Pictures from His Exhibition

Dennis Ashbaugh makes paintings that riff on DNA, biotechnology, and microscopic sea life. Science fiction writer Bruce Sterling decodes the idiosyncratic artist.

Dennis Ashbaugh believes passionately that abstract paintings should be about real-life subjects, that they should matter. Struggling to come to grips with transformations in science and our culture, he has explored in his work the rapid exploitation of genetics, the sinister impact of computer viruses, the ecological role of tiny plankton, by whose mercy we humans manage to breathe, and the pervasive reality of industrial decay—stains, layers, ambiguity, melancholy. Ashbaugh is a complex, idiosyncratic artist whose favorite hobby is surfing.

Born in Red Oak, Iowa, in 1946, Ashbaugh grew up in the Midwest and on the West Coast, was educated at Cal State, Fullerton, and made a career in New York, working out of a studio on Greene Street in SoHo. He enjoyed early success, receiving solo shows at the Whitney and the Seat­tle Art Museum in the seventies, and his paint­ings can be found in many prom­inent collections. Now the Institut Va­­len­cià d’Art Modern, on Spain’s Mediterranean coast, is staging a major retrospective that surveys the past two decades of his career.

For me, Ashbaugh’s most compelling works are the portraits of DNA he began in the late eighties. These were inspired by gel chromatography, the scientific process whereby genetic material, oozing slowly through a thick gelatin, separates to reveal a portrait of its constituent parts. It’s ab­­stract art performed by a molecule.

Since the colossal discovery of the tiny dou­ble helix, DNA has commonly been por­trayed as twin ribbons, elegant, twisting, and elongated, closely linked by hundreds of chemical rungs. That double helix is a gor­geous thing and one of the icons of scientific modernity, but organic acids are not actually made of pretty ribbons. Nor is DNA a set of Euclidean red, white, and blue atomic spheres assembled on a laboratory bench. That’s a useful way to display genetic chemistry, though it abjectly fails to portray the physical reality of DNA which, in vivo, is knotted and kinky and vibrates violently in Brownian motion.

Furthermore, DNA is alive, always peeling off proteins, repairing damage, and indiscreetly zippering open for purposes of reproduction. Our flesh is lit­erally heir to this stuff. We are mortal, and our DNA is never deader than when a scientific illustrator pretends it’s some abstract set of neatly stacked atoms. The impastoed goo of a heavily laden paintbrush closely approaches the true nature of the substance.

Ashbaugh, on a fundamental level, un­­derstands this. His DNA canvases, which have distant roots in New York Abstract Expressionism, are tormented, decadent and painterly: Repeating stacks of thick, blotchy rectangles percolate in vivid, watery backgrounds. They’re also very big because although DNA is extremely small, our awareness of it is a huge advent. These paintings aspire to relieve the impersonal aridity of gene mapping and make it a part our culture—and to raise consciousness of its potentially frightening implications.

There is a certain waggish whimsy in Ash­­baugh’s work. A spoofing title like wysiwyg, the computer-geek acronym for What You See Is What You Get, takes on a rainbow of irony in the context of human genetics. When DNA is really cooking, the outcome is not a gel chromatograph but a living being—someone who can ponder and savor oil on canvas.

Ashbaugh has often played the role of artistic hacker, not only portraying DNA codes but also crossbreeding modern masters to produce genetically engineered hybrid offspring, such as his blown-up re-creation of Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie, overlaid with a classic Pollock drip painting. His most recent works, inspired by microscopic marine life, resemble camouflage patterns in bright, pop-y colors. They are the product of a world, he seems to say, where genetic information, once so arcane, is becoming an everyday commodity. Will we, traceable by our DNA, have to hide from the consequences of what we know about ourselves? Maybe the surfer on the waves of change can take lessons from the quiet, timeless creatures in the deep abyss.

"Dennis Ashbaugh: The Aesthetics of Biology" is on view at the Institut Valencià d’Art Modern (118 Guillem de Castro, Valencià, Spain; 34-96/386-3000; ivam.es) through November 18.