of this world: Russell Crotty’s M13 Globular Cluster
in Hercules, shown with his Atlas of Deep Sky
Very Liquid Heaven
Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery, through June 5
The title for the exhibition A Very Liquid Heaven is
taken from an attempt by the 17th-century French philosopher
René Descartes to describe his concept of the matter surrounding
the planet Earth. Science would go on to prove Descartes wrong
in his hypothesis, yet modern astrophysics nearly vindicates
his perception, as even the solid masses of the universe are
understood to be made of pulsing plasma, and the voids between
stars to contain clouds of drifting atoms.
wonderful exhibition, now on view at Skidmore’s Tang Teaching
Museum and Art Gallery, combines science and art in a fluid
and fascinating display that manages to present the interrelation
between the two while maintaining the integrity of each. Tang
curator Ian Berry joined forces with two Skidmore faculty
members—Margo Mensing, an artist and art historian, and Mary
Crone Odekon, an astrophysicist—to create a show that sidesteps
the pitfalls often seen in such arrangements (i.e., art made
weak by flirting with pseudo science, or science made tacky
by poor visual presentation).
Instead, A Very Liquid Heaven gives viewers the opportunity
for a first-class experience of both while offering the challenge
to rise to the level of the included scientists and artists
(some are, arguably, both) in integrating the two. The hours
I spent in this pursuit, I’ll admit, were less fruitful for
me than they might be for others more adept at the cosmic
stuff, but they were very pleasant, thanks to particularly
well-chosen exhibits and an easy-to-navigate design.
The exhibition opens with a large, gridlike array of 105 8-by-10-inch
glass-plate negatives from the collection of the Harvard College
Observatory that depict various areas of the night sky. Viewed
from inside the space, they are illuminated from behind by
the museum’s skylit atrium; a printed sheet guides one through
their key characteristics and explains their purpose in late
19th-century astronomical study.
Nearby, an arrangement of tools and equipment represents the
type of workspace used by the people who studied plates like
these; one such person was Henrietta Swan Leavitt, who worked
at the observatory from 1895 until her death in 1921, and
whose measurements led to the “period/luminosity law,” which
enabled major discoveries by astronomers of the day, including
Harlow Shapley and Edwin Hubble. Among the objects in this
display is Leavitt’s notebook, featuring her personal handwritten
calculations in ink, a delicate but forceful artifact of a
woman scientist’s efforts and contributions.
Other scientists are well-represented here, in atlas illustrations
from as far back as 1533 through supercomputer images made
in 1999. While these images are often quite beautiful (and
show the impressive drawing skill of such luminaries as Galileo
Galilei and Johann Gabriel Doppelmayr), their purpose is to
reveal the physical properties of their subject, which is
the universe; any inspirational aspect would be perceived
as a side benefit.
Conversely, the many diverse art offerings in the show use
the perception and transformation of what’s physically seen
and explored as a means to provide inspiration rather than
information—yet the artists included are in a sense as rigorous
in their research as the scientists, and as obsessed with
the cosmos, making for some rather detailed and (apparently)
accurate maps of their own. This delicious crossing over of
the two roles is what makes the show work.
Among the contemporary artworks on view are two paintings
by Karen Arm, a mixed-media wall piece by John Torreano, several
ink prints by Vija Celmins and numerous drawings by Russell
Crotty, all of which feature more-or-less literal depictions
of visible cosmic phenomena. The other artworks in the show—three-dimensional
works by Mensing and Kiki Smith, a mixed-media proposal by
Billy Renkl, and photographs by Duane Michals and Sebastián
Romo—are more interpretive, as are Slater Bradley’s and Bill
Viola’s videos. Another video, by Charles and Ray Eames, is
a classic educational film titled The Powers of Ten,
but the Eameses were also very well-known furniture designers
and so are grouped with the artists.
And terrific artists they are. Arm paints like a dream—in
fact, her images evoke a sort of dream state—and it is with
sheer awe that one examines her technique up-close in these
medium-sized canvases depicting curls of smoke and swirls
of stars. Torreano’s more of a jokester, embedding glass “gems”
into his monumentally large Supernova Remnant in Cassiopeia.
Smith, too, has a sense of humor, or at least of play, as
she uses cast aluminum arms and legs dangling from long wisps
of yarn studded with cookie-cutout stars to evoke the Egyptian
goddess Nut in her arching embrace of the world.
In another suspended work, co-curator Mensing makes something
of a mobile out of oversized blown-glass pipes inspired by
Hubble’s legendary collection of same. A lucite display case
also holds a normal-scale collection of colorful glass pipes
Mensing produced by casting from smokeable originals. Renkl
pays homage to another astronomer with his Proposal for
a beaded and quilted silk to be made into a coat for Galileo,
a color drawing and swatch of vintage French damask in separate
frames, capturing the artist’s wistful desire to cloak the
famously persecuted discoverer of planets and moons in an
appropriately wizardly costume.
The photographers Michals and Romo share a willingness to
manipulate and work in series, but are otherwise quite distinct.
Michals’ piece titled The Human Condition combines
compassion and wonder; Romo’s more tongue-in-cheek approach
elevates chalk marks on a marred outdoor concrete floor to
the level of heavenly constellations. Both hit the mark nicely.
The videos are also quite good. Viola’s, an early piece titled
Ancient of Days, uses time-lapse, montage, zoom and
other basic techniques to create clever, mysterious tableaux.
Bradley’s 2002 Theory and Observation is far less overt;
it uses surreptitiously filmed clips of a children’s chorus
performing in the cathedral of Notre Dame accompanied by the
computer-generated voice of the theoretical physicist Stephen
Hawking as he talks about an anti-religious epiphany he had
at the Vatican. This is overlaid with a haunting soundtrack
by the Replikants, which occasionally swells majestically,
filling the gallery. What’s great is that this intrusive soundtrack
is actually not annoying—a rare case indeed in contemporary
And there are the black-and-white works of Celmins, very fine
and detailed prints, which are grouped near Crotty’s drawings,
one of which is framed, one of which covers a suspended sphere,
and the rest of which are contained in a tremendous book.
If you’re really lucky, someone might be available to turn
the pages and show you some of the amazing sheets of marks
and ruminations on celestial bodies that make up Crotty’s
remarkable oeuvre. Or, you may need to return again and again,
as the revealed page spread is changed regularly. They are
so beautiful that this would be worth the trouble.
Finally, speaking of beautiful things, there are three meteorites
on display that simply defy all boundaries between science
and art. These metallic objects, hurled from space and collected
by explorers, are as lovely as any handmade clay or bronze
sculpture. Oddly, yet fittingly, each has been given an evocative
title. The Creator’s Touch, Gateway to Infinity
and Peering into Space are the soul of this show—actual
celestial bodies come to earth, made by random action of nature,
as individual as any human being and as aesthetically compelling
as anything we can make ourselves. They leave you speechless.
A number of events have been scheduled in connection with
A Very Liquid Heaven. Today (Feb. 3) at 6 PM, Russell
Crotty will deliver the Malloy Visiting Artist Lecture in
Gannett Auditorium at Skidmore; a public opening for the exhibition
(and for the exhibition outer limit by Lee Boroson)
will be held from 6 to 7:30 PM on Saturday (Feb. 5); and a
curator’s tour of A Very Liquid Heaven will be at noon
on Wednesday, Feb. 16.
Arts Center of the Capital Region, through Feb.
Arts Center curator Gina Oc chiogrosso has put
together a fairly diverse group of eight artists
who “study, capture and comment on the real world.”
Not surprisingly, photography is a significant
presence, but painting dominates this selection.
In usual ACCR fashion, there is a combination
of artists from near and far (including Chicago
and Los Angeles)—and, as usual, the hometown team
more than holds its own. Hudson Valley painters
Deborah Zlotsky (Delmar), James Dustin (Coxsackie)
and Phyllis Palmer (Tivoli) each apply sound thinking
and consummate technique to their respective series
of a child’s drawings; architectural space and
light; and back-view portraits. All three are
first-rate bodies of work.
Also in usual ACCR fashion, there are pedantic
exhibit notes written by the curator that attempt
to instruct the viewer in how to interpret the
art. I suspect I am not the only one to find this
practice particularly annoying.
Yet another fine local painter, Dave Austin, is
represented in a sidebar solo exhibition in the
President’s Gallery as 2003’s selected Fence
Show artist. Austin’s prodigious 2004 output
shows he’s growing into an intriguing and skilled
interpreter of paranoia and alienation in contemporary
America. Definitely one to watch.