Curating a museum exhibition is a major undertaking under any circumstances. Curating an exhibit like "Resonant Minds: Abstraction and Perception"—an exploration of art and neuroscientific research about the way we respond to abstract art due to its aesthetic qualities—was particularly complex and ambitious. When she explains the scope of her project to others, Nidhi Gandhi '15 says, "People think I'm insane."
Gandhi culled the 16 pieces on exhibit from approximately 500 abstract works at the Pomona College Museum of Art as a Benton Summer Undergraduate Research Program research assistant last summer. The artworks she selected include lithography, paintings, woodcuts, computer prints and photograms—all of which utilize illusion, shadow and light, color sensitivity and more, demonstrating ways in which our minds process perceptions biologically, psychologically and evolutionarily.
The sheer number of works to choose from posed a serious challenge of both theme and scale.
"Unlike many other student-curated exhibitions focused on one artist, Nidhi started with a broad premise--abstract art--which required a thoughtful winnowing down to a select group of objects that eloquently illustrate her theme," says Rebecca McGrew, the Museum's senior curator.
For Gandhi, who is a neuroscience major considering a studio art minor, this was her first time working in a museum and her first internship of any kind. By virtue of being given both intellectual freedom and thoughtful guidance from Museum staff, this maiden voyage offered some surprising intellectual discoveries along the way. Through the project she learned that there is significant research being done about the mental processing of aesthetics and art, and she discovered that her theme is an actual field of study called neuroaesthetics, pioneered by neuroscientist Semir Zeki at University College London.
In the exhibition brochure Gandhi writes about her findings in that field: "The resonances between what we see in an abstract image and what we interpret offers echoing auras of the processes of the mind, hinting at discoveries by neuroscience about the ways we perceive and our fascination with abstraction. It is through this resonance that the subtle aspects of abstract art expose our mind's unceasing efforts to make sense of things."
She looked for pieces that most clearly demonstrated a unique manipulation of the brain's processing of visual perception—such as how an easily followed order within an artwork, often manifested in patterns, is soothing to the brain.
"Each piece [in the exhibit] has its own autonomous part in this discussion on the connection between our perception and abstraction. In addition, each piece is made by a key figure in the Abstraction movement," says Gandhi.
The ideas of the artists—who include Yaacov Agam, Josef Albers, Bruce Conner, Tony DeLap, Sam Francis, Arshile Gorky, Adolph Gottlieb, Frederick Hammersley, Vassily Kandinsky, Larry Poons, Ad Reinhardt, Jaroslav Rössler, Frank Stella and June Wayne—were innovative, influential, thought-provoking, and ultimately changed the way we see and make art, says Gandhi.
Gandhi's hope is that she can offer new perspectives and considerations of the intersections between neuroscience and art in a way that is accessible to the general public. Responses to the exhibit have been very positive.
"Many students have very carefully observed each piece in the show, examining the artworks in light of Nidhi's comments on perception. In this sense, it has been a successful means of introducing various concepts of abstract art, drawing upon the viewer's close observations as opposed to a strictly art historical analysis," says Terri Geis, curator of academic programs at the Museum. Geis praises Gandhi's exhibit as "highly original and engaging."
Gandhi was certainly engaged herself. "At certain points, she was so excited by her project that she hopped around in small dances of joy," says Geis.
Gandhi is studying Spanish in Madrid this semester and can't be on campus to see others view her exhibit, but her parents Dhrumil and Renu Gandhi came down from Cupertino for the opening reception and, "They're of course, very, very proud," she says. Distance notwithstanding, her excitement remains and fuels a desire to experiment further with where this curating experience may lead.
One option she is considering is attending graduate school in design, aiming towards a more hands-on approach to art, like illustration or product design, with what she says was before a vague dream of integrating neuroscience and art. But that dream has expanded a bit as a result of her "Resonant Minds" work.
"Now, partly through the research I did, I know numerous ways I can concretely incorporate the two disciplines…I've definitely opened up my possibilities to include education in the arts or in neuroscience in an interdisciplinary manner, or doing research that bridges the two fields—or maybe even going into art history and becoming a curator," she says.
"Resonant Minds" is the second in a series of exhibitions developed by student curators under the Benton Summer Undergraduate Research Program at the Pomona College Museum of Art. The Museum is open Tues.-Sun., noon-5 p.m., with Art After Hours programming on Thursdays, 5 -11 p.m. For more information, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit: www.pomona.edu/museum.