Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya: Connective Tissue Through February 22; Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; Saturday, noon-5 p.m.; free. Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art, 702-895-3381.
Connective Tissue by Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya wagers that viewers don't want to just look at artworks. They want to participate and have fun doing it. The excited faces inside UNLV's Barrick Museum—listening, pressing, sitting, touching—suggest that Phingbodhipakkiya is, up to a point, right. Connective Tissue revs curiosity with high-intensity murals and interactive sculptures, installations and videos designed to "connect" with viewers in service of an urgent PSA: Science is fun. What's more, women can do STEM, too.
Feminism and science drive the show's content. A suite of large-format murals depicting women not only wraps the gallery with vibrant colors, it marks territory. Phingbodhipakkiya, trained as both a neuroscientist and a graphic artist, uses clashing hues to paint crisp female figures, while graphic symbols—depicting spores, bacteria or subatomic particles—reinforce science themes. The flat picture planes, matte finish and stylized portraits are reminiscent of pop art, but without its rich irony. The upbeat murals depicting hugging women are sincerely meant to demark a space in which women are welcomed and supported.
Case in point is "In the Company of Great Scientists," with 20 busts of female scientists whose QR labels access online profiles. Similarly, "Beyond Curie" features 31 portraits of accomplished STEM women who come to life with a wave of the "Beyond Curie" app. Interactive installations include "Binary Outcomes" and "Campfire," which illustrate the cascading effects of crowdsourcing with music or light, and "Strange Sequences," which offers museumgoers the chance to weigh in on the ethics of science.
While the clean design, often with mid-mod inspiration, is praiseworthy, the pieces are so message-heavy that they inch the museum toward the classroom. Rather than opening quantum fields of interpretation, as masterful art does, they shut down. "Impulse," for example, appears at first to be an interesting sculpture heaped on the floor like some kind of suspicious, semi-packaged Amazon product. Made from transparent plastic, 10 pressure-sensitive air pillows insulate light tubes wired together like explosives—an association at odds with the cute colors and innocuous padding.
An accompanying panel announces that the sculpture illustrates how myelin sheathing protects neurons: Touching a pillow sends a signal illuminating other pillows, allowing viewers to conceptualize energy exchange in neuronal networks. Case closed.
Connective Tissue provides a laudable community service in terms of promoting women in science and showcasing interactive, pedagogical works rarely encountered in Las Vegas. Schoolchildren who see this show are thrilled and likely marked in positive, durable ways. But because the show is premised on problems that need to be solved—the purview of graphic art and design—and aims an almost messianic messaging at naïve audiences, viewers seeking complexity risk disappointment. The depth, wonder, doubt and soul-searching messiness that delivers fine art achievement just isn't there.