Conversations with artists often travel in interesting directions, but, when faced near the beginning of a discussion with Zachary Beer with the word ‘Optogenetics’, I had to seek explanation. Having studied Molecular Biology and Fine Art, Zach easily straddles the divide between science and art, often making a series of paintings based on a scientific method or idea. Take optogenetics, for instance. This biological method has recently been developed into a technique that uses genetic mutation and involves the use of light to control cells in living tissue. Zach Beer is fascinated with it, in its unmediated form, in relation to flowers or hedges at night. We may regard a hedge as purely surface matter, a tangle of twigs and leaves. But to those who understand how cell function and performance is controlled by light, hedges are networks, alive with connectivity, especially when the light dims and different genes are switched on to absorb what has been fed into the cells during daytime. Beer is fascinated by this paradox that, when darkness drains away colour and flowers and hedges and they become hard to see, they are at their most active. In his catalogue to his exhibition ‘Night Flowers’, the artist wrote the following:
Flowers come to life in light, but what happens at night?
As light fades our awareness of them begins to diminish.
They are almost forgotten.
Inside the plant, light sensitive phytochrome molecules wait in an exquisite state of sensitivity.
If the light returns they will come back to life.
If not they will fade, grow pale – etiolate, and finally denature.
Zach’s interest in such nocturnal activity, also in metabolic paths, are just two of several reasons why, in his paintings, he wants to explore an expanded visual field, taking in more than what normally informs an artist’s handling of pictorial space. Perhaps inevitably, he feels that his study of molecular biology has given him new lines of enquiry for looking into the texture, foundations and structure of the world around him. But he is also aware that, however technical some of his scientific interests may be, they need to be transmuted so that the painting can become an embodiment, a being in its own right.
Here his remarkable and often tender colour sense comes into play. Its sensory appeal sometimes offsets the cool clarity of the scientific idea. There is certainly a deft artistic strategy behind the handling of movement in many of his paintings, while space and image are carefully held in balance. Zach learnt much from his experience of taking the Motley Theatre Design Course for one year. One of the most prestigious theatre design schools, it was originally founded in 1966 by Stephen Arlen, the managing director of Sadler’s Wells Opera, and Margaret ‘Percy’ Harris, then the resident designer of the Sadlers Wells Company. It took root for some years in Drury Lane, and out of its teaching came an understanding of contemporary scenography which regards the set design as part of the performance and in dialogue with it. It encourages recognition that on stage objects need to be correctly placed or juxtaposed. Stylistically it struck a careful line between the old and the new, avoiding the overtly symbolic and aggressively minimal, while also refusing to tolerate any dead areas or overly detailed naturalistic or pompous sets. The aim was to draw on the way that a contemporary person looks at the world and to create a vibrancy through good design. These are ambitions similar to those behind Zach Beer’s paintings, which attract attention with their exploratory looking and thinking. He understands that both on stage in a theatre and in a painting we need pathways in which the mind can wander and imagine.
Frances Spalding, June 2019