The art of gadgetry

Light boxes. Electrophoresis gels. Enzymes. DNA images.

No, we aren't taking inventory of laboratory equipment.

These are components of Paul Vanouse's "Evidence…Works," which will be exhibited at UC Irvine's Claire Trevor School of the Arts starting Thursday. Hosted by the Beall Center for Art + Technology, the artist's "BioArt," as he calls it, will be on display until May 4.

A resident of Buffalo, N.Y., Vanouse demonstrated an early interest in artwork that employed interactive machines. Driven by curiosity, he honed in on technology that surrounded him and imbued it with creative flair.

"My intention has always been to use new technology and force it to be an artistic medium," said Vanouse, 45. "We expect technology to tell us something essential about our identities and lives, and instead I show that it is a much more plastic form of representation than people understand."

Inspired by Jenny Holzer, an American conceptual artist whose innovative LED signs popped up in the '80s and '90s, Vanouse switched over to biological artwork nearly 15 years ago. A believer that materials themselves are loaded with meanings, he creates installation pieces with a social commentary that is both provocative and critical.

His projects, typically constructed from multiple individual pieces, can take nearly two years to finish.

"My pieces are ephemeral and when you make things in new mediums, a lot of collectors and museums are not even sure how to display the objects, let alone to conserve or establish their value," said Vanouse, who has funded his ventures himself or with the help of grants and rewards.

At the Beall Center show, his largest in the United States, Vanouse, an associate professor of art at the University of Buffalo, will present a mixture of contemporary forms — a live experiment, some static pieces that are already complete and a fully functioning laboratory where he or his collaborators will work on new projects.

The idea behind "Evidence…Works" is to provide a venue for people to see work being produced in real time. The artist will be on-site at an opening reception from 6 to 9 p.m. Thursday and at a roundtable discussion from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday. He will return again in mid-March.

"Paul's work is presented in a very engaging manner," said Artistic Director David Familian, who has been familiar with Vanouse's work since the '90s. "It's definitely a hybrid between a scientific investigation and an artistic point of view with which he reveals the subject matter's importance. Through their visual richness, his pieces encourage people to think about their philosophical importance."

This show is one in a series of Black Box Projects — a university-led initiative by which artists can team up with various campuswide research departments. In this case, Vanouse collaborated with biochemistry and criminology students and faculty, Familian said.

The oldest piece in the exhibition is called "Latent Figure Protocol," in which bacterial DNA in a reactive gel takes the shape of Earth's continents.

"Suspect Inversion Center" chronicles the conceptual artist's efforts to create a reproduction of the DNA images used in the 1995 O.J. Simpson murder trial, with his own DNA.

According to Vanouse, this case brought DNA fingerprinting into public discourse and served as a pivotal juncture in terms of DNA evidence in the courtroom. Reconstructing these historical DNA images allows him to discuss their complexity.

"In courts, we can have a video of somebody being beaten, but somehow that, a photograph and even eyewitness accounts, can be inconclusive," Vanouse said. "We've given DNA images total authority — they're the gold standard of identification — yet nobody knows much about them, and very few people are asking questions. It's the most powerful tool of subjectification at our disposal, and I wound up feeling like somebody's got to be able to mount a critique."

Twitter: @RMahbubani

If you go:

What: "Evidence…Works" by Paul Vanouse

Where: Beall Center for Art + Technology, Claire Trevor School of the Arts, 712 Arts Plaza, UC Irvine

When: Noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday; noon to 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, Feb. 7 to May 4; closed March 19 and 30

Cost: Free

Information: or (949) 824-6206

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