Volume 26 Number 2
Under the Influence, by Tyler Poniatowski
Poniatowski at work in the studio
Photos courtesy Tyler Poniatowski
The Golden Ratio
Tyler Poniatowski is color-blind, unable to distinguish dark reds and greens from browns. For most people this type of disability is little more than an occasional nuisance. For a fine arts student required to take a color theory course, it poses serious problems.
"We were given a box of 256 different color cards and told to derive relationships between them by blending color combinations to create different hues," says Poniatowski, a 22-year-old senior who, with his unruly hair, scraggly T-shirt, and lanky frame, looks every bit the art student. "Since all the colors are mathematically related, I was able to come up with a simple algorithm to solve the problems and squeeze through the class."
As you may have guessed, Poniatowski is not your typical art student. He came to Indiana University Bloomington in 2000 as a Wells scholar majoring in astrophysics, a discipline not recommended for the scientifically faint of heart. But he also brought with him a passion for drawing nurtured by his high-school art teachers. The rigors of doing physics problem sets and keeping up with a demanding course load initially relegated art to hobby status for Poniatowski, but soon, he was spending all his free time in the studio and took on a second major in printmaking.
On the surface, theoretical physics and fine arts have nothing in common. Astrophysics majors spend their time thinking abstract thoughts about how and why the universe behaves as it does. Not that art students don't have to think. They do, but the purpose of most art is, after all, to create something that people can see, touch, and sometimes also feel and smell.
On a deeper level, however, astrophysics and conceptual art overlap. Both are founded on underlying or overarching "big ideas" that hold both disciplines together. For Poniatowski, many of these ideas boil down to the same basic principle.
"On the level of advanced physics such as quantum mechanics, you're dealing with pure concept unconnected from anything practical," he says. "There's a sort of sublime beauty in some equations that describe relationships between things that aren't apparent. That's what mainly interests me in making art█just doing it for its own sake, to make something beautiful."
Making beautiful things is no less rigorous a process than making sense of quantum mechanics. Conceptualizing and executing an artwork often requires extensive background research.
"You can't bluff your way through (a critique)," Poniatowski says. "If someone has knowledge about the ideas behind a style or concept that you don't have, you're going to lose."
In his own research, Poniatowski has increasingly tried to unite his scientific and artistic interests. One of his recent works, a silkscreen print, features anatomical studies culled from drawing books overlaid with mathematically precise-looking measurements and equations. The concept behind the imagery, Poniatowski points out, has to do with the Golden Ratio, a numerical pattern describing a proportion ubiquitous in the natural world that has long been seen by artists as underlying the most aesthetically pleasing natural forms, such as a snail's shell.
But while the print may seem to directly connect the Golden Ratio to the perfected human form, the appearance is deceiving.
"There's no necessary connection between the measurements and the bodies," Poniatowski explains. "Each body is distinct, representing its own unique version of the perfect human form. The point, I think, is to recognize the tension between the definitiveness of the Golden Ratio and the ultimate indeterminacy of beauty."
With one year remaining to complete his BFA, Poniatowski still struggles to find the perfect ratio between his two passions. Meanwhile, he plans on applying to the M.A. program in critical and curatorial studies at Columbia University.
"I think we're on the verge of a new Renaissance in art," he says hopefully. "Some artists are beginning to use science to incorporate rationalist, fundamental scientific physical principles in their work. I'd like to be a part of that."