Pattern recognition: John Arabolos’ scientific method of depicting nature
By Hank Hoffman
John Arabolos is not a scientist, but he strives to think like one when creating his art. For the past 15 years, Arabolos has created mesmerizing photographic imagery – early on by hand, more recently with digital technology – based on a combination of natural, organic images and mathematical and scientific principles (chaos theory, in particular).
The photographic results are provocative abstractions. The large-scale images tug viewers’ curiosity in two directions: puzzling over the details and marveling how their juxtaposition creates mysterious patterns. Or, as Arabolos says in an interview at his home studio, “When dealing with a sense of scale and proportion, the big picture is the small picture and vice versa.”
His current work is based on a mathematical algorithm developed by Arabolos and his design and computer technology assistant Jodi Pfister. Arabolos and Pfister have assembled a 500-page patent application for the software process. About five inches thick, the patent application explains through words and diagrams how the software generates increasingly complex geometric patterns through a series of diagonal cuts and juxtapositions. With business partner Harold Meth, Arabolos and Pfister founded Image Terrain to market the software to fine artists, textile designers, photographers, and commercial artists interested in generating their own designs and patterns.
“In science there are some basic principles that are universal and symmetry is one of them,” says Arabolos, who is a professional interior designer and artist-in-residence at the University of New Haven’s Department of Visual Arts.
Symmetry, Arabolos notes, is woven into the fabric of everyday perception. We see it when we look in the mirror each morning; it is intrinsic to the design of automobiles and most other iconic products. Yet, when we look at our natural surroundings, the seeming randomness may cause us to misread complexity as a lack of order.
Symmetry is Arabolos’ tool for imposing order on random, complex patterns found in nature – pine needles on the forest floor, grasslands, stones in a stream, designs on butterfly wings. By introducing symmetry into the visual equation, Arabolos prompts viewers to see organic forms in a different, more analytical way.
His interest in the interplay of art and science dates back to his undergraduate days at the Hartford Art School and post-graduate work at the Pratt Institute in the 1970s. Although he entered college as a surrealist painter, instructors aligned with the nascent minimalist and conceptualist movements lit a fire in Arabolos, changing how he thought about art.
“Minimalist art stripped away all the detail and literal stuff down to the bare essentials. Conceptual art took away the object and dealt with idea in its rawest form,” explains Arabolos. “Where do you go from there? For me, after conceptual art, there hasn’t been much of anything I’ve considered a real movement in art except for people working in the sciences and math. It’s the only place where new stuff is coming from that relates to our understanding of our space, our presence, without rehashing the same stuff over and over again.”
For conceptual artists, the idea determines the medium, not vice versa. In the wake of his conceptualist epiphany, Arabolos left painting behind – he hasn’t painted since – and let his concepts guide his choice of medium.
“Everything got so exciting as far as art goes. I couldn’t stop doing work,” he recalls.
He worked with plastic, photography, wood and – while doing graduate work at the Pratt Institute – light installations using lasers. Because lasers are “coherent” or single wavelength light, Arabolos says, he “could get as close to being able to draw and create shape with line (while remaining within) a non-materialistic medium. I was getting closer to something in the ether.”
Disenchanted with the fine art world, Arabolos left for about 15 years after completing his MFA. While working in the field of interior design he filled notebooks with ideas for installations and other projects, ideas that remain on the shelf. But in the early 1990s, the confluence of a chance observation – noticing random patterns created by pine needles collecting beneath a tree – and his readings into chaos theory piqued Arabolos’ curiosity.
“All pine needles have ‘self-similarity.’ They are of the same genre, have the same actual biological material, but no two are of the exact same size or shape, no two fell at the same time,” says Arabolos.
What appears to be a random scattering on the forest floor, explains Arabolos, is actually “a frozen moment of something in time and space that represents a pattern that evolved.” Chaos theory explains how complex patterns evolve. Arabolos says he read James Gleick’s bestseller Chaos: Making a New Science “cover to cover, and then I read it again.”
In 1999, Arabolos started turning his ideas about nature and chaos theory into imagery. He began with black and white mirror images – his Chaotic Symmetries series – in order to “focus in on tonality, value and form” without the distraction of color.
“The images were very totemic, very primitive. They started taking on facial qualities, the shapes and forms of beings,” says Arabolos. “It almost doesn’t matter what image you start out with. Piecemeal it together and your psyche searches for some kind of rationale behind what you’re looking at.”
Perhaps emulating natural processes, Arabolos’ work has evolved over time. In his more recent Fabric of Life and Ecological Symmetries series, the images are enriched by his incorporation of (naturally existing) color and exploration of symmetry in more complex and methodical ways.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the way nature works,” Arabolos tells me. “It seems to me there is enough there for an artist to spend his lifetime investigating.”