James Webb Space Telescope Project
This series began in 2017, when I was one of several artists selected by NASA to create artwork inspired by the construction of the new James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). This is a bold new instrument which will soon replace the Hubble Space Telescope. Since then, my excitement and wonder of seeing this engineering marvel has led me to continue working on a series of drawings based on photographs taken of the JWST while under construction. I have also been thinking about the telescope’s intended purpose once it reaches its location orbiting the sun, as a break-through tool for imaging objects which we have never seen, nor knew existed, and events that happened at the beginning of time.
The aesthetic compositions of many of my artworks reflect my sculpture training and background, which I never fully left behind. My early works were floor-standing sculptures, which I eventually concluded were impractical to manage. I then moved to making wall-hung sculptures that, over time, I made thinner and lighter, until they became drawings. I think that all my works now, in some way, show the subject, or frame the subject, in a way that examines and intensifies its sculptural aspects. The JWST is the ultimate sculpture, and certainly an inspiration.
An idea that has been simmering in my mind, is the concept of the mundane juxtaposed with the exquisite. Many of the recent drawings I have done, with the JWST as their subject, describe an object of incredible precision, made with exotic materials, on the very cutting edge of what is possible to build. The main visual element of the telescope is the 21-foot-wide gold-plated primary mirror, whose purpose is to collect and focus infrared light from the farthest reaches of the visible universe, and all points in between. In order to render a mirror in a drawing, one needs to describe what it reflects. Instead of showing what the JWST mirror will, or might, image, out in space, these drawings reflect the earthly environment in which it is being built, as well as self-referential reflections of the telescope itself, highlighting its sculptural qualities. Showing the instrument in the mundane environment where it is being constructed sets up a dichotomy with its exquisite engineering, as well as with the transcendent universal knowledge it will eventually will help us gain.
A central question that should be asked of me is: "why spend a month or two drawing an image in charcoal and pastel instead of just producing a standard photograph?” One thing I have come to enjoy about this process is the counterintuitive idea of using a very imprecise medium, like soft charcoal, to render the image of one of the most technically advanced and precise objects ever devised and constructed by mankind. Charcoal is also one of the most primitive and ancient tools for drawing, and I am using it to describe an extremely advanced tool for science, that will be shot a million miles into space to help unlock some of the mysteries of our galaxy and the universe. I find this to be an interesting juxtaposition.
I also appreciate how drawing with charcoal mimics the tonality of photography better than using pencil, pen or paint. I love the gradient tones that charcoal can produce. I trained as a photographer and spent a portion of my life practicing the craft. I have been seduced by the rich tonality that B&W photography can achieve. But, by directly drawing the image with charcoal and pastel, instead of printing a digital image, I find more artistic freedom, as well as a great deal more labor, and sometimes tedium.
Thoughts on the JWST vs. QED Series
The JWST vs. QED works touch on the connectedness of space, time, and light. The drawings originated when I noticed a bowtie like shape, in a close-up image I made of the JWST mirror. The shape reminded me, coincidently, of a similar bowtie shape depicted in the famous Feynman Diagrams. These diagrams are representations of quantum electrodynamics (QED), that describe how an electron can emit a charge-carrying photon, which can then be absorbed, slightly later, or slightly earlier, in time, by another electron.
The works are pastel and charcoal drawings of a close-up view of the JWST. They depict a part of the telescope's primary hexagonal gold-plated mirror, with an overlay of a graphic illustration of a Feynman Diagram. In the “JWST vs. QED v.1” drawing, the wiggly line represents the photon moving to the right, forward in space, after being emitted from an electron. The photon is also moving down in this diagram, indicating that it can travel back in time. Effectively, the photon is absorbed by one electron before it was emitted from the other electron, seemingly violating laws of physics, and running time backwards. This is a difficult aspect of quantum physics that uses retro-causality and quantum entanglement to explain the phenomenon.
The JWST can also be seen as a time-machine of sorts; the more distant the objects it images, the further back in time it sees. This is possible because the light emitted by distant objects takes time to reach our eyes. So, what we see has already happened sometime in the past.
The challenge I set for this artwork was to explore the notion that space and time are effectively interchangeable and are facets of the same thing, depending on one’s relative point of view. The work juxtaposes a rendering of the JWST, with its large light reflecting mirror (and its ability to see back in time), with a diagram describing quantum particles and the fluidity of time and our perception of light — the large and the small, the classic and the quantum, and the mutability of time.
Thoughts on Primary Mirror Reflections
On one of my tours of the JWST, I happened to find it positioned horizontally in the clean room with the primary mirror facing up. I noticed that the light from the banks of fluorescent bulbs in the ceiling were reflected by the primary mirror and focused back to the ceiling, 90 feet up, creating patterns of many primary mirrors. I found this an interesting unintended derivative image that described the telescope in an mundane, yet unusually abstract, way.
Thoughts on the Sunshield
Every mark I make with charcoal or pastel or an eraser, is a translation of the original photograph. Even the smallest mark is an interpretation that creates an abstraction in the service of transcribing a photograph. In a way, I have become the printer of the photograph.
This drawing depicts the JWST reflective sunshield during its final inspection, prior to folding it in preparation for launch. It is a complex and innovative feat of material science and engineering. Each layer of the five layers is made from a unique composite reflective material, each has a specific thickness and size, and they must be precisely separated in space. The sunshield is itself a work of art.
Thoughts on the Galactic Center of Mass Series
After working on a series of drawings about the JWST, inspired by the physical object itself, I became interested in one of its intended purposes, once it arrives at its final location, one million miles from earth. The telescope will be used to further investigate the very center of mass of our Milky Way galaxy, which is of great interest to astronomers. This area will be observed by the JWST, with its state-of-the-art infrared detectors, to help us better understand our place in the universe. In considering our galactic center, I have been thinking about some larger associated issues, such as the impact of knowledge of place, and why it matters to astronomers and, more broadly, to mankind.
From ancient astronomers, to Nicolaus Copernicus, to Galileo Galilei, and continuing on, people have contemplated this idea of our place in the cosmos, sometimes at great peril to themselves. Knowledge of place is fundamental to the paradigm of power in religion and in politics. In the olden geocentric view of the universe, the earth was the most important place, and theorizing that the sun was, in fact, the center of the universe could even land you in jail. New science-based observations challenge the principle that reality and power can be constructed on the basis of faith and selective facts, rather than scientific observation and reason.
We are in a new age of enlightenment, where it is now harder to contradict scientific discoveries. In the field of astronomy, with the advent of space-based telescopes, our understanding of place has grown exponentially, and our significance in the universe has inversely diminished. Knowing where one is located can shift one’s perspective and understanding, and can shift one’s sense of self. But knowledge of place can only be understood in relationship to another place: i.e., I live in a house located near a river, which is 100 miles from the sea, on a planet 100 million miles from the sun, etc.
In these artworks, I have attempted to illuminate the fundamental curiosity of mankind to find order in the cosmos: to know where we are, and in relation to what. Where are we on this earth? In this solar system? And, where are we in relation to the center of our galaxy, around which we revolve? In a way, knowing where our spatial center is, and understanding what is there, creates a kind of sentinel that gives us direction, like a landmark in an infinite landscape. This idea relates to another series I made a few years ago called Industrial Sentinels, which focused on large industrial structures that mark the earth.
The Galactic Center paintings are based on astronomers' recent observations of the center of our galaxy. For the last ten years, astronomers have been mapping the stars in that region, and have calculated the orbital paths, and orbital periods, of the stars closest to what they deduced to be a supermassive black hole, named Sagittarius A* (Sgr A*), 26,000 light years away.
In this series, I have drawn elliptical shapes that depict the orbital paths of the closest stars orbiting Sgr A*. These works are based on a 3D mathematical model made from the data collected by the UCLA Galactic Center Group over 10 years, using the Keck Telescope in Hawaii, and the Very Large Telescope Facility in the Atacama Desert in Chile. Like much of my previous artwork, this new series focuses on geometry, but instead of depicting the shapes of physical objects, these works describe the theoretical geometry of an orbital path.
The Galactic Center works are made in two ways. One is a very controlled style using small brushes and string to mathematically describe each ellipse, and the second approach is to use India ink to paint the lines that trace the orbits in a looser, more energetic way. Because of the colloidal suspension properties of the ink, when it is applied in a flooded manner, the pigment particles tend to attract or repel each other, depending on the ink’s pigment and solvent, indicating an internal energy. This technique helps to evoke some of the fundamental energy that exists everywhere and, in this case, at the center of our galaxy.
Although my works are data-driven, their apparent abstraction is inspired in part by the Constructivist Movement, with its vocabulary of geometry, proportion, and optical play. This is a theme that runs through much of my work.
Considering Industrial Infrastructure 2015
My artwork explores the aesthetic experience of the ignored industrial landscape, presenting, through an artist’s eye, the structures that are all around us, but which we do not always really see. I want to challenge viewers to shift their assumptions about the landscape -- to recognize, appreciate and find pleasure in the inherent aesthetic importance of industrial systems. But I also want my work to spur consideration of how we rely on this infrastructure, and yet largely take it for granted.
My images of water towers, refineries, power plants, factories are not designed to send any predetermined message, about consumerism, conservation, or the marvels of industrial and engineered achievement -- but rather to encourage our community to squarely face, and contemplate, what we often ignore.
Change, Paradox and Abstraction 2015
My recent work focuses on transformation and flux. The work examines changes of state and perception -- turning raw material into energy, shifting our view of industrial structures from blight to beauty, and back again. Metamorphosing photographic images -- from positive to negative, realist to abstract, architectural to geometric, digital ink to charcoal – helps reveal the paradoxes of the our relationship to the man-made landscape. The images transcend documentary photography, since I abstract and transpose the subjects to evoke the experience of particular places --- infrastructure in full working operation, and unused assets that have aged and weathered with time.
Some of the pieces probe the dynamics of iconic “industrial sentinels” that dominate their settings, but are also dependent on, and affected by, the environment itself – a story of mutual interaction and the interplay of architecture, nature, and economics. In the charcoal works, the act of translating the manipulated photographic images into drawings simplifies the composition, and abstracts it further -- interpretation and choice bent on bringing out what is hiding before our eyes.