about three years and taught a couple of years in Berkeley from 1966 to 1968,” Sandor recalls. After having children, her family moved to Chicago, where Sandor earned her MFA in sculpture from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1975.

Her earliest work experimented with neon lights. As Sandor completed an assignment for the first ever large format 3D postcard, the medium began to absorb more of her artistic energy, which brought her into closer contact with academics. “It just made sense,” she remarked. “The people we were able to work with were scientists. They were interested in this new technology.”

“After that, a personal story developed,” she said. Seeing close friends suffer from cancer, the AIDS epidemic, and other crises has forged an understanding of the critical pathos that makes science relevant to everyday life. “Then one of my grandchildren developed nonverbal autism,” she continued, which limited Cal’s ability to communicate and control his body. “He became my muse.”

“There was a new way of learning how to communicate when you have a slate with letters,” Sandor said. was the following captured on film: “Cal said, ‘Grandma, study CRISPR,’ and he spells it out. I almost fainted.” The rest is history – Sandor got in touch with now-Nobel laureate Jennifer Doudna, a biochemist and (art)n Backer who pioneered CRISPR’s gene editing technology.

Installation view, Brain+ Love+ at Ilon Art Gallery

The exhibition’s cover work is a PHSCologram created by 13 teammates in 2010 depicting the brain map of Raun Kaufman, “one of the first people to fully recover from autism,” according to a catalog accompanying the exhibition. Loni Efron, director of the ilon Art Gallery, has served as archivist for Keith Richards and Annie Leibovitz. Efron is also Kaufman’s first cousin, which she and Sandor found out after they began working together.

“Sandor used several scans from [Kaufman’s] Brain harvested from specific activities, with each fire shot near paths captured as light on film,” Jessica Krinke wrote for Medill Reports: Chicago. “The result is a three-dimensional, transparent brain full of colorful clusters, as if everything were active at the same time. The Kaufman brain model should serve not only as a beautiful artistic representation of the work done at the center, but also as a valuable study of the brain.”

Autism is not a monolithic term – the word covers a whole range of conditions. For many people on the spectrum, Sandor clarified, living full and happy lives is quite likely. However, Cal faces limitations that have led Sandor as a grandmother, artist and person to help scientists find new solutions. “It’s not for everyone,” she says. “This is personal.”

Installation view, Brain+ Love+ at Ilon Art Gallery

A VR headset invites the viewer to step into their own inner worlds, simulating two works from (art)n‘s “Neural Forest” series, which includes photographs by Eliott Porter of the esteemed Collection of the Sandor family. In a forest of synapses and microglia – the primary immune cells of our central nervous system responsible for clipping synapses – the viewer’s hands regulate the environment. Too much cropping causes the scene to go dark, causing conditions like Alzheimer’s. Not enough causes a frenzy of light-like conditions in the spectrum.

A series of smaller PHSColograms look like NFTs but are actually among the exhibition’s earliest works, originating from Sandor’s collaborations with the late, great Outsider artist Mr. Imagination and Chicago Imagist painters Ed Paschke and Karl Wirsum, and from scratch develop on new characters. Finally, all works of this show will be published on the blockchain in fiat currency at ilon Art Gallery NFT shop.

Many projects involving art and science force the latter to serve the former. Technological advances are judged by what they can do for the art world, not the other way around. through (art)n, Sandor also influences science by collaborating with researchers to catalyze new ways of thinking. A true marriage of art and science opens up exploration so that its child, society, can grow. At the moment, art is intimidated by science, the clever friend who speaks in jargon and makes people feel small. However, science is intimidated by art for the same reason – its jargon is just artificial language. When both parties stop proving themselves, they can work together.

“Has the art world caught up with Ellen Sandor?” the catalog asks. Sandor refuses to be caught. She thought that at this point in history we were all living in a virtual world, not through 2D screens or an Oculus. “It all happened for you,” she said. “It still hasn’t quite happened to me.”

Society is stuck repealing old laws instead of solving income inequality or race relations or inadequate health care or inefficient public transportation. As long as we don’t talk about it, it can’t be solved. Until it’s resolved, we’ll always be moving a little too slowly for Ellen Sandor. Brain+ Love+ does its part by starting the conversation from our own thoughts. Words cannot do a PHS Cologram justice – see this visually instructive exhibition at the ilon Art Gallery brownstone building until June 25th. WM

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