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Scottish National Portrait Gallery acquires 'Brain of the Artist'
Brain of the Artist (2013) is a striking example of Palmer’s unique sculptural technique.
EDINBURGH.- An extraordinary and challenging self-portrait by the celebrated Scottish artist Angela Palmer, which has been acquired by the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, goes on display to the public for the first time today. Brain of the Artist (2013) is a striking example of Palmer’s unique sculptural technique, in which digital information provided by medical scanners is used to inspire a three-dimensional image, engraved or drawn on glass, which reveals the inner architecture contained within an object.

Palmer’s subject matter most often relates to the human form, taking in both portraiture and self-portraiture, although she has also explored the structures of animals and plants. The artist’s beautiful sculptures are painstakingly built up, plane by plane, from individual sheets of glass, onto which she has engraved the contours of a cross section of her subject, in this instance the artist’s own brain.

Each glass sheet ‘maps’ a section of the brain, using information from magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, which the artist underwent at University College London. Brought together, the layered ‘maps’ create a 3D image which appears to float in a glass chamber, and which can only be perceived from certain angles, disappearing when the work is viewed from the side. The result is a most unusual and highly objective form of portraiture with a powerful, poignant beauty. Illuminated from below, Brain of the Artist is an elegant, ethereal work, which evokes the complexity and fragility of the human body. This stunning sculpture also prompts intriguing questions about the nature of portraiture and self-representation today.

Born in Aberdeen in 1957, Palmer had a distinguished career in journalism before studying at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art at Oxford University and the Royal College of Art in London from 2002 to 2007. She came to international prominence in 2009 when her work Ghost Forest, an installation of West African rainforest tree stumps, was shown in Trafalgar Square in London and at the UN’s Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, to highlight the depletion of the World’s natural resources. It is now on permanent display at The National Botanic Garden of Wales, Carmarthenshire.

Palmer developed her sculptural technique while studying anatomy at the Ruskin School and has subsequently worked on many projects with scientists at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, Aberdeen University and University College London. One of the most sensational displays in the Egyptian galleries of the refurbished Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, which opened to great acclaim in 2011, is Palmer’s Ashmolean Mummy Boy, a work which reveals the contours of the child’s body wrapped within a 2,000-year-old Egyptian mummy.

She has also made similarly intimate portraits of an eighth-century BC Theban priest Djeddjehutyiuefankh and the legendary eighteenth-century thoroughbred racehorse Eclipse. Another notable series of portraits is based upon scans of the head of novelist Robert Harris, who drew upon Palmer’s work for one of the main characters in his 2011 novel The Fear Index.

Brain of the Artist is the first work by Angela Palmer to enter the collection of the SNPG. Speaking of the acquisition, Christopher Baker, Director of the Gallery, said: “This remarkable sculpture is a most welcome addition to the collection. A delicate and ethereal work, it develops in a novel and arresting way the nature of self-portraiture, and showcases the creativity of a highly inventive Scottish artist.”

Angela Palmer added: “It is an extraordinary experience, staring at your brain floating in a glass chamber before you. Unlike traditional portraiture, an image of one's brain does not depict anything recognisably ‘you’ and yet it could not be more intensely personal. I hope through this work, visitors will contemplate their own brain - the organ which makes us who we are, the command centre which controls our senses, our behaviour, our very being. It is an enormous honour to be exhibited in the Gallery, and all the more daunting in the Great Hall beneath the frieze depicting the most illustrious Scots in the world. Perhaps visitors will now glance up at these great figures above and reflect on the prodigious minds bearing down at them.”

The artist’s work is represented in the collections of the Wellcome Trust; the Institute of Medical Sciences, Aberdeen; the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford; the Royal Bank of Scotland; and The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, Washington.

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