Review: Sky Exhibition, Alyce de Roulet Williamson Gallery, ArtCenter College of Design, Pasadena Campus, February 20 – August 23, 2020

By Sheila Pinkel

Review by Sheila Pinkel, Emerita Professor of Art, Pomona College, International Editor of Leonardo, spinkel4@gmail.com

It is rare that an exhibition challenges the viewer to find connections between elements as seemingly disparate as a 19th century oil painting of a landscape, a drawing of a tern, an original book by Copernicus open to the page that illustrates a sun centered universe, and a ceiling to floor projection of white dots, large and small, that seem to be migrating. This exhibition invites viewers to have their own creative dialogue with the concept of “Sky.”

 

That challenge starts with encountering each artwork and trying to figure out either what it is or what it is doing in this show, for in this exhibition verbal assists of wall labels are omitted, (although a beautifully assembled catalogue and additional information are available at the entrance desk). For instance, the first work entitled Viewing Stone by Christopher Richmond at the exhibition entrance is a large video projection that seems to be a rock rotating slowly. However, what it actually represents remains a mystery since there is nothing included to indicate its size or its context. Is it a large rock, a small rock, a piece of sculpted clay, a bone, or something else? Without wall text or visual contextualization, the viewer is left to his/her own imagination. The exhibition catalogue indicates that this work is a simulation of an asteroid. However, this does not help answer the question of what it ‘really’ is, and in fact, only enhances the question of whether it really is anything at all.

The extent to which an understanding of astronomical phenomena has evolved from 500 years in the past to 5 million years in the future is made visible by three works. A book by Copernicus, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, 1543, opened to the page with a diagram of the sun centered universe,(1) is conceptually paired with a contemporary projection entitled Orbit Map of the Solar System by Eleanor Lutz, 2019, of 18,000 asteroids and random objects currently in orbit in the solar system. And a ceiling to floor projection generated by Gaia Spacecraft entitled Two Million Stars on the Move simulates the movement of stars in the Milky Way between earth and 30,000 light years away during five million years into the future in a six-minute video loop. A Nobel prize winning physicist commented that five million years into the future isn’t very long.

A personal telescope belonging to astronomer George Ellery Hale, developed in 1885 that afforded a precise view of the night sky representing a leap in astronomical technology, is adjacent to Lia Halloran’s The Great Comet, 2019, a monumental cyanotype suggesting the marvels of astronomical phenomena that might have been experienced by pre-technological peoples. The 16th graphic Civitates orbis terrarium by Georg Braun and Franz Hogenberg illustrates the complexity of images and ideas that people in the 16th century might imagine when viewing the sky.

 

Three 19th and early 20th century oil paintings by Albert Bierstadt, Albert Thomas DeRoma and Angel Espoy of the landscape reflect the conventional experience of the separation of the earth and sky in prior times. It is interesting to note that the Bierstadt painting, borrowed from the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, is the only painting in the exhibition that is protected by a Lucite box, adding the dimension of monetary value to the dialogue about the sky.

In the floor work Outside of Inside Carol Saindon’s two entangled galaxies made from shattered glass internally illuminated symbolize the monumentality of astronomical phenomena. This floor work, which requires that the viewer have a conceptual shift by looking down to imagine deep space, is accompanied by a matrix of stunning drawings based on space photographs. Water motion is included in both the drawings and floor installation, inviting the viewer to contemplate whether the same physical principles function in both the domain of water and planetary motion.

Laura Parker’s matrix that forms Star Writings, as well as Cool and the lovely work entitled Moon, are unique works accomplished by ‘drawing’ with light emanating from celestial bodies, a practice that Parker originated. Again, the viewer will only know what Parker has accomplished by reading the exhibition catalogue, forcing a dialogue with the works themselves. The two-channel wall sized video projection of the sky entitled Any Instant Whatever, 2020, by Rebeca Mendez, overwhelms the viewer by the monumentality of the sky itself. The viewer experiences the movement of the clouds between colored vertical stripes which enhance the experience of seeing the sky. The question posed is if there had been no moving clouds, would the viewer have been able to experience the sky?

 

The organization of the exhibition is quite effective. For instance, in one room are exhibited two oil paintings of early 20th century landscapes, the ceiling to floor projection of five million years evolution of the Milky Way, Copernicus’ 16th century book handsomely displayed on a period pedestal under a Lucite box and an 1828 chromolithographic print by Magnus von Wright entitled Sterna Paradisaca (Arctic tern). The placement of these seemingly unrelated works, each well illuminated and given enough room in a black field of the gallery to be appreciated uniquely, affords the viewer space to consider them individually and collectively.

And why an image of a tern? Turns out, this amazing bird flies the distance of the circumference of the earth every year as it journeys south and then north again, being in the sky more than any other living creature, another frame of reference for experiencing the concept of sky, this time in terms of duration of being in it.

Each work in the exhibition is refreshing in its conception, appropriate in its manifestation and contributes uniquely to the complexity of this exhibition. By including works from over 500 years that span art, science and things in between, Stephen Nowlin, curator, has created an exhibition that is dimensional, educational and most importantly broadens the complexity of the experience of ‘Sky’ both while viewers are in the exhibition and later when they imagine possible ways to think about ‘Sky’.

Reference

1. The notion that the Earth revolves around the Sun had been proposed as early as the 3rd century BCE by Aristarchus of Samos but had received no support from most other ancient astronomers.