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Out of this world: Russell Crotty’s M13 Globular Cluster in Hercules, shown with his Atlas of Deep Sky Drawings.

Universal Art
By David Brickman

A Very Liquid Heaven
The 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.

This 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 art exhibitions.

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.


Reality Show

The Arts Center of the Capital Region, through Feb. 27

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.

—David Brickman

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