I have long been a fan of astrophotography, a genre of photography that encompasses amateur and professional photographs taken of our solar system, outer space and anything in the Universe we can see, as far out into the Universe as we can see (which is farther every day,) usually with the aid of telescopes. I follow a lot of these photographers on Instagram as well as the more official Nasa and Nasa Goddard feeds which post actual satellite photographs of distant galaxies, nebulas, gas clouds, black holes and other amazing, spacey subject matter.
I've been wanting to make artwork inspired by my fascination with outer space for a long time but have been intimidated. How does an artist do justice to such immense, beautiful, powerful forces? I've tried with the two-dimensional medium of painting but as of yet have not been satisfied with the flat, lackluster result. Nor had I really seen any artwork based on the Universe or astrophotography that truly evokes, or even references, the transcendent experience of viewing these images and contemplating the existence of these celestial bodies. That is, not until I saw the "HAHAxParadigm Class Reunion II" exhibit at Philadelphia's Paradigm Gallery a couple weeks ago.
There were too many intriguing pieces in the "HAHAxParadigm Class Reunion II" exhibit, as well as the "Portraits" exhibit showing along-side it, to delve into in this post but suffice it to say I had a wonderful time viewing both exhibits and was so intrigued by a few of the artists that I found myself googling and researching their work for days to come. For me, however, the standout piece was a 10" x 10" resin and watercolor "painting" (if that is indeed the appropriate category for this work) by artist Paige Smith (aka A Common Name.)
Smith, who may be better known for her "Urban Geodes," small crystalline structures that are grouped together and tucked into crevices in buildings or affixed to large panels, also creates small paintings of celestial landscapes. The piece I saw is titled "One Hundred Eighty Thousand Years," a reference to astrophotography. Due to the vast nature of Space we are often told that the clusters of stars and clouds of gas that we see in photographs appear "as they were" hundreds of thousands, millions or even billions of years ago. I've heard that Einstein once called the Speed of Light "the Universe's Speed Limit." To me the concept has always been reminiscent of time capsules and messages in bottles... a snap-shot of something from a brief moment in time that is viewed many years later after it has ceased to exist. Similar works by Smith are titled "Two Point Five Three Seven Million Light Years" and "One Point Two Billion Years." The idea of naming a work of art in this way, based on when the image comes from, struck me as absolutely brilliant.
The painting itself is thick (about 3",) translucent and appears to have been made through a process of layering resin and watercolor paint. The end result is a three-dimensionality that gives you the feeling you are gazing through a window into outer-space. Small white stars are glimpsed through wisps of blue and purple vaporous gas clouds. Some stars are distant and dim while others sparkle close to the surface. "One Hundred Eighty Thousand Years" definitely has the transcendent quality I want from a work inspired by the Universe and also left me longing for a fly-on-the-wall view of the production process.
Smith's piece caused me to contemplate celestial landscapes as artwork in a way I had not done before and it occurred to me that my experience with what is actually "out there" is quite limited. Not only have I never seen these amazing sites in person, and never will, but I have never even seen them through a telescope. My interaction with the universe is limited to the photographs of others and my own imagination. Specifically, right now, I am mostly limited to the square format of the Instagram photos I see every day from the astrophotographers I follow. Something about the knowledge that I can only, essentially, riff off a snap-shot, message-in-a-bottle from millions or billions of years ago, passed to me via the internet gave me a sense of freedom. I decided to do a series of square collages based on this idea, using Instagram photos as my jumping off point and abstracting freely through the medium of cut paper and glue. Although cut-paper is still a two dimensional medium something about the ability to layer so overtly always gives me more of a three-dimensional illusion than painting does. So far I am pleased with the results and excited to see where this series takes me. I may not reach transcendence with these pieces but you know what they say "Shoot for the moon and you may just hit a star." Stay tuned!