On the walls of Nancy Baker Cahill's Los Feliz studio are tacked up pictures of microscopic pieces of pollen blown up 10,000 times — not necessarily typical inspiration for a visual artist.
“What exactly is this?” viewers might ask. They have to squint up close and stand far back, trying to understand it. Perhaps they're photos of the surfaces of other planets? Or tissue under a microscope?
Those sorts of implied questions inspired “Fascinomas,” Baker Cahill's new multimedia installation at the Pasadena Museum of California Art. Fascinoma is medical slang for an unusual case or diagnosis, and the works are inspired by the experience of looking into an electron microscope and seeing the tiny objects that infect our bodies. Baker Cahill uses various artistic methods, ranging from video to ancient painting techniques.
After coming face to face with a handful of 8-foot panels that make up one of her Fascinomas, each viewer walks in front of a projection that slowly animates different pieces of other shadowy paintings she created, which resemble blown-up tumors or growths. Baker Cahill says she hopes people walk in front of and behind the hanging screen, adding their own bodies to the sense of wonder inherent in her art. “I imagine that people will interact physically with the art in a way that makes the human body miniaturized,” she says, because the works are so large but depict objects that could be microscopic.
Although she has been fascinated by the body and by pain for years, Baker Cahill says, she was particularly inspired by one meeting with an expert in worms at the Natural History Museum. The researcher showed her an electron microscope and said that looking through it was like magic to him, even though he knew how it worked. “That just stuck in my head,” the artist says.
In creating the installation, Baker Cahill had her own methods of scientific discovery. To create the panels, she experimented with spray paint, eventually settling on an airbrush method of going over the Fiberglas paper again and again to play with light and dark. She lays materials like dried kelp and wire on the paper, sprays over them and then removes them, leaving shadows. Because it's sprayed, the paint settles in, creating depth. The process also mirrors modern electron microscopes, where a beam of electrons first bombards its subject before its reflection is measured.
For Baker Cahill, getting lost in large-scale art is her way of experiencing the mystery of science. “I'd love to work on projects twice as big as this,” she says. “It feels like I'm developing a photo.”
Baker Cahill gives an artist's talk on Sun., March 18, at 3 p.m. “Fascinomas” runs through May 20.