Peter Coffin, Untitled (Powers of Ten), 2015, mixed media, 13 1/4 × 68 3/4 × 84 1/4".

Peter Coffin, Untitled (Powers of Ten), 2015, mixed media, 13 1/4 × 68 3/4 × 84 1/4".

Peter Coffin

Herald St

Peter Coffin, Untitled (Powers of Ten), 2015, mixed media, 13 1/4 × 68 3/4 × 84 1/4".

Just in time for summer, American artist Peter Coffin had set up a picnic that was more than simply a pleasurable break from routine: It was a conceptual excursion into alternative realities. Scattered across overlapping blankets on the floor was the typical picnic gear with (mostly) fake food, an embroidered mirror cushion, and a pair of reading glasses, as well as journals and books from the fields of physical science that Coffin tends to reference in his multidisciplinary practice. With the journals dating to the 1970s, Untitled (Powers of Ten), 2015, was a precise re-creation of the picnic from the 1977 film by Charles and Ray Eames in which the designers illustrated—by zooming out vertically from a couple sprawled on picnic blankets all the way to the edge of the universe and then zooming back in and all the way down to subatomic particles—the relative scale of absolutely everything in less than ten minutes. The perspective from which the camera looks down on the picnic in the Eameses’ film is emblematic of an objective view; in Coffin’s work, by contrast, we are invited to imaginatively place ourselves within that scene and to think about not only how to integrate modern science with human scale but also how to distinguish between appearance and reality in art and science, respectively, when the picnic scene was no more simulated than the Eameses’ cosmic view.

Problems of reality and point of view also found expression in Coffin’s painting Untitled Rivers (Time and the Probabilistic View of the World), 2015, an ink print of a scanned page from one of the science books glimpsed in Untitled (Powers of Ten); irregular lines of oil color meandering between words eroded the legibility of the technical text about the direction of time, which was, in any case, inaccessible to the layperson. Instead of searching after an objective reality beyond ordinary human sense perception, Coffin’s abstract painting, with its metaphoric use of the word rivers in its title, appeals to a sensorially grounded, imaginative engagement with time, space, and the ways in which they spread, and raises fundamental questions about abstraction and imagination in art and science.

If Coffin’s painting and picnic scene served to remind the viewer that one can move smoothly between the scale of the universe and the scale of the atomic nucleus only at the cost of giving up the reality of everyday perception, his wall-size video projection of fruit flying in outer space, Untitled, 2011, proposed another reality altogether by collapsing vastly different scales into one another. In this digital animation, hand-colored X-rays of bananas, pineapples, and other pieces of fruit float horizontally toward and then seemingly either past or through the viewer. Accompanied by a droning sound, this impossible perspective nonetheless seemed more real than the journey through an atomic nucleus depicted in the Eameses’ Powers of Ten. While further complicating questions about appearance and reality, the video, with its ambient quality, risked spellbinding viewers rather than challenging them to explore the boundaries between reality and imagination on a conceptual level. The title of the exhibition, “Fjord bank glyphs quiz vext Cwm,” sounded as much like the name of a place at the edge of imagination as it looked like a typing exercise. A perfect pangram (a phrase that contains every letter of the alphabet), it was a fitting emblem for a body of work that, rather than try to capture reality, instead confronted viewers with its very incongruities.

Elisa Schaar