EMERGENCE: Smail Gallery Exhibit by Macalester Graduate Karina Li


Photo courtesy of Kayla Steinberg’16.

Karina Li. Photo courtesy of Kayla Steinberg'16.
Karina Li. Photo courtesy of Kayla Steinberg’16.

As you walk into Smail Gallery in Olin Rice, you may have noticed, on your right, a beautiful and compelling exhibition by recent Macalester graduate Karina Li ’14. Last year, professor Mark Davis asked Karina Li, a biology major and artist, to create an exhibition for the gallery—a place where art and science can coalesce. Though a little daunted at first, she admitted when speaking to her visitors during her opening exhibition, Li accepted the invitation. With this exhibition, she’s the first student artist to display work in Smail Gallery.

Li’s exhibit, titled “Emergence,” is a series of drawings, paintings and a screen-print, all centered around swarming behavior, a phenomenon in which organisms aggregate and move as an entity, either in the same spot or by migrating to a new destination. As Li spoke to her exhibition guests, she explained how this concept had intrigued her in high school and continued to resurface within her classes at Macalester. Li is particularly interested in the common goal of these organisms to protect themselves and leave a genetic offspring. She’s also fascinated by the organization present in the seeming disorganization of the swarm, the collectivity implicit in the process and from a visual perspective, the complex patterns that result from swarming.

Photo courtesy of Kayla Steinberg'10.
Photo courtesy of Kayla Steinberg’10.

In this series, Li depicts swarming patterns found in particular insects, birds, fish and microbiotic organisms. Beside each piece, she had written a clear and concise explanation of the swarming behavior of the organisms depicted, enhancing the viewers’ experience by actually teaching them a bit about what they are seeing. Li does an excellent job of describing these processes in a way that is easy for the viewer to digest without any prior background knowledge. It is this pairing of knowledge and aesthetics that makes viewing this exhibition an exceptional experience.

She further expanded this combination of learning and viewing by creating scientific diagrams beside some of her art pieces. In the example of European Starlings, she depicted the swarming process in the way that a researcher would, drawing small arrows, to portray the direction of the swarm’s movement and the birds’ proximity to one another. The viewer feels a movement that is often difficult to capture in two-dimensional work. However, even without the help of the arrows, this sense of movement is extraordinary. Viewers find that their eyes are constantly moving around the page or canvas, unable to settle in solely one place. Her work is also exceptional in its high level of precision, keen attention to detail and delicate touch.

Photo courtesy of Kayla Steinberg'16.
Photo courtesy of Kayla Steinberg’16.

The exhibit was inspiring, informative and visually stimulating. As I walked away, I felt like I had learned about something fascinating and my eyes had feasted on the paintings, drawings and prints Li had created. So next time you’re passing through Olin Rice, stop and take a look around Smail Gallery; Karina Li’s exhibit is definitely not something to miss.