Summer Brennan can recognize a Vincent van Gogh painting by its wispy, vibrant brushstrokes. A series of loopy spirals or spindly legs? That’s probably Louise Bourgeois.
When Dolly Parton posted a grid of four photos of herself labeled “LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, and Tinder” — ingeniously captioned “Get you a woman who can do it all” — she may not have predicted the extent of the Internet’s fascination with grouping things into categories. The meme is officially having a viral moment, with celebrities from Mindy Kaling to Janet Jackson creating their own interpretations of themselves, their pets, or inanimate objects as each of the four social media platforms.
And, since art is but an imitation of life, museums, auction houses, and artists have stepped up to the challenge, too. “Get you a museum that can do it all,” said MFA Boston and London’s Natural History Museum in the captions to their Dolly Parton memes. Two versions by the anonymous Instagram account and art world éminence grise @JerryGogosian flaunt the many guises of Klaus Biesenbach and Larry Gagosian; another tells a brief history of Jeff Koons’s career, from shiny, high-powered $91 million rabbit sculpture (LinkedIn) to shapeless mound of Play-Doh (Facebook, obviously.)
In its ongoing and genuinely admirable effort to try to make Old Master paintings cool, Sotheby’s shows us “the many faces” of their upcoming Masters Weeks sales, and the Museo de Arte de Ponce in Puerto Rico highlights important works from their permanent collection.
Our favorite art-themed #DollyPartonChallenge memes below.
The art of getting DNA out of decades-old pickled snakes – Phys.org
Two levels underground, Chicago’s Field Museum has a secret bunker. The sub-basement Collections Resource Center houses millions of biological specimens for scientists around the world to use in their research, including countless bottles and jars containing pickled fish, lizards, and snakes, arranged like a library. Many of these specimens are decades or even centuries old, near-perfectly preserved by a combination of formalin and alcohol. But the process that preserves tissues often destroys or at least makes acquiring DNA for modern studies very difficult, which is bad news for scientists who study genetic relationships between organisms. A new study in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, however, reveals new approaches for getting and maximizing usable DNA from decades-old pickled specimens, and uses these techniques to solve a long-standing mystery about a small snake from the island of Borneo.
“As a true crime aficionado, it reminds me of how people didn’t take DNA samples when a crime was committed in the 1960s, because nobody could have predicted that one day DNA samples would let you pinpoint who committed a crime,” says Sara Ruane, assistant curator of herpetology at the Field Museum and the study’s senior author. “These older museum specimens are sometimes the only available examples of a species, but they weren’t preserved with DNA in mind— this paper is about how we can squeeze every bit of information possible out of them.”
The project was born of the dissertation research of Justin Bernstein when he was Ruane’s student at Rutgers University-Newark. “My primary study is on a group of snakes, called homalopsids or mud snakes, that live in South and Southeast Asia, New Guinea, and Australia,” says Bernstein, the paper’s lead author. “They’re really fascinating; they live in muddy, aquatic environments, and there are 56 species of them. We use DNA to study their evolutionary history, to try to describe new species, and to learn what happened to these groups over tens of millions of years that led to the diversity we see today.”
For this paper, there was one animal in particular that Bernstein and Ruane were trying to place into a family group, a two-foot-long greenish-brown snake called Hydrablabes periops, aka the olive small-eyed snake. It’s found on Borneo, a large island east of mainland Malaysia and northwest from Australia that contains parts of Malaysia and Indonesia and the entire nation of Brunei. Based on its appearance, scientists had suggested two different families that it might be a part of. Analyzing its DNA could reveal its closest relatives and thus, its family, but that was easier said than done. “About half of mud snake diversity and all Hydrablabes vouchers are known from older specimens that were chemically treated, and this chemical treatment breaks down the DNA,” says Bernstein.
Part of the process of preserving an animal in alcohol is “fixing” it with a substance called formalin, a solution of formaldehyde gas and water, that makes its tissues rubbery and rigid. Unfortunately, the DNA in its cells gets altered as well. “It does something called crosslinking, which binds up the DNA,” says Ruane. “If you want to study its DNA, you need to undo or try to force the DNA out from those crosslinks.”
Studying the olive small-eyed snake meant taking small samples of liver tissue from some of the few specimens in the United States, both from the Field Museum’s collections. One from 1964, and the other from a 1993 collecting trip by the Field’s then-curator Robert Inger and his wife Tan Fui Lian.
Such old specimens required new lab techniques. Normally, getting DNA out of a tissue sample involves adding digestive enzymes that break apart the tissue, leaving the DNA behind, and heating it to 130 ℉ for several hours. “We had to modify the way we got the DNA out by making it hotter for longer and using more of these digestive enzymes,” says Ruane. These more extreme preparation methods have been effective for other snakes in previous studies, but the resulting genetic analysis still contained lots of gaps for Borneo’s Hydrablabes snake specimen.
“The chemicals used to preserve the snakes sheared their DNA into shorter pieces of code, which made them hard to compare with longer, more complete genes from other specimens,” says Bernstein. “The first software that I used made it hard to understand how much fragmented DNA there was across the study specimens, but switching to a different software that visualized the pieces of genetic code made it easier to see where there were problems.” And even the smaller, more fragmented pieces of code could be added to larger, published datasets to help build an evolutionary tree.
An important aspect of this paper for Bernstein was being transparent about the difficulties of using older specimens and the troubleshooting required to study them. “I wanted to show scientists that you can still do work with these specimens, it just requires a bit of finagling,” he says. “On a broader level, the study is really showing how to leverage the data you do obtain and how you can combine it with previously published datasets to investigate some really cool hypotheses.”
As for the Bornean snake at the heart of the study, the researchers were able to determine that it’s a member of the family Natricidae, which contains distant relatives such as the North American garter snakes. Which might not seem like a big deal, but “knowing that a particular species is part of a certain group can tell us a lot about biogeography and about how life on Earth has changed over time,” says Ruane.
And beyond the study of snakes, she notes that overall, “this project underscores the importance of museum collections, because you never know what you’ll be able to learn from specimens in the future.”
Maximizing molecular data from low-quality fluid-preserved specimens in natural history collections, Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution (2022). DOI: 10.3389/fevo.2022.893088.
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'Wordle' fan? The National Gallery of Art has launched a copycat. – The Washington Post
But after a few days of playing “Artle,” Brennan, a writer based in Paris, began to notice some holes in her art knowledge. For 30 years, she has indulged her love of visual arts by visiting galleries, reading books and attending shows. So when she couldn’t identify a piece by French photographer Eugène Atget, it felt like an embarrassing lapse.
“It does give you some self-awareness when you realize that all the artists you know right away are like White 19th-century artists, that maybe it’s time to expand some of your art appreciation,” Brennan said.
One of the latest “Wordle” copycats challenges players not with letters, but with images plucked from the National Gallery of Art. The popular daily word game, which was purchased by the New York Times for seven figures in January, has sparked dozens of spinoffs: “Squabble” (a Wordle battle royal), “Herdle” (for the musically minded), and even “Lewdle” (for profanity experts).
“Artle” begins by showing players a piece of art — a painting, photograph or sculpture — from the National Gallery of Art’s 150,000-piece collection, including whimsical paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe and somber Roy DeCarava photographs. Players have four chances to guess the artist. Unlike “Wordle,” there are no hints, although the art becomes progressively easier to identify as players strike out. Players can then share their results with friends through text messages or on social media.
Mary Gregory, an art critic based in New York, began playing “Artle” as soon as it launched last monthand it’s now become a ritual. Every day, Gregory and her husband return to the gallery’s “Artle” website to test their art aptitude and extend their untouched winning streak.
“It’s fun. It’s a little challenge. And, you know what? If you get it wrong at the end, they tell you who it was,” she said. “These are in the collection of the National Gallery, and the National Gallery belongs to everybody.”
Steven Garbarino, a product manager at the gallery, began developing the game after noticing that people were searching for “Art Wordle” online but that no such game existed. It was the worst possible time. In late March, the museum’s staff was busy with “Afro-Atlantic Histories,” the gallery’s largest exhibition since the start of the pandemic. Garbarino worried that launching a gaming app would be seen as a distraction.
To his surprise, National Gallery of Art Director Kaywin Feldman quickly jumped on board. It took little more than a month to build the game, and it quickly began attracting an audience, with players in nearly every country. It has been played more than 1 million times and has 30,000 daily players. The game has increased traffic to the museum’s website by 125 percent.
“You can catch a little bit of lightning in a bottle and see cascading results,” Garbarino said. “We don’t have to spend 12 months developing a huge strategy and positioning plan. We can build something small [like ‘Artle’] that engages the audience.”
Projects such as “Artle” reflect a new vision for the National Gallery of Art: a desire to quickly reach new, more diverse audiences. Since being named director in 2019, Feldman has updated the museum’s mission statement and priorities. The product management team, which developed the game, has doubled in size, including adding more software engineers and digital consultants under Feldman’s leadership. “The bulk of our funding comes from the American taxpayers, so we owe it to them to give them the greatest art experience they can have. And the nation is a very diverse place. We want to focus on the great richness of the diversity of the American people and better reflect the nation,” Feldman said in an interview with Washingtonian last year.
The team worked closely with the gallery’s education department to choose a mix of famous, easily identifiable art and more obscure pieces. Within the game, for example, Georgia O’Keeffe paintings are considered easy to identify, while those by James McNeill Whistler are a little more difficult. Meanwhile, a piece by Elizabeth Catlett, a Black sculptor and graphic artist, is considered difficult to pick out.
The gallery wants the artists displayed in the game to reflect a diversity of races and gender, Garbarino said. “Often some of the lowest success rates are on artists of diverse backgrounds, artists of color or women artists,” he said.
It’s a challenge. Of the 157,553 objects in the gallery’s collection, only 2.3 percent are by non-White artists, and 8.1 percent are by female artists. In the first 45 days of “Artle,” 17.8 percent of the objects used in the game were by non-White artists and 22.2 percent were by female artists.
“It’s a fine balance between bringing up artists that we think should be having a higher priority among the public while maintaining that ease of introduction to the game,” Garbarino said. “If it happens to be two days in a row where it’s a dead White man and someone is like, ‘Hey, every time I come here, it’s only a dead White man.’ It’s like, no, if you look at the broad spectrum of all the artists, it’s much more diverse. But it’s difficult to communicate that in one day.”
The well of famous artists will soon run dry, Garbarino said, and “Artle” will have to begin repeating artists or introducing its players to more unfamiliar names.
That could drive away players like Brennan’s husband who, she said, calls “Artle” “torture” and often simply offers Picasso as the answer to every image to end the game quickly.
It turns out, “Artle” may not be for everyone.
CATHERINE SHEPHERD: Connecting through art – Saltwire
In recent years we’ve come to understand the importance of arts and culture in our lives. Art helps us to connect with ourselves and others. It’s an excellent way to express yourself that is known to positively impact our well-being, especially for those living with dementia.
Artful Afternoon is a dementia-friendly program offered by the Alzheimer Society of Nova Scotia in partnership with the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia for people living with dementia and their care partners. Participants are encouraged to tap into their creativity and reflect with one another while being able to make their own works of art.
The sessions provide a stress-free environment of fun where everyone involved can laugh, create and connect with one another.
For many, art is completely new to them, while others find themselves reconnecting with something they’ve always loved to do. Participants take a sense of pride in their art regardless of their experience.
Participants don’t have to be in-person to enjoy an Artful Afternoon. Sessions are offered virtually on Zoom for those who live across the province to enjoy – materials needed for the session are provided. Sessions are facilitated by Alzheimer Society of Nova Scotia staff and a professional artist from the Art Gallery. It includes a guided tour of the gallery followed by an art session. Recordings of the virtual sessions are shared on our website for those who are interested at www.alzheimer.ca/ns/virtualartfulafternoon.
“It’s wonderful that we’re able to offer both in-person and virtual formats where no prior art experience is necessary,” said Calandra Kandziora, Client Services Coordinator at the Alzheimer Society of Nova Scotia.
“The relaxed environment allows participants to connect with one another and their care partners.”
The sessions include a tour of a collection at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia where artist and instructor, Lux Habrich, shares her knowledge and information.
Everyone attending feels that they are part of the group, even if they aren’t there in person. After learning about the collection, people from across the province can share and discuss.
At the end of the session, Lux provides some instruction on how participants may use the materials in art kits provided by the gallery. Many people even use the materials outside of the sessions.
“Facilitating the program for the past four years has been hugely influential for me personally,” said Lux. “Not only has it deepened my relationship with my own creative practice, but I’ve been able to witness over and over again the immense power art making and appreciation play in our overall well-being, sense of autonomy and community connectedness.”
We know that maintaining connections and trying new activities are important parts of living well with dementia. The program reduces stigma and myths by bringing together people living with dementia, care partners, staff and volunteers in a community setting.
Meaningful social activity is important for everyone, but this need is increased for people living with dementia and their care partners.
The program has received glowing reviews from its participants.
“It’s a fun activity to do with my parent. I think it’s a good opportunity for him to get out and do something different, social, and enjoyable. It gives us something to talk about as well and creates good memories for us.”
If you are hesitant about dipping your toes into the program but enjoy art, the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia offers virtual tours on their website www.artgalleryofnovascotia.ca/virtualtour.
To find out more and to register for Artful Afternoon, visit alzheimer.ca/ns/artfulafternoon or call our Infoline at 1-800-611-6345.
Catherine Shepherd is a regional co-ordinator, Cape Breton and provincial lead, first link outreach, with the Alzheimer Society of Nova Scotia.
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