Ever since the discovery of quantum mechanics during the last century, scientists have sought to unify the contradicting laws simultaneously governing the ever-uncertain atomic level and humanity’s self-assured inertial frame as maintained by Isaac Newton. The latest series by Phoenix- and L.A.-based Seffa Klein (b. 1996) seeks a similar “theory of everything” to unite her work, on view in Klein’s New York debut “Webs: Where Everything Belongs” at SFA Advisory through May 31.
Seated amongst the exhibition’s eight abstract geometries, made of bismuth, plaster, and acrylic on woven glass in lieu of canvas, Klein said that ever since she started making conceptual art at 17 she’s remained reticent about forcing the work to communicate her process. Instead, Klein said, while surrounded by these radiating textures that loom on, somehow, even larger than their actual size, that the process itself exemplifies her work’s mission: to uncover reality’s lowest common denominators.
“Webs” interweaves the many mediums Klein has experimented with this past decade. It’s the first time she’s harmonized so many metals and materials within a full series, accompanied here by six smaller gouache paintings examining the fractal patterns throughout this show in detail. “Webs” also marks the first time Klein has woven so many ideas into a single series, pairing her sun gazing practice with the symbolic languages she’s devised to centrifuge meaning itself.
Some threads begin before Klein’s lifetime. She’s the granddaughter of French artist Yves Klein, a student of the sublime who released thousands of balloons upon Paris’s streets to compliment his gallery shows and harnessed women as paintbrushes to sign the sky. Living artistically took its toll — Yves Klein died of a heart attack in his 30s, long before meeting his granddaughter.
Before even then, though, Yves Klein and his wife Rotraut Klein-Moquay moved from France to Phoenix — most likely, Klein told me, because they wanted to live somewhere warm in America without the fear of earthquakes. Rich with otherworldly desert landscapes, wild west lore, and ancient Indigenous wisdom, there was a magical vibe back then and there, too. Her father, Yves Klein’s son, grew up to manage the Yves Klein Archives — and operate a French restaurant in Phoenix, where he met Klein’s to-be mother on the staff. By the time Klein was 10 their family had moved to Northern Arizona and started a farm that the fledgling artist herself helped out on.
“I grew up a couple different ways,” she said. “One of them is traveling around the world, going to all sorts of fancy openings. The other is on a farm, digging and pulling weeds, working hard with my hands in the sun.” She never fantasized about becoming an artist because she already was one. Instead, Klein planned to be an inventor.
“I was definitely born with this,” Klein continued. “Or it could be epigenetic. I feel there is spiritual genetics, too, that happens to align with a physical genetics at times.” Much like her grandfather invented International Klein Blue, Klein’s artwork centers on material too.
At 17, after years of drawing aliens and portraits, Klein turned her eye toward mathematical abstractions. She wrote equations for flowers and translated floral hues through them in binary code, decoupling integers from the values that we unquestioningly assign them. She calls these works Fibonacci abstractions. “They feel very 17,” Klein said, “other than the ternary math.”
“17 deluxe,” I observed. “40 rising,” Klein quipped, referencing astrological birth charts.
Klein went to UCLA to study astrophysics and art by the ocean. Favoring Will Rogers State Beach between Santa Monica and Malibu, Klein hit a record 180-day beach streak during the pandemic, continuing her 15-year sun gazing practice — charging up energetically by staring at the sun during sunrise or sunset “when the UV rays are scattered on the horizon,” she clarified.
In college, Klein made “amorphous” forms of plaster layered thickly on a constructed armature that she’d then carve into, uncovering the colors beneath. “It was about creative destruction,” she said, “concealing things for myself to discover them.” In paradoxes like these, where the mind must split itself to encompass opposing forces, Klein and others see a portal to truth.
Around her graduation in 2017, Klein discovered gallium metal, a nontoxic facsimile of lead that melts at the human body temperature. It’s used in some medical scans. Through the molecular process of wedding, the same one once favored to make silver mirrors, she painted intricate metal patterns on glass. The process proved fragile and left Klein longing for color.
Then she found bismuth—brilliant, safe to melt without a foundry, and hailing from collisions between neutron stars. “All heavy metals are created in these high energy events,” Klein noted. “They’re explosive, intense materials.” Rarer than gold, Klein then concentrated bismuth’s full opalescent color spectrum across a series called Multiple Displacement Theory—compositions where flat shapes act as a language to convey how the earth, heaven, and humans interact.
She’s noticed that similar geometries persist in “Webs,” sculpted instead with impasto plaster outlines that interlock and weave so none take precedence on the visual hierarchy—except, maybe, the glimmering solidified bismuth coating the top. Butterfly forms appear elsewhere to honor the Butterfly Effect, the principle of apparent randomness that prohibits humanity from predicting the weather past ten days at present, discovered by MIT physicist Ed Lorenz in 1963.
Or maybe it’s all just random to us ants on the rug. “The gaze is my metaphor for your ability to structure your own consciousness via your attention,” Klein said. “These pieces are about the ability to see that all in the universe is ordered, that chaos is an illusion of our scale.”
Rather than oxygenating the bismuth to provoke its hues, here Klein allows the material to act like a drawing. Acrylic paint, a new addition, provides color from each work’s base, inspired by seaside sunsets and pearlescent mollusks. Shifting forms and colors throughout evoke varying shades of the same transcendental state achieved by ordering the mind through the gaze—learning to wield both like tools, and to wrap one’s brain around concepts like quantum physics, which might not feel familiar but are always relevant, since truly everything is made of electrons.
Some shades are as intense as Klein’s own gaze—take Web (Accelerating Light), compared with Web (Like a Sunflower). “I think when you’re accessing something profound, it’s always a bit scary,” Klein said, echoing previous sentiments on the very meaning of ‘awe-inspiring.’ Later, she added, “Every time you go to the next state of consciousness, there’s a death of the lower state of consciousness.” Some works, maybe all if you need it, are an invitation to that death.
Klein is hardly daunted by her devotion to discovering reality itself. Everything in the universe better be knowable, she joked, otherwise, she’s “gonna kick the universe’s ass.” Still, the process, the journey, is the point. “Meaningfulness exists inherently everywhere,” Klein said. “Focusing one’s attention on finding the nature of life is the meaning.” It all starts with the gaze.