|"Bats have feelings too" coat, a haptic coat for the blind. Designed by Lynne Bruning (lbruning.com). Stylist: Courtney Snider. Model: Ellyette. (Carl Snider)|
Bill Stoehr is more interested in what's captivating.
"I think beauty is a dysfunctional term," he says. "What most people think of as beauty is one of their own personal criteria in some subset of what's captivating."
Stoehr is a Boulder-based painter. But he's intrigued by neuroscience: how art expresses itself in the brain, and how genetics and life experiences weave together to influence what we consider beautiful or interesting.
He organized a recent sell-out series at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, delving into how humans create, perceive and appreciate art -- from theater to music, and down to fashion.
There are certain aesthetics that appear "hard-wired." Stoehr says. Humans appear to be genetically predisposed to be attracted to volumetric curves over straight lines. ("What would Darwin think of that?" Stoehr asks with a laugh.)
But how do we explain everything else? Take Lady Gaga, he says. Not everyone would describe her as beautiful, but who can dispute that she's interesting? And in that, she has become a fashion icon.
"It turns out as humans, brain scientists are discovering that we have a built-in desire and interest and are captivated by something that's ambiguous or that is mysterious or creates a puzzle," Stoehr says.
In other words, what is beautiful in Iowa might not be considered beautiful in Nigeria, due to cultural influences, but underneath all of the attraction is the notion of mystery.
Some scientists believe that's why Michaelangelo didn't finish about two-thirds of his sculptures. He wasn't bored or distracted by another project, Stoehr surmises.
Maybe he did finish them.
"He left something for us to finish, let us complete the puzzle," Stoehr says. "When we see something ambiguous or unfinished, we finish it with our own perfect image, and then we create something that may be better than what the artist could have done, because it's something that appeals to us."
Art and science are not opposites or enemies; in fact, one can enhance the other, as the emerging field of neuroaesthetics teaches.
Award-winning fashion designer Lynne Bruning (lbruning.com) is proof of that. Bruning, of Denver has a degree in neurophysiology. And in architecture. She considers herself equally a scientist as an artist. Which, in a sense, is redundant. Bruning does not see a difference in the two.
"In science, there's an inherent beauty in it. When you look through a microscope, you're privy enough to understand how nature comes together on a cellular level," she says.
Architecture, fashion and art all use the same building blocks, she says.
"Everything's the same. There's nothing new here. You jump scale and you change palettes," she says. "That's it."
Simple. Sure. Like a coat Bruning designed called "Bats have feelings, too." The gorgeous red coat is packed with ultrasonic range finders that constantly sense the environment and feed it into a microcontroller, which activates vibrating motors so the wearer knows when something is in the way.
In other words, it's a fashionable haptic coat for the blind. A wearable cane.
Bruning specializes in technology-based clothing and textiles, including a handcrafted blacklight-reactive 1870s-influenced evening gown, with a corset and bustle illuminated by ultraviolet LED lights. (It took her one hour to weave one inch of fabric, and the dress has 120 inches of fabric.)
As Bruning sees it, something is captivating when it's a fresh interpretation of something you already know. Take her floor-length lace evening coat called "What golden webs we weave." It uses a traditional method of making lace, using nontraditional fibers, such as novelty yarns, metallic threads, ribbons and wool roving -- inspired by a spider web.
"Something can be captivating to me, whether I look at a computer code so elegantly crafted that it's beautifully simple -- just exquisite -- or a painting that's done," Bruning says. "The craftsmanship can be in any discipline, but it has to have rigor and a fresh interpretation."