‘Seed Vortex’ exhibit at Bedford Gallery a convergence of art, science
By Lou Fancher
Sculptor Ned Kahn is fascinated by the juxtaposition of chaos and structure found in the natural world.
Long before October’s Sonoma and Napa County fires fortunately bypassed the home he shares with his wife, Lucero Dorado and their soon-to-be 4-year-old son, Kahn traveled the edge of science and art, methodology and magic.
His kinetic sculptures, often interactive and sometimes weighing thousands of pounds, filled the Exploratorium in the 1980s when he was an artist-in-residence mentored by the museum’s founder, physicist Frank Oppenheimer.
On the continuum of sculptures that create immense fog rings or mimic the inside of a volcano with bubbling glass particles is a work, “Negev Wheel,” in which sand from Israel’s Negev Desert shifts into patterns that follow laws of granular physics but appear and disappear with mesmerizing movement.
Frequently collaborating with architects,”Firefly” distinguishes the 12-story Public Utilities Commission building in San Francisco with a shimmering wind tunnel and turbines that capture energy and feed electricity to the structure’s power grid.
“Ned Kahn: Seed Vortex,” opens Jan. 11, at Walnut Creek’s downtown Bedford Gallery. The solo exhibit showcases a 24-foot diameter metal disk filled with mustard seeds.
Additional pieces loaned by the di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art in Napa include among others, the interactive “Chaotic Pendulum” and “Abyssal Storm 1,” a sculpture that allows visitors to create underwater storms that mimic those found at the bottom of the ocean.
Bedford curator Carrie Lederer first saw Kahn’s work 20 years ago, while visiting the Exploratorium with her then 5-year-old son.
“What drew me in were the conceptual ideas embedded in his work that are often complex and even abstract. He has a way with complex systems that invites us to marvel at the mechanics or simply enjoy the poetry of each work. My son was captivated. I knew he didn’t (grasp) the full breadth of the work, but he was nevertheless intrigued.”
Kahn won a MacArthur Fellowship in 2003, among other awards. His work has been on display in national and international exhibits and featured in publications including New Yorker and The New York Times. His Negev Wheel was created in 2016 for San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum.
Kahn, 58, retains a childlike mindset: awed by the ocean’s crashing waves or simply by the movement of water in a stream, or wind disturbing leaves in a forest.
“As a boy growing up in Stanford, Conn., I spent time in nature. It was a prime area of interest and solace,” says Kahn in a phone interview.
His father was a doctor, his mother, a painter and art teacher who is still making art at age 87.
“She’d take me to junk yards. I’d find springs and mini ball bearings. I was making funny, human kinetic sculptures from an early age. My mother is a great collector: everything from Hudson School paintings … to stuffed peacocks.”
Thematically, Kahn’s work has environmentalist underpinnings.
“They are on some level about nature and the flow patters of natural systems, but if you look at all of these, they’re not natural or manmade: they’re a hybrid.”
Human’s negative impact on natural systems most often have him thinking about the atmosphere.
“When I was a kid, there was a notion that the weather was a natural system. That idea’s gone out the window. Climate change — the worst part is the degradation of systems. There’s negative impact on delicate creatures and things: frogs, food production, air quality. But there’s also an intriguing aspect: the weird weather.”
The tiny, round seeds in Seed Vortex spin, interacting freeform with neighboring seeds.
“If the viewer steps back, there’s wonder at the interactions that propagate. It’s almost like calligraphy, or like they’ve been rehearsing. But they haven’t,” says Kahn.
Connected systems — hurricanes that suck energy from the ocean floor and mingle water power with air into scary, complex flow patterns — or traffic jams on Bay Area freeways — cause Kahn to draw analogies to political or social movements. The 2016 election’s aftereffects, he says, are like a series of waves that pass through and displace entire populations.
In the crosshairs of destruction, regeneration, scientific mysteries and artistic metaphors, Kahn finds awe.
“I go outside and just a breath of air fills me with a miraculous sense of the air,” he says. “Something ordinary becomes miraculous. If I can give people a small moment of awe, I feel I’ve had major success.”