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Neuroscience, Art Come Together in Barrick Museum Exhibit

A pair of neuroscience professors break down Julie Oppermann's works, which very deliberately manipulate the brain.

Arts & Culture  |  Apr 25, 2017  |  By UNLV News Center
Artwork by Julie Oppermann

Julie Oppermann's Optical works are currently on display at the Barrick Museum. (Photo by R. Marsh Starks / UNLV Creative Services)

The Barrick Museum will host the "Art and Science of Color Theory," a talk with artist Julie Oppermann at 7 p.m., Feb. 12, 2018, in the museum auditorium. Informed by Oppermann’s neuroscience background as well as her active international painting practice, this presentation will touch on everyone from 19th-century French chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul to Op Art’s Bridget Riley as we travel through the history of color theory in Europe and its journey to the US. 

Artists and scientists both know that collaboration is vital to their work. So when UNLV Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art Interim Director Alisha Kerlin met Rochelle and Dustin Hines, two neuroscience professors from the department of psychology, they realized that this was a chance for serious interdisciplinary cross-pollination.

Kerlin interviewed the professors about the paintings of Julie Oppermann when the American artist's optically deceptive paintings were on view at the museum. Oppermann had one biographical detail that made her particularly interesting — she received a master’s degree in neuroscience before she became a painter.

​I noticed that Julie Oppermann​'s ​paintings are physically difficult to take in. At certain viewing distances, I feel destabilized from the eyeballs down. I've heard students say that the work makes them nauseous.

Rochelle: I certainly felt the destabilization and dizziness. From one angle I was certain there was depth to the work, but as I changed my viewpoint I was surprised to see that it was an illusion. The neuroscience of perception came to mind. I thought about how the eye and brain extract and separate color and form/motion (black and white) information to process it initially. Ultimately, the brain is then tasked with stitching this information back together to create our visual reality. Our experience of a visual illusion in Oppermann essentially arises from a dissonance in this latter process of perception.

Does it surprise you to find out that she has a master’s in neuroscience from UC Berkley?

Dustin: Not at all. It makes me very happy to hear this! It is clear that she understands this separation between color and form/motion vision, and has taken advantage of features that will create these effects. In neuroscience, we call the form/motion vision processing system the dorsal stream (“where” system), and the color vision processing system the ventral stream (“what” system).

Rochelle: The dorsal stream provides us with vision for action and governs our ability to respond rapidly to visual situations, and visually guide the movements we make. The dorsal stream processing is unconscious. In contrast, the ventral stream provides us with visual reality, and provides us with a rich and detailed perception of the world, which is a conscious process. Illusions take advantage of our unconscious system, and use it to feed information into our conscious system.

Artwork by Julie Oppermann

I strongly believe that one can benefit from seeing art in person. What you see in print or on a screen will not give you the full experience, especially in Oppermann’s case.

Dustin: The reason they are most effective in person goes back to what Rochelle said about changing her point of view. Being able to move around the work and take different viewpoints allows more information for our visual system, revealing the “trick” and allowing the illusion to be appreciated by our conscious system.

What would you say to someone (perhaps a scientist, or a non-art major) who typically would not wander into the museum looking for abstract painting?

Rochelle: We are starting to appreciate the intersections between arts and sciences more and more, and in teaching it is useful to draw on the arts to help relay difficult concepts about visual and auditory perception. This allows a student to have an experience, and then think about what their own brain may have done to process or create that experience. I often find myself talking about the aesthetic beauty of data that we collect in the lab. A Nobel Prize-winning microscopist, Santiago Ramón y Cajal, was in fact an artist, and his drawings of brain cells that he viewed through the microscope have been a major contribution to neuroscience. Oppermann’s work is also a great example of how arts and sciences can fuel one another.

It's powerful that these paintings are still images but create an active response in the viewer's body. These are visceral works of art that are definitely not static.

Dustin: Absolutely. She skillfully taps into the juxtaposition of luminance and contrast borders in careful combination with equiluminace that can produce the illusion of motion or depth. Motion detection happens to be a very important system for our survival, perhaps more so in an evolutionary sense, because detecting the movement of our bodies in space or the movement of animals and objects in our direction helps ensure our safety. Ultimately, our nervous system combines not only the extracted aspects of visual scenes, but all types of sensory, homeostatic, rewarding, motivated, and emotional information to create our overall experience.

Visual art can powerfully evoke emotional responses, such as happiness or elation. I love hearing how people respond to works of art, and there is of course no right way to respond. The range of responses have been from the feeling confused to feeling pleasure.

Rochelle: Processing the world around us, including our visual world, is hardwired to produce sensations of pleasure in the brain. The pleasure-producing reward system is thought to exist to promote behaviors that enhance our survival.

Dustin: Understanding the visual world taps into the reward system because making sense of what is going on around us improves our chances of success. Visual stimuli, and especially illusions, create initial confusion for our brain, but being able to resolve the confusion by recognizing features activates pleasure centers of the brain. Recognition of patterns, or subject matter, etc., can be very pleasing because it helps us to understand how to behave.