Presented in collaboration with McMaster’s Department of Psychology, Neuroscience and Behaviour, the exhibition “Synesthesia: Art and the Mind” aims to contextualize artists and their works in terms of this half-understood term referring to the joining of the senses. The paintings and drawings gathered for the show—some by known synesthetes, others by artists tangentially linked to the phenomenon—are united by visual commonalities outlined in the scientist Heinrich Klüver’s assessment of “form constants”: a specific set of recurring shapes and lines.
While Klüver’s documented efforts to pin down synesthetic symptoms in concrete terms are included in this show, “Synesthesia” remains an open project, one that invites the viewer to freely associate the myriad curving gestures and affinities for landscape present in the works while highlighting the difficulty of identifying synesthesia at a time when the scale and nature of the phenomenon remains uncertain.
This search for legitimacy is an acknowledgement that the possible motives for diagnosing artists as synesthetes are not entirely clear. Questions arise around the status of the synesthetic painting as opposed to a work that engages in a merely metaphoric use of colour, and whether such distinctions necessarily set synesthetic work apart from abstraction as a whole. In an essay in the exhibition catalogue, Daphne Maurer proposes that the unique cortical connections observed in synesthetes are pathways that date from birth but are otherwise pruned during typical human development; if so, artworks’ depictions of these interconnected sensory experiences are capable of speaking to early memory in the non-synesthetic viewer.
Maurer, along with the art historian Greta Berman and the artist Carol Steen, have, in surveying synesthesia, laid out a largely historical canon that includes van Gogh and Kandinsky; the work of the latter, in particular, seems to follow Klüver’s form constants virtually point by point. Tom Thomson’s Clouds (“The Zeppelins”) is an especially striking inclusion; in this painting the sky is broken into physically threatening, almost architectural fragments of air. This transformation of open space into a site of cacophony is also discernible in the American painter Charles Burchfield’s sketches and vibrant watercolours; both attest to his unique sensitivity to nature and ability to generate startling visual spectacles from his observations.
Contemporary synesthetic practices are represented in the show too, in the work of the painter Carol Steen (also a co-curator of the show) and Marcia Smilack, whose abstract photographs read as scientific documents of an experience that lies beyond reason; they are layered with frenetic bursts of light and are uncannily alive with sound. “Synesthesia” represents a remarkable joining of lively visions and much spirited noise, undercut by an analyst’s need for the hard edge of meaning.