"Look Back in Time," Russell Crotty and Lick Observatory at the San Jose ICA

Lick Observatory objects, photo by David Pace
Lick Observatory installation, photo by David Pace

Look Back in Time: Russell Crotty and Lick Observatory, the first traveling exhibition of the UC Santa Cruz Institute of the Arts and Sciences (IAS), showed at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art (SJICA) from November 12, 2016- February 26, 2017. Organized for the SJICA by the IAS, the exhibition premiered a major new installation by IAS artist-in-residence Russell Crotty, along with a selection of the artist’s previous work based on astronomical observations. The exhibition also featured an extensive selection of never-before-exhibited objects from the Lick Observatory historical collection, selected and displayed in an installation created by Tony Misch, the Observatory's collections director.

The exhibition is the culmination of an innovative two-year collaboration between the IAS, ICA, University of California Observatories (UCO), the Lick Observatory Historical Collections Project, and Theoretical Astrophysics Santa Cruz, a faculty working group at UC Santa Cruz. According to Cathy Kimball, executive director of the ICA, “This is perfect for all of us. It’s curatorially innovative and educational, with a great group of institutional partners and a groundbreaking artist.” Look Back in Time is curated by John Weber, IAS founding director, Tony Misch, and Russell Crotty, in consultation with Kimball and the ICA. 

The title of the exhibition refers to an essential condition of astronomical observation known as “lookback time.” Light reaching our telescopes has traveled from the depths of space and hence shows us images from the past: the greater the distance the light has traveled, the older the image. Through the presentation of artifacts from the Lick archives, the exhibition also looks back in historical time to the emergence of astrophysics in the first decades of the observatory’s operation. Finally, the show also looks back at Crotty’s career, offering a retrospective view of his work along with his new installation, created in response to his IAS residency. ​

Russell Crotty, "M8, The Lagoon Nebula in Sagittarius," 2002

The exhibition’s experimental approach reflects the IAS’s mandate to function as a laboratory for interdisciplinary curatorial projects. The juxtaposition of historical objects and new art brings the scientific and the aesthetic together in an unusual pairing. “The instruments, photographic plates, and written records in Lick's historical collections conceal a special poetry in their documentation of the laborious and painstaking work of astronomical observation,” notes co-curator Misch. “This wonderful opportunity to exhibit the archival materials in an art gallery context invites viewers to reflect on astronomical data-gathering, with all its precision and quantitative rigor, as the creative work of individual hands and minds.”

Russell Crotty is known internationally for his drawings based on direct astronomical observation, and for works on landscape, the ocean, and surfing, his other passion. Crotty is represented in major collections in the U.S. and Europe, including SFMOMA in San Francisco. In 2007 he was commissioned to create a site-specific installation of globe drawings for the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, China. In 2015, he was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. Over the course of his career Crotty has constantly experimented with the form his work takes, drawing on globes of different scales and creating large-scale, handmade artist’s books. Continuing this trend, Look Back in Time includes a major installation work that explores new ways to present drawings in space.

When approached by the IAS, Crotty was attracted by the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work with modern and historic telescopes at  Lick, gain access to its historical archive, and engage with astronomers and astrophysicists both at Lick and on campus. As he put it, “My  studio practice was changing and I was rekindling my interest in astronomy right when this came along. The timing couldn’t have been better.” His residency brought him regularly to the observatory beginning in December 2014, for multiple observing nights using a variety of telescopes and for work in the archives, looking at 19th-century observational drawings, early photographs, instruments, and data-reduction notebooks.

Crotty was already familiar with Lick’s history and with many of the early astronomers who worked there, but another part of his residency  explored current research at Lick, including the Automatic Planet Finder and the groundbreaking Adaptive Optics systems developed at UC Santa Cruz and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and deployed on the 3-meter Shane Telescope. “Just being on the mountain and being around the history, the archives, seeing the historical telescopes, and seeing cutting edge work and instruments—it was extraordinary!" Crotty said. "The setting is incredible, something really magic. It should be a world heritage site, and it’s still operating, and people are still making discoveries there.”

Along with repeat visits to Lick, Crotty met on campus with faculty involved in observational and theoretical astrophysics to discuss their work. He visited the Lick Shops on campus where telescopes are designed, optics fabricated, and instruments built, toured the Center for Adaptive Optics where the next generation of AO technologies is being pioneered, and spoke with art classes. Crotty also helped plan and present an intensive, two-day art-and-astronomy workshop for undergraduate art and science students at Lick Observatory in May, and participated in a stargazing night with the student astronomy club and the Santa Cruz city astronomy club.

The result of Crotty’s time at Lick and on campus is a new installation based loosely on current theories about development of the universe from just after the Big Bang to the present. Crotty’s new piece takes the form of an immersive, walk-in environment that includes drawing, sculpture, and fabric scrims coated with bio-resin. It was on view for the first time at the ICA, together with a group of Crotty’s earlier work, selected by the artist to relate to areas of the cosmos studied historically at Lick.

Lick Historical Archives, (c) UC Regents

The archival portion of the exhibition draws on Lick’s exceptional collection of historical materials from the dawn of astrophysics in the late 19th-century, when the observatory began operation as part of the University of California. Its history spans the transition from an astronomy based on direct observation, measuring and drawing at the eyepiece, to today’s computer-based, digitized, robotic science, unimaginable a century ago.

Look Back in Time focuses on the first three decades of this transition. Astronomers’ logbooks will display 19th-century pencil drawings of planets and other celestial objects observed through the Great 36-inch Refractor telescope at Lick. Historical glass photographic plates of the Milky Way, the Moon, planets, and comets, and examples of the tiny but crucially important early photographic spectrograms will also be on view, along with meticulous records, hand calculations, and data reductions that represent the labor of the astronomy of the time.

The exhibition and associated residency are funded by grants from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, the McEvoy Family Fund of the IAS, UC Santa Cruz’s Arts Division, and annual donors to the IAS and the ICA.

Sunday, November 13, 2016 to Sunday, February 26, 2017