At first glance, Ben Snead‘s paintings of fish, frogs, and insects in appealing patterns seem readymade for nature trail guides. His specimens are drawn with the kind of exact hand known to early biology textbooks in the pre-camera era. Snead quickly moves beyond them, however.

His patterns recall similar sketches done by M.C. Escher some seventy years earlier. Yet, where Escher’s are perfectly geometrical, Snead’s mimic fractalsa very different theory of math and science: that of chaos.

Indeed, chaos theorywhich posits the universe appears ordered at a distance, but is actually infinitely fractured the closer one getswas not even around when Escher made his most famous works. (It turned up sometime during the 1960s thanks to the work of Benoit Mandelbrot.) Artists nowadays are very much its beneficiaries.

Snead has recently created public sculptures of his bio-life patterns; there is also a new subway mosaic of the artist’s work at the Metro Tech stop in Brooklyn. Snead is most evocative, however, when mimicking the smaller-scale kaleidoscope toy (think the kind you’d get for a few bucks at Coney Island or the Wildwood boardwalk as a kid). Damien Hirst’s butterfly kaleidoscope prints delight in this kind of factory-made kitsch. Snead, on the other hand, seems to be reaching for something more mystical. He hand-paints each pattern, turning and reflecting goldfish, grasshoppers, and tree frogs until a kind of metamorphosis happens.

The viewer isn’t treated to another glimpse of the miracle of nature, but instead to an ancient trick, where nature mutates from one thing to the next, so as to show its deep interconnectedness.

We in the west may still want to see biological specimens as inherently separate and, indeed, Snead draws his in that kind of academic style. But the artistas well as contemporaries like Fred Tomaselli and John O’Connoralso seems to be reminding us, like shamans of old, that the universe is infinitely more sacred and connected than we imagine it. (Brian Chidester)

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