In the bright basement studio of Sean Caulfield’s Parkallen home, there’s a piece-in-progress typical of his aesthetic: It’s captivating, yet strains the definition of beautiful.
Almost door-sized and analytical in its focus on what look like sections of some alien digestive tract, the work rolls drawing, silk-screening and digital elements into a challenge for the viewer.
Tell the easy-going but thoughtful artist this and he’ll likely, modestly, consider that a success. “I hope it’s whimsical,” Caulfield says of his work, “but unsettling.”
It is, largely because the University of Alberta art and design prof and veteran printmaker, whose art has been exhibited around the world, has adopted the lesser-travelled intersection of art and science as his creative space. There, he addresses our often uncomfortable relationship with the esoteric world of technology. Stem-cell research and biotechnology, for examples, hold the power to profoundly affect our lives.
But to avoid what Caulfield sees as unhealthy, polarizing debate about them, we first need to better understand them — without having to write a doctoral thesis.
“Questions come up and have to be articulated in ways normal language can’t,” he says. He believes art can be that alternative language, and has long investigated that potential.
Teaching printmaking in Illinois in the 1990s, he’d walk nearby rural landscapes and then draw from memory the industrial forms interrupting it: A water tower, a generator station, and so on. On paper, he says, “they’d sort of morph into biological forms.”
Around the same time, his brother Timothy was tackling the ethics of science as a U of A health law and policy professor. Occasionally, the two would discuss the human pursuit of scientific progress (“What should we mess with, what shouldn’t we mess with?”) and they’d wonder whether fears about technology are founded.
Inevitably, science and its methods became embedded in Sean’s thinking.
When he came home in 2001, those talks led the brothers to collaborating, most recently with the staging of Perceptions of Promise: Biotechnology, Society and Art. Exhibiting work produced through the unlikely couplings of artists (Caulfield included) and social commentators (scientists, philosophers, sociologists and legal scholars) concerned primarily with stem-cell research, Perceptions of Promise has toured Canada (with a stop in New York, and then Edmonton in November).
“Perhaps in a perfect world, an exhibition like [this] could help nuance the discussion,” he says.
In that same world, however, it still wouldn’t offer conclusions. Though challenging, Caulfield’s art isn’t partisan. “I don’t want to answer questions in making this work,” he says. “I hope, ultimately, it raises questions.”
And that, in its own right, can be a beautiful thing.
Caulfield’s work is exhibited: Oct. 13 to Nov. 2 at Scott Gallery (10411 124 St.); Oct. 13 to Jan. 6 at the AGA (102A Avenue and 99 Street), as part of the In Print; and Nov. 8 to Jan. 5, in the main gallery of Enterprise Square (10230 Jasper Ave.), for Perceptions of Promise.