FEATURE — Spring 2005

Professor Ron Leax with Laboratory #9, 82" x 40" x 36"; mixed materials; 2005.

Art & Science: An Intriguing Blend

Professor Ron Leax's cerebral artwork mixes science with the materials of daily life.

by Terri McClain

Ron Leax sits relaxed in his downtown St. Louis loft studio, wearing a flannel shirt to keep out the chill, shirt sleeves pushed up to reveal his strong sculptor's wrists. He looks nothing like the eccentric movie scientist one would expect to see here amid the tubes and vials of what could almost be a working laboratory.

"When I was young, the expectation, I think, was that I would become a scientist," he says. "And as an artist, my work has always been grounded in the sciences."

To those familiar with his work, this confession is not particularly surprising. Much of it seems to be as much science experiment as art.

For example, in the early 1980s, Leax, the Halsey C. Ives Professor of Art, began building a serious body of work that mimicked ecological systems.

"It was very much about trying to reinvigorate the activity of making art with some of the vitalism of biological sciences," he says. "The pieces included living animals and plants and were designed to keep them alive. I tried always to have the work teaching me. Eventually I ran out of money for those projects. To mimic natural systems with any kind of responsibility and any kind of accuracy is an expensive undertaking."

In 2000, he was commissioned by the Detroit zoo to create a temporary exhibit that allowed visitors a glimpse of both the animal habitat on display and the work (and keepers) behind the scenes.

"The keepers were there every day so that you could actually watch them and the animals and see things that the public doesn't usually see," Leax says. "They were unbelievably nervous about this project at the start. I guess it's like when visitors come to your house and you don't want them to look in your closets. I found it utterly fascinating, the way coils are just tagged up and stuff is taped down to make the equipment more functional."

"When I was young, the expectation, I think, was that I would become a scientist,"
Leax says. "And as an artist, my work has always been grounded in the sciences."

Perhaps his best-known body of work is the Ontological Library, which numbers more than 800 objects, including a year's collection of New York Times that Leax roughly bound in a pillar and placed in an ocean tidal flat for a year, where it was sculpted and modified by the action of the tides and aquatic life.

"The library was about trying to merge some kind of ontological experience (the activity of being) with the epistemological (how we know what we know)," he says.

Leax also has created a series of three-dimensional periodic tables, literally using the form of the periodic table to organize the activity and elements of sculpture. Another large body of work, called Laboratories or Last Suppers, conflated certain aspects of science, religion, and art.

Nutrient Trap (detail), 32" x 74" x 56"; mixed materials; 1984.

"I wanted to look at big questions," Leax says. "It wasn't really about religion, science, and art; it was about unanswered questions and how all of these things somehow come up short. It was about inadequacy."

He laughs, adding: "I'm pretty obsessed with ordering. Hopefully there's some humor in it. Now I'm working on these kind of over-the-top laboratories."

Those looking for a glimpse of the inner Ron Leax in his art won't find a lot of autobiographical material. He eschews what he calls the "romantic, self-indulgent, artist-in-the-garret myth," striving instead for public engagement. His work is distinctly cerebral, often laced with humor, and created with the materials of daily life. He does not frequent art supply stores.

Because his own work crosses traditional aesthetic boundaries, it is easy for Leax to encourage a similar creative license among his students.

"Ron Leax is an absolutely wonderful professor," says Liz Giardina, B.F.A. '02. "He sees value in students and what they're doing, regardless of their medium. I love fashion and textile design. Other people did sound pieces or work that was completely Internet-based. But we were all sculpture students. Ron inspires you to think creatively and to find your own voice."

(Above) Ontological Fragment (detail), 10.5" x 9" diameter; porcelained pan, text, salt, wire; 1989.
(Below) Test for a Periodic Table (detail); mixed materials; 1992.

"There are lots of different effective teaching styles, and lots of different kinds of effective teachers. But Ron is one of the most effective," says Jeff Pike, dean of the School of Art. "Very few teachers are excellent at beginning instruction, mid-level instruction, and advanced instruction, and Ron has excelled in all three here."

Asked to describe his own role as a teacher, Leax smiles and says simply, "Stay out of the way as much as possible."

"He's someone who pushes students, and he's not a hand-holder at all," says Giardina, now working in Los Angeles as the assistant designer for Halston. She credits Leax with encouraging her to create a broad, nontraditional portfolio.

"He's there every studio day, which is a great example, showing how to really follow through on your obligations as an artist," Giardina continues. "He also likes to make it fun. I think what matters is that you have professors like Ron who give you a strong background and then let you do something new and different."

"I've always enjoyed the classroom," Leax says. "I think sometimes there's this idea that the teacher is the giver all the time, when actually in the studio there's pretty rich invention coming back to you from the students, which invigorates the teacher.

"As you go up the academic ladder, from the introductory students to the upper-level students to the graduate students, teaching gets more complex," he adds. "Students begin to think that they know it. At the upper stages, in particular, I try to do very little telling. I try to do more listening. Then I offer a response, and the student and I have a discussion. Then the student is responsible for drawing conclusions and taking directions out of it."

Leax also worked for almost 10 years to develop and implement the national curriculum for advanced placement in three-dimensional design, a program that allows high-school students to pursue college-level studies for college credit.

"I'm always working on a multiplicity of things," Leax says, gesturing to the many drawings in his studio. "But now I'm really enthralled with the forms that come out of laboratories. As an artist you always try to go over the top a little bit, so I'm kind of in tin-foil city right now, aestheticizing the scientist aesthetic."

Yam House (detail), 92" x 124" x 108"; mixed materials; 1983.

While Ron Leax's work may seem to exhibit a certain emotional detachment (you'll find no smiling portraits in his studio), in reality it is a very humanistic study of the way people interact with their environment.

"He's blending his love for science with his art and articulating his views of science through his art," Giardina says.

His drawings intrigue because they are not drawings at all in the traditional sense. He employs wine and oils and other unexpected materials. They're sprinkled, they're splashed. Coffee cup rings share the paper with candle wax drippings.

It is an evocative exploration of experience. He was in Florence, Italy, when he created many of these drawings, and the materials he used reflect his activities there.

His current body of work manipulates the iconography of medical technology, offering a very personal—and sometimes mocking—response to a cold and sterile scientific world with which we, as humans, often cannot comfortably coexist.

"Everything is designed, everything is engineered—and often badly designed and badly engineered," Leax says. "How do we address that? How does it affect us? How do we really use it?"

There's the science part. Next to one piece, which is covered with clear plastic, stands a bottle of blue cleaning spray.

"Yes, the plastic bag is part of the sculpture," Leax says. "The cleaner isn't, but I just like that color."

That's the art part. It's a rare and intriguing blend.

Terri McClain is a free-lance writer based in St. Charles, Missouri.