Humans are always trying to undo what they've done before. They build shelter to flee the elements, then windows so they can see outside, then they hang curtains to keep the sun out. Art, in fact, began as a way of bringing the outside in with renderings of bison and antelope on cave walls. Millennia later, interior decorating started with carvings of flowers and other cheery designs to help brighten up the poorly lit, dank interiors of buildings. These designs were typically repeated, whether along trim or in wallpaper, sometimes causing them at first glance to appear as geometrical patterns rather than flora.
This relationship between ornamental patterns and the natural world is what compels artist Arielle Masson to create her paintings. Although the fluid shapes of Masson's images often resemble inkblots more than garden plants, nature here is represented not by realistic depictions but by its relation to -- gulp! -- mathematics.
"I really think nature has an underlying geometric structure whether we're aware of it or not," Masson says. As one example of Mother Nature's geometry, Masson notes that the petals of a flower usually adhere to Fibonacci numbers. (If you're dying to know, the Fibonacci series is a list of numbers, such as 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, in which a digit is defined by the sum of the two numbers immediately preceding it.) "I started realizing that the ornamentation we have -- especially in interior architecture, wallpaper, wall hanging and even textile -- we're actually referring to nature."
Masson began her ornamental quest back in 1993 when she created two overlapping circles known as a Vesica Piscis. If that's not enough Latin for you, the almond shape formed by the intersection of two overlapping circles is known as the mandorla, which, depending on your religious affiliation and which angle you turn the figure, is either the "Jesus fish" or ancient symbol for the vulva (see right).
"I start taking these two circles and making a lattice, and then in that lattice, I start inventing shapes," Masson says, flipping through a huge stack of paintings created on this sort of circular grid paper. "You see.I can't get out. It's infinite -- I can't stop!" She describes the process as a game, not unlike the way a child plays with building blocks. "It's the same building blocks," Masson explains, but the art comes through the infinite combinations and permutations.
In the beginning, Masson's "back to nature" approach went so far as mixing her own egg-tempera paints, a practice largely abandoned after the invention of oil paints in the 15th century. Although the process gives her more control over the colors she makes, Masson is more interested in the ritual. "In cooking something where you have your own tomato sauce, and having a thing which is totally premade that you bought in the store, which is more fun?" Masson asks, adding that she is also troubled by our increasing dependence on manufactured items for daily survival. "Imagine tomorrow I live on a desert island. I can still paint because I know how to do it."
Masson has since moved to larger pieces done in acrylic and gouache, the latter an opaque water-based paint. One of these pieces won first prize among 1,500 entries in the 100-Mile Range Roundup, a contest open every four years to artists in a 100-mile radius of Houston. "I won $1,500, and everyone can know it," Masson says. "I'm very happy!"
Well, Masson admits, she's no purist, and the shirking of materialistic things need only go so far.
Eighty-two pieces, including Masson's winning entry, have been selected for display at the Blaffer Gallery at the University of Houston, entrance no. 16, off Cullen Boulevard. The exhibit starts June 3 and runs through August 13. Hours: Tuesday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, call (713)743-9528.