How we see: from philosophy to art, passing through science - Interview with artist Josh Stein

How we see: from philosophy to art, passing through science - Interview with artist Josh Stein

Posted by Valentina Ferro

"Something becomes its other; this other is itself something; therefore it likewise becomes an other, and so on ad infinitum”

cit. C. W. F. Hegel

One aspect of the nature of humanity is the search for understanding the intangible and the sublime. It is the quest for the unknown and the never-ending strive to complete the puzzle of knowledge. Through the centuries, philosophers, artists, and scientists have embarked on the journey. And often the separation between the philosopher, the artist, and the scientist would be thin and blend in an unexpected way.

Such a thin line between roles is what distinguishes artist Josh Stein, whose virtual solo show is featured at Gallery 1064 for the month of May. Josh is not only a prolific and inspiring artist, but he is also a teacher and a researcher with a focus on philosophy and critical theory.

Josh Stein is currently working with (mostly) palette-knifed metallic and fluorescent acrylics on canvas that responds in unexpected ways when observed in natural and ultraviolet light or a combination of the two. An exploration in abstract work, that, while drawing inspiration from both geometry and organic natural shapes, gives the artist the freedom to invocate the real world, without mimicking.

Artist Josh Stein in the studio

“My goal is to trick awareness, have the individual recognize the artifice, and then actively continue to participate in it in order to make the experience unique to them. My projects are thus interested in how perception and context inform real-world experiences of art as art, as a thing which occupies space, time, emotion, and memory.” Josh says regarding his works.

For Josh it is difficult to imagine a life without art: “[it is] akin to breathing for me”. He made his very first still life when he was only 5, learned calligraphy at 10, and hasn’t stopped creating since. His career in art has seen many turns and exploration in different fields, from digital art, tattoos, and graphic design, before ending up in fine art. “None of that was planned; I just never say no to an opportunity because there are far more regrets in never knowing what could have been. It doesn’t all ever turn out, but at least I can say I tried.”

Alongside a career in art, Josh is both an educator and a researcher. Probably motivated by his past as a working-class kid, struggling to be able to plan his own future at a young age, he is an advocate for expanding access to higher education for at-risk populations. When he teaches, he focused on practical skills, the ones he learned himself and that have helped him in life.

His research in critical theory, in particular the Derridean, Birmingham Center, and Frankfurt School styles of cultural analysis, also have a large influence on his work and his creative process. With particular attention to Hegel’s concept of the negation of the negation:

“I would draw a direct line to my interest in breaking down boundaries between different wavelengths of light and 2-, 3-, and 4-D experiences from my work on the Hegelian concept of Aufhebung, or the negation of the negation. In this kind of framework, differences work together to create an overall third overlapping synthesis which “negates the negation” and allows both to be seen differently and in relation.” He writes about the inspiration behind the works.

The solo show featured at Gallery 1064 fully embodies this concept: “the ability to control the interplay between the lights is key to understanding human idiosyncrasy as each viewer creates their own experience; to me, that’s a truly agency-giving moment of interaction.”


This sensibility for light, wavelengths, light-matter interaction and the human perception of reality reminded us of the inextricable connection with science that arises whenever we engage in a conversation to question and understand the world.

The artist himself shares a similar opinion and thinks that “it’s a false dichotomy to see art and science in opposition when the actual history of both had them not just as siblings but as twins up until about five hundred years ago. Natural philosophers drew no such distinctions because mnemonic devices like categories can take on a life of their own. I stand with E.O. Wilson on the idea of “consilience,” a re-uniting of the same impulse to know and understand the universe expressed in two different ways, no different than any other fundamental particle in the pantheon of the Standard Model.”

And he follows with the complaint that too often science is seen in popular culture as dealing only with the external and macro world, instead of a natural component of human existence. Therefore fine art becomes the obvious link to describe the ephemeral. The bridge between the outside and the inner worlds, the connection between the realm of philosophy and the sphere of science.

When experiencing Josh Stein’s work, one is transported to a world of questions and science. It is a continuous inquiry into the nature of light, color, vision, and perceptions. And yet, it was not an active attempt by the artist to portray science. Once again, art performs the role of a filter for the experiences of the author. Or in Josh’s words: “a creator is a lens, and that lens is fashioned by experience, I would say my experiences in scientific disciplines, theories, and philosophies of approach; my research interests in Science Fiction as a genre and cultural object; my adaptation of certain kinds of database and code designs to creative production all certainly leave a mark. I think it’s more subtext and part of the process, but as creators simply do the act of channeling energy to create, I will leave it to others to decide how much of an impact these experiences have on the work itself.”

In fact, his journey into the metallic and fluorescent paint that make up the visual illusions in his work is accidental, and driven by past experiences. From his graphic design background, focused mostly on wine labels, he had plenty of metallic markers to play with. And that eventually evolved into metallic acrylics, which Josh loves “the way in which they make the work seem to vibrate off of the canvas, taking on a three-dimensionality that clearly cannot literally be there and yet seems to be.”

That 3D illusion prompted further curiosity about the ways the eyes make meaning from what it sees. And that curiosity led to experimenting with fluorescent acrylics. The works play not only on the use of natural and UV light to transform the art, often creating a visceral shift in perception, but also on the mastery of combining the fluorescent and the metallic paints. In fact, the metallic paint serves both as a way to bounce light off the canvas but also to block the light emanating from it when the UV fluorescence is activated. This leads to the surprising way the art “jumps” at the viewer.

Tropical Camo - painting by Josh Stein, in two different lighting conditions

[I am] no different than any other magician: my magic is just a different mix of time and space.

This very intentional layering of materials sprout from “an interactive, iterative, evolutionary process”. Josh further comments: “many echoes piece-to-piece, but there is also always a certain amount of newness in the sense of a new pattern, a new strategy for occupying space and time. I think of each series as a universe unto itself, with its own set of rules for how the absence becomes a presence, and I then merge those universes in different ways as I attempt to see if an authentic combination is possible. [...] The sum of the parts is greater as a whole: a true synthesis has happened, and a new universe with a new series of combined rules pushes my process onwards.”

What is most interesting about this process is how natural it feels to the artist. To the point that once again, it drives a parallel to how nature creates itself and the disciplines that study that process: “this is the process of how the universe itself functions under several different names which various scientific and humanistic disciples seek to understand. As a creator, I tap into the universe’s energy and channel it for others to appreciate, but the underlying process of creation isn’t really mine any more than it is the nautilus’s.” Furthermore: “I try to work in that fashion: repetition with difference, open to possibility and willing to go down blind or dead-end paths, sometimes retreating, sometimes making random leaps. Sort of sounds like evolution, or at least a process of change, no?”

One recurring theme in the collection is the focus on the experience of the viewer. The collection, in fact, results in a very interactive work, where the collector does half the work. From one side, the creator comes “to understand about how context informs meaning, that the same line can mean different things in different literal lights. Rather than “correcting for” the equivalent of red- or blue-shift, [experimenting with] what happens when we explore continuities between these different frequencies of meaning, how they harmonize and create higher orders of meaning and understanding.” From the other side, the viewer: the energy that is channeled in the art needs to be seen by the eye. The collector is invited to play with the art, “to participate in the continuation of the trick. ” A trick akin to that of the magician: “my magic is just a different mix of time and space.” says Josh.

One major focus of curating Josh Stein Solo Show for Gallery 1064 was to help recreate that playful connection with the viewer and the interaction that comes with that. The collection, featured on Gallery 1064’s homepage for May 2022, should be enjoyed by playing the background soundscape. The music was written directly by the artist, and it provides a different way to enjoy the art. To further enhance the experience, we have created a dedicated page, where selected work from the collection can be observed in an immersive mode. The distractions from the website are removed; one is left with the artworks alone, with the background soundscapes, and with a virtual way to shift the light from natural to UV so that the artwork is not just the one you first see but also the combination of all the artworks in the continuous spectrum of wavelengths that can ever be seen. A true four-dimensional and immersive experience, curated by the artist, and brought to you by Gallery 1064, that you can visit here.

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