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The Observable Universe: Visualizing the Cosmos in Art

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On view September 29, 2019 – February 16, 2020


September 24, 2019 — By definition, the observable universe comprises all matter that can be seen or captured with current technologies. As vast and all-encompassing as that may seem, it still presumes a specific perspective from which all else is viewed and conceptualized—one afforded by the particular viewpoint of being on earth. Our unbridgeable physical distance from other cosmic entities, including the infinite reaches of other galaxies, has forced artists to look to observational sciences such as astronomy for inspiration and to employ experimental techniques to conceptualize the vastness of outer space. In astronomy, there are multiple methods used to visualize celestial objects. Similarly, artists’ perceptions of the universe vary widely, inspired by a variety of cosmological models. Drawn primarily from the Santa Barbara Museum of Art’s (SBMA) permanent collection and supplemented by loans from area collections, this exhibition explores a diverse range of artistic representations of the cosmos, roughly coinciding with the “Space Age” of the last 60 years.

From the indelible Earthrise photograph taken by astronauts during the Apollo 8 mission in 1968 to the recent groundbreaking images of a black hole, the exploration and imaging of space have captivated the collective imagination and inspired a variety of artistic practices. In this installation: Michael Light explores the visual impact of NASA’s early lunar images in his Full Moon series; Lia Halloran uses the mechanisms of early astrophotography to create large-scale installations of cyanotypes and cliché-verre prints of hand-painted star clusters, galaxies, and planets; Fred Tomaselli creates what he calls “celestial portraits” based on his sitters’ astrological signs and histories of drug use; Ann McCoy unites deep-sea imagery with that of deep space, combining coral reefs with planetary bodies in her Untitled lithograph. Each of these approaches has contributed to an evolving visual language through which to conceive of our relationship to the unfathomable vastness of the infinite. From early fascinations with space travel to philosophical questions of our place within the larger universe, the artwork featured in this exhibition reflects an enduring captivation with outer space and the mesmerizing imagery that the limitless cosmos inspires.

Lia Halloran, Magellanic Cloud, after Henrietta Swan Leavitt, 2016. Cyanotype print on paper. Courtesy of the artist and Luis De Jesus Gallery, Los Angeles.


The Observable Universe explores a diverse range of artistic representations of the cosmos, including works by Lita Albuquerque, Lee Bontecou, Vija Celmins, Russell Crotty, Joan Fontcuberta, Lia Halloran, Michael Light, Ann McCoy, Jenny Okun, Michelle Stuart, Fred Tomaselli, James Turrell, Penelope Umbrico, and Jacqueline Woods.


Left: Ann McCoy, Untitled, 1978. Offset color lithograph. SBMA, Gift of Charles Craig, Contemporary Graphics Center, and the William Dole Fund. Right: Fred Tomaselli, Portrait of Jim and Vivian, 1992. Prisma color on paper. SBMA, Museum purchase with funds provided by Friends of Contemporary Art. © 2019 Fred Tomaselli.  Below: Russell Crotty, Nightfall Matilija Wilderness, 2009-2019. Ink and watercolor on paper on fiberglass sphere. Courtesy of the artist.


Related Programming:

Thursday, October 17, 5:30 pm

Space and Wonder: A Conversation with Russell Crotty

Artist and amateur astronomer, Russell Crotty, whose work is featured in the exhibition, talks about his interest in and artistic interpretation of the art and science of the universe.

Mary Craig Auditorium

$5 SBMA Members/$10 Non-Members

Purchase tickets at the Museum Visitor Services desk, or online at tickets.sbma.net.

The Santa Barbara Museum of Art is one of the finest museums on the West coast and is celebrated for the superb quality of its permanent collection. Its mission is to integrate art into the lives of people through internationally recognized exhibitions and special programs, as well as the thoughtful presentation of its permanent collection.

Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1130 State Street, Santa Barbara, CA.

Open Tuesday – Sunday 11 am to 5 pm, Free Thursday Evenings 5 – 8 pm

805.963.4364 www.sbma.net