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Billions of stars light up the direction toward the center of our Galaxy. The vast majority of these stars are themselves billions of years old, rivaling their home Milky Way Galaxy in raw age. These stars are much more faint and red than the occasional young blue stars that light up most galaxies. Together with interstellar dust, these old stars make a yellowish starscape, as pictured above. Although the opaque dust obscures the true Galactic center in visible light, a relative hole in the dust occurs on the right of the image. This region, named Baade’s Window for an astronomer who studied it, is used to inspect distant stars and to determine the internal geometry of the Milky Way. Baade’s Window occurs toward the constellation of Sagittarius.—From Astronet. (Photo: David Malin)

Over the last few months I have repeatedly bumped into the cosmic art meme: art explorations (by others as well as my own) that speak to and connect with the concept and implications of the space/time continuum.

Astronomical photographer David Malin‘s images of space (the above image is one of his photographs) have been assembled into an exquisite Phaidon volume called Ancient Light: A Portrait of the Universe. This book has been a steady resource for me all summer. Even the front cover is provocative: white binding wrapped in a black paper sleeve with star pattern perforations.

The recent show at the ICA featured works by Josiah McElheny where these themes were present as well. From the ICA description:

Some Pictures of the Infinite tackles cosmic questions, tracing this persistent theme in the work of Josiah McElheny. Over the past two decades, the problem of infinity has driven McElheny’s efforts to represent the unrepresentable, as the infinite by definition must always elude stable grasp. The exhibition also examines images of time: archaeological time, linear and cyclical models, and the overwhelming span of cosmic time.

In McElheny’s diverse body of work, the infinite crops up again and again… He has also repeatedly drawn inspiration from the enormity of the cosmos, gaining a working knowledge of astronomy through a long-term collaboration with the cosmologist David Weinberg. Their partnership has resulted in multiple artworks picturing the origins of the universe, with particular attention to the theory of the Big Bang.

Equal parts empirical and aesthetic, McElheny’s imaginative approach to science doesn’t instruct viewers but seduces them, couching cutting-edge cosmology in unabashed formal beauty.

Installation view of Josiah McElheny’s The Center is Everywhere at the ICA. The work’s title references Blaise Pascal’s pronouncement that “nature is an infinite sphere, whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.”

Last weekend I stopped by one of my favorite hidden jewels in Western Massachusetts, the Williams College Museum of Art. One of the exhibits, Cosmologies, dovetailed into this same cosmic meme.

From the curatorial statement by Elizabeth Rooklidge:

Cosmology is the arena in which science, metaphysics, philosophy, and religion converge. The multitude of cosmological approaches seeks to uncover the universe’s origins, fate, meaning, and physical laws. By studying the universe, from the smallest pieces of matter to the enormous expanse of time and space, we may be able to come to a better understanding not only of its scientific functioning but also humanity’s ultimate purpose. Drawn from the WCMA collection, Cosmologies considers just a few of the many ways in which art can explore these complex themes.

Reflecting the multifaceted nature of this investigation, the featured artists work in a wide array of media…several artists take scientific inquiry as their point of departure, integrating it with philosophical contemplation and a search for personal significance. Some mine ancient mythology, while others engage cosmological thought through compositional abstraction. A few reflect on the historical and cultural implications of space exploration. Whatever their origin, these works collectively reveal an enduring fascination with the universe as well as the rich results of these artists’ cosmological investigations.

The exhibition includes works by Kiki Smith, Vija Celmins, Thomas Ruff, Duane Michals, June Wayne, Bernard Cohen, Lynn Chadwick, Joseph Cornell, Wallace Berman, Adolph Gottlieb, Robert Rauschenberg, Vik Muniz and Barbara Takenaga. Here is a sampling:

Nebraska Painting (Rising), by Barbara Takenaga

Close up view

Three exquisite lithographs from June Wayne (who I have written about previously here) are accompanied by this thoughtful curatorial note:

In a series of lithographs entitled Stellar Winds, June Wayne turns scientific cosmology from celestial mechanics to energetic abstraction. A stellar wind is created by gas flowing from the upper atmosphere of a star out into space. Here, Wayne transforms the momentum of the star’s gas into an enigmatic, graceful composition. Drawing from her artistic curiosity about energy and space, Wayne investigates the physical universe as a metaphor for exploration of the self.

Duane Michals, Untitled (from “The Indomitable Spirit Portfolio”), gelatin silver print (Photo: Duane Michals)

And my own work speaks to an abstracted astral sensibility as well. In a new series of large format works, my explorations co-mingle a sense of the cosmic expanse with the infinite that also exists in that interior world of our consciousness.

That is one way of describing what is emerging I suppose. The right words are hard to find for a body of work that is still forming.



A close up view of Candara, from a painting series inspired by space and planetary bodies

Tina says what if dark matter is like the space between people
When what holds them together isn’t exactly love, and I think
That sounds right—how strong the pull can be, as if something
That knows better won’t let you drift apart so easily, and how
Small and heavy you feel, stuck there spinning in place.

Anita feels it now as a tug toward the phone, though she knows
The ear at the other end isn’t there anymore. She’ll beat her head
Against the rungs of her room till it splits, and the static that seeps out
Will lull her to sleep, where she’ll dream of him walking just ahead
Beside a woman whose mouth spills O after O of operatic laughter.

But Tina isn’t talking about men and women, what starts in our bodies
And then pushes out toward anywhere once the joy of it disappears.
She means families. How two sisters, say, can stop knowing one another,
Stop hearing the same language, scalding themselves on something
Every time they try to touch. What lives beside us passing for air?

–Excerpt from the poem, Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith

2011 will be remembered as a year with no novel deemed worthy of a Pulitzer Prize. But thankfully the poetry recipient, Tracy K. Smith, has the gravitas to hold her place singlehandedly. Her award winning collection, Life on Mars, is a rich inquiry, complex and yet accessible. She has said the poems were inspired by her father who worked as an engineer on the Hubble project, and a contemplation of space and our place in that immense order of things runs throughout the poems. In the words of one reviewer in the New York Times, “Smith is quick to suggest that the important thing is not to discover whether or not we’re alone in the universe; it’s to accept—or at least endure—the universe’s mystery.”

Istanbul: a child connects with her grandmother (Photo: Collin Key)

Every once in a while you find a post that says it just the way you would have. Here’s one at All Girls by Sally Reed, regular reader of Slow Muse, about so many themes and ideas that I find compelling—the work of D. W. Winnicott (a post about him here), the inestimable theatrical genius Patsy Rodenburg, the ineffable connection we can feel with certain people, the leaky margins of personal space—it’s all there, and so well written.

Here’s a sample, but stop in to read the entire post:

Winnicott posits that there is a private space (the psychic space within), and a public space, which is clearly outside us. And then, between us, is the place where we connect: the transitional space which is neither purely inside nor purely outside, but rather an enlivened between space. And according to Winnicott, this transitional space is the space of play and creativity — where our culture is created, where love can grow, where teaching and learning take place, where art is made, and where culture is created.

I have been aware on occasion of a friend or lover holding a space open for me … almost as one might hold up a tent or a canopy. It’s like a balm. You feel the welcome and readiness to connect when the transitional space is held open for you. And feel the sadness when that space collapses.

In his essay “Light and Space and Darkness: Taking Painting Full Circle in the Wireless World” (published in Darren Waterston: Representing the Invisible) David Pagel had me at hello. He’s a stylist of the finest art writing order, and he brings the inchoate beauty of Waterson’s work as close to language as I can imagine them getting.

A few samples follow.

On the loss of space and the possibility of splendid isolation:

Space is not what it used to be. In the 1960s, the most prominent feature of the cosmos was the infinite possibility of silent emptiness—a vastness so profound, inhuman, and endless that it naturally attracted the best and the brightest minds to take off on futuristic, quasi-mythological quests to discover its secrets by traversing the mind-blowing distances through which nothing but light—and the occasional meteorite—had traveled. Today, emptiness, silence, and even distance are in short supply. More people are packed into bigger, more cacophonous urban sprawls than ever before. A historically unprecedented level of visual stimulation constantly bombards us, diminishing attention spans as it fuels the desire for instantaneous gratification. And the wide-open silences that once left individuals free to follow their imaginations to roam aimlessly have been replaced by the incessant, omnipresent, invisibly transmitted communications made possible by a plethora of wireless technology…Today, the romance with silent emptiness is all but over, both in the visual arts and the popular imagination. The general public’s fascination with travel through deep space has waned, if not disappeared altogether.

On Waterston’s work:

The beauty of Waterston’s work resides in its fluidity, its capacity to dissolve hard-line distinctions between the substance of material reality and the power of the imagination. His paintings are timely because they move freely between the inner, invisible world of memory and fantasy and desire, and the outer, visible world of shared public space and recognizable representations. They are graceful and gracious because they fuse the look, feel, and giddy tempo of advanced digital technology with the slowly unfolding pleasures of techniques and procedures associated with Renaissance painting, when our modernity was just beginning, when tie moved more slowly and pateince was still a virtue, when painstakingly applied glazes were layered atop one another to create visually resplendent surfaces filled with more atmosphere and space than their literal dimensions and physical depths seemed capable of containing.

On artistic point of view:

None of Waterston’s paintings focuses a viewer’s attention on his self. None strives to express his inner sentiments. And none is even loosely autobiographical. The radical individualism that is often thought of as the raison d’être of art-making, especially expressive, abstract painting, plays an impressively unimportant role in Waterston’s works, which uniformly dissolve the artist’s self into anonymous, organic processes. This humble selflessness is a form of generosity, a means to leave viewers ample room to maneuver, interpreting and engaging the paintings in whatever manner best suits us.

For more information about Darren Waterston and his work, his website is here.

David Pagel is an art critic who writes regularly for the Los Angeles Times. He is an adjunct curator at the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton, NY.