Inside the artist Greg Dunn’s Philadelphia studio, the acrid smells of solvent and dye hang in the air. Glittering dust swirls up when Dunn pops open a jar of metal powder, and an air compressor roars in the background. The 44-year-old has been comfortable with harsh chemicals and industrial noise since he started out researching biology in scientific laboratories 23 years ago, and now he surrounds himself with such elements while making breathtaking art that highlights structures of the brain.
Dunn, who grew up in Los Angeles, studied molecular biology and ethnomusicology, or the examination of music and its cultural contexts, as an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley. Performance art became his first creative outlet, and he played instruments including trombone, guitar and the Turkish kanun harp in an industrial band in the Bay Area and Seattle rock group with jazz and world music influences. But while studying neuroscience for a PhD at the University of Pennsylvania, he quit performing music and embraced painting.
Dunn leaned on experience attending figure drawing classes and designing album covers to build a parallel career to science, putting in extra hours on the weekends with his art after long days pipetting DNA. He eventually started selling prints and securing commissions. After graduating with his PhD in 2011, he pivoted to making art full time.
One of the central forms of Dunn’s work came to him after seeing classic images of the brain in graduate school. Human brains contain around 86 billion neurons packed into one giant mass, and understanding these types of cells as more than a messy clump has long challenged scientists. An Italian scientist in the 1800s pioneered a method using silver nitrate to randomly stain a few neurons so that they appeared to be floating in an empty yellow field of space. For Dunn, the interplay of delicate branching silhouettes and empty space evoked Japanese scroll and screen paintings of the Edo period, and he created some of his first works based on this connection. His paintings are not direct copies of the microscopic brain but instead artistic renditions of its anatomy.
In one of Dunn’s signature techniques, drawing from the canon of East Asian art, he lays down delicate sheets of gold leaf the size of sticky notes onto a layer of specialized glue. He says the lasting shine and beauty of gold leaf help draw attention to his recreated structures of the brain, and the precious metal’s value adds a sense of gravitas to the subject. He also uses dyes and metal powders to add color and shine to his creations and help catch the viewer’s eye.
To bring his pieces to life, Dunn often blows air to manipulate ink or glue into botanical-looking branches. He recalls the day in 2006 when he was inspired to use this method. A fly landed on the page he was painting, and after blowing the fly to shoo it off the page, he realized the messy designs left behind looked a lot like neurons. The technique captures the biological randomness of a brain cell’s development and introduces spontaneity in a way traditional painting may not.
Dunn hopes that his portraits of the brain arrest viewers with their striking shapes and make them realize how the organ in our heads lies at the heart of every moment of thinking, feeling and breathing. We spoke online with Dunn in Sofia, Bulgaria, where he spends part of the year, to learn more about his inspiration and focus.
Do you incorporate the spontaneity from your musical training into your visual art?
It’s definitely there. For pieces that are complicated, there are so many steps involved that some of them will involve more spontaneous creation, like the splattered ink paintings that I do. I developed this technique to blow ink around on a page, and the turbulence of the air and the random variables that are applied cause the ink to split up into these tendrils, similar on a conceptual level to how neurons grow under a set of random variables.
How do you create the blown-ink designs?
Initially, I used a fat straw. The thinner the straw, the bigger the headache at the end of the day. I’ve come home with many a splitting headache. With a regular straw—like when you’re playing a wind instrument—the humidity in your breath will collect. And you’ll eventually be spitting all over your precious painting. So I started making these tools where it’s a wider diameter piece lined inside with felt or some sort of material that can absorb moisture. Though more often these days, I use compressed air with airbrushes, which is a lot easier on the headaches.
What similarities do you draw between science and art?
I think the most important connection between the two of them is how to compose ideas. One of the most important things I took from grad school was really developing that sense of how to do thought experiments, how to iterate ideas in your mind so that you don’t end up wasting time on experiments or art that can be expensive in terms of time and money.
And at the heart of good science, like at the heart of good art, is being able to communicate effectively to others. How do you construct an idea and present it in a way which resonates with somebody, logically or emotionally?
Which artists have inspired you over the course of your career?
Gustav Klimt is definitely one of the biggest influences. I like his fusion of Art Nouveau and Japanese influences, and I love his composition style. Art Nouveau in general was a big influence on me, as is Edo-period Japan.
Ito Jakuchu, a Japanese painter from the 1700s, is also one of my favorites. He really brings a degree of eccentricity into his painting. Aside from being just an absolute master with a brush, his paintings have a whole lot of character to them. He’s one of these people who is really good at respecting the old and searching for the new. That’s something that I try to bring into my work as well.
What do you want viewers to take away from your art?
Not a logical explanation of what the brain is, but more of an intuitive understanding of the brain. All this anatomical information is included in the art, but what I want is to help people appreciate the fact that our brains are miracles, and we just take them for granted—every single day, every single instant of our existence. They’re the most fundamental thing about us, and many people don’t know anything about them.
You visit the National Museum of Natural History with your kids to see the rock and mineral collections. What do you like about the collections?
It’s just nature, right? The creative potential of chemistry is so varied, and the designs are so bizarre sometimes. Some of my favorite pieces there are the Widmanstätten meteorites, these iron-nickel meteorites that cool by one degree every million years after they’ve blown out from a remnant of a supernova. These isotopes of nickel crystallize in this pattern of only three angles, and it looks like alien architecture. Things like that can be really good inspiration, both for color and form.
Are there any current projects that you’re excited to talk about?
I’ve been working on one project, a series called Brain States, which is about neurodegenerative and neuropsychiatric conditions. It’s more humanist than a lot of what I’ve done up to this point.
On some level, I feel like I’ve said what I want to say about anatomy. I’ll continue to do that type of work, but I want to move more into the synthesis of humanity and the brain: How does the brain produce the human experience, and what are the ramifications of that? I think one of the reasons I find this series to be difficult is that the introspection involved can be hairy.
I started the series on a piece called Bipolar, which is probably the one that I relate to the most strongly. The piece has dug up a lot. When you’re trying to say something meaningful about a theme which touches so many people in such an intimate way, you really have to be careful and respect the subject matter.
Finding the right tone can be challenging sometimes, because you definitely don’t want to trivialize it. I want to voice what people’s struggle might be like, but I want to include the element of hope as well. So it’s a balance. It’s sort of risky, and definitely a different direction than I’ve been going in, but I’m curious as to what will happen.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.