Jane Lackey
In Code

Eosin, fuchsin, aniline blue; hematoxylin, crystal violet, Congo red, rose bengal, these are dyes used in labs to stain and reveal otherwise pallid substances inside the nuclei of our cells. Chromosomes are called 'colored bodies' because their dense substance is extraordinarily thirsty for dye. This is how we know them. Before the cell splits, thin strands of chromatin dispersed in the nucleus aggregate into the thicker, familiar pairs of legs, crossed at the knee or the ankle (Xs and Ys), that dance across pages of science texts and popular media these days, carrying miniaturized plans for a person, a fly, a pea.

Because chromosomes are thirsty, we see them. Discoveries in science are directly linked to visualization techniques. What is invisible is only made visible through processes of encoding translation into recognizable systems for making heads or tails out of the unknown. Scientific knowledge, including the information accumulating around the human genome project, is a dense composite of code, system, analogy, metaphor through which boundary, shape, sequence, and order can be found, or assigned. What does a chromosome, or a molecule of DNA really look like? Letters, a spiral staircase, these are crude analogies; layers of dye dragged over a cross-hair grid in which dark blips appear at irregular intervals in parallel lines like type. This is a description of the visual trace of the systematic process through which information is both solicited and encoded. It is also a loose description of the surfaces of Jane Lackey's recent paintings in the Marker series. Layered visual fields through which information, meaning, revelation are invited to occur.

For Jane Lackey, scientific imaging techniques, specifically the staining of genetic samples for microscopic study, and the twisty, animated shapes of chromosomes themselves, are "springboards for abstraction." What inspires an artist visually is not necessarily what the work is about. Like the "inscrutable" calligraphy of non-western cultures used by American painters in the 50s, chromosomes carry precise and detailed information that is inaccessible to the naked, or the uninitiated, eye. These forms resonate with their potential meaning and especially with the fact that access to that meaning is locked up. Lackey has absorbed the visual effects of these colored fields and mark-like forms through long-term scrutiny, and created her own forms and fields that rest on these sources like the world rests on Atlas' shoulders (fictively without really needing his support).

Traits consists of a series of 12 clusters, 46 pieces in each, of basswood nubs, each one cut from an identical barbell-like form and sanded and shaped and sanded some more until it rises a slight inch in relief from the wall, and has taken on its own unique, no longer barbell-like shape. Shell-like, cookie-like, boney, worked backward almost to disappearance, these clustered nubs could also be braille messages, enlarged and shuffled to illegibility. Their surfaces have been burned with a wood burning tool - Lackey's very physical pencil, her familiar drawing tool - and the crevices filled, and sanded, and filled, again, changing the grain of the wood, giving it stress marks, evidence of age, fused fractures. The wooden nubs have pinkish aureoles around their edges, but overall the surfaces are bare, smooth, worn, and thirsty. Forty-six is the human chromosome number, 23 pairs. (peas for instance only have seven pairs, fruit flies, four). The 12 clusters of 46 have been arranged so as to become increasingly clumped towards their centers, implying a temporal sequence heading towards meiosis, the chromosomes grouping and ordering themselves, as they prepare to split and make a daughter. Does this oblique reference to the most dramatic moment in the life of a cell the making of another one affect our experience of these visual/tactile forms? How does the visible thirstiness of the bare wood, without paint or sealer, lead back to the absorbent qualities of the 'colored bodies' that inspired them?

The six oval paintings in Lackey's Marker Series have been constructed from layers of masonite with a surface of thin cork. These works have substantial physical presence as exquisitely crafted objects while their painted surfaces project an expansive sense of space. Their ambiguous status between painting and object is reiterated by Lackey's alternating processes of burning and painting and burning the surfaces. The marks left by Lackey's wood-burning tool/pencil are small, blackened holes, arranged horizontally in parallel lines like type. Acrylic paint in greens, greys, and whites, with graphite mixed in, has been layered over, and drawn down through, still-wet underpainting in hotter pinks, oranges, and reds. The direction of the movement is down, with some paint catching in the holes and oozing out later, dribbling a different color on top. The horizontal perforations provide directional resistance against the dragging down and through and they register something system asserting itself over and over through the wet chaos of repeated process. How do the sources for this richly abstract imagery - scientific techniques for visualizing genetic material - affect our reading of this work? The space implied in these elliptical surfaces is the infinity of the interior of the body - its mysterious and invisible elements, access to which is limited by the coarseness of our tools and the necessity of transcription. The inverse of that interior space is also implied; the scale and odd unbounded shape of these object/paintings (as if what we were seeing was only a small view through a lens of something huge) reverses out and expands to become also the infinite space our bodies occupy.

Both more literal and more traditionally poetic, Lackey's photoetchings refer back to the sources of her work. They combine images of freedom and constraint in allusive superimpositions whose exquisitely inked surfaces obscure their technologically-based production. The images of chromosomes, with accidental text; an insect wing; a human backbone; an open window have been translated from photographs to digital images on computer, manipulated in Photoshop, printed onto film, burnt onto a metal plate, and then inked and pulled the latter in a traditional intaglio process. The elaborate hinged construction of the frames allow many of the prints to be viewed like pages in a book, front and back. The act of viewing rearranges to some degree the rigid structure of a grid allows a certain degree of "freedom" from that order, and registers the trace of active viewing.

Chromosomes are (among other things) fixed templates determining identity. The insect wings make romantic reference to flight, freedom, escape from determination - but also are classificatory tools used, like the veins of a leaf, to determine identity (genus, species). The backbone is structure, orientation, order, body, and the central hinge from which our ribs open out. One pair of frames is hinged at the center, like a butterfly. If we put wing, spine, and chromosome together, we can begin to knit ideas about 19th century romantic dreams of escape from the bounds of the physical body with 21st century romantic dreams of fully mapping the human genome, and thereby, through knowledge, also escaping the bounds of the body, or encoded determination of identity.

Are these ideas there, in the work? Are chromosomes really there, or is what we see just the dye used to test for them? Do we need to know Jane Lackey's sources to appreciate the uses and beauties of her abstractions, her absolutely rigorous craft, her labor-intensive processes which speak eloquently through the generous labor of their making? What does it mean to know her sources? Can this knowledge act like a screen of dye fuchsin, aniline, eosin to draw down and through the works, picking up blips, nubs, lumps, and other forms?

Laurie Palmer
April 1996
Chicago, IL


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