String Theory isn’t Bette Cerf Hill’s first work with the Hyde Park Art Center, but it is certainly her most cosmically inclusive. “This starts with the big bang,” she says, walking through HPAC’s main entrance and indicating the first instance of the installation’s most vibrant motif, a bright red expanse exploding in strokes of black and gold and dotted with intersecting strings. “The string coming out is what scientists look for more and more,” she continues, lightly, “to find a unified theory of the universe.”
Hill is as full of grand ideas as she is apologetic for any hints of pretension or pseudoscience. White-haired and blue-eyed, her enthusiasm defines her as much as—if not more than—her past. She is no scientist, and no casual arts appreciator would mistake her as such. Hill is, herself, a self-declared outside appreciator of the poetry in scientific ideas. She brings all of the wonder, with none of the training. “I imagine it’s like reading all about dance but never seeing it,” she says. “I think my not being able to do the math is like that: there’s a big chunk that’s missing for me.” Nevertheless, String Theory’s broad qualitative strokes motion towards the joy in hypotheticals and exultation in empiricism that are central to very real scientific inquiry.“I’m basically fascinated by this idea: that we’re all made from the same stuff and that we come from the same origin,” she says. “It’s interesting to me, because it seems that physicists look for strings, but also biologists and people in other fields, showing that we’re very much all out of one substance.” Further into the installation, Hill has pulled her abstract strings together into a tranquil landscape. The outlines of a tree and a human figure come together beneath a collection of leaves, some real and some painted. The literalization of String Theory serves to bring this intellectually abstract idea of interconnectedness into a more tangible realm.
Hill’s is a sort of cultivated naiveté, mediated by a deliberate awareness of her own status as newcomer to the ideas she is grappling with. “Our DNA is not so far from a mouse, you know,” she muses, playing with the idea. “We probably all started from Africa and then moved out, populating the globe.” On HPAC’s walls, a single string darts between abstract paint bursts and simple real-world outlines. Hill is fascinated by the idea of graphically depicting the oneness of everything—an endeavor she does concede “may be a real challenge.” If anything, this impossibly poetic unity needs an artist’s idealistic faith for its realization, in popular imagination if not as a quantitative scientific reality.
“There’s this saying: ‘art and science swim in the same pool,’” says Hill. “I think that’s really true.” String Theory as an exhibit is simple and at times heavy-handed in its imagery. However, it is obviously the showing of an artist starting to explore a topic dizzying in its vastness. “You know,” Hill says, “it was a very small beginning.”