“Space is the place,” said Sun Ra, the pharaoh philosopher from another dimension, and Jefferson Pinder would seem to agree with him. That’s the sense that brims over in “Black Hole” (2016), a painting by Pinder that takes the form of a dark glittering roundel. It’s a nod to Afrofuturism and American minimalism: black and assertive—speckled through with gold, backlit by an unseen light like a solar eclipse—yet reserved and confident, almost wry. It’s as if Pinder set out to make something as declarative as a Sun Ra performance but as restrained as an Ellsworth Kelly exercise.
There’s a moment in Space Is the Place (1974), the film (and album) by Sun Ra and His Intergalactic Solar Arkestra, when Ra and his brethren chant, “It’s after the end of the world/ Don’t you know that yet?” David Bowie, our planet’s amanuensis of the stars, said it only slightly differently on “Space Oddity” (1969): “Far above the Moon/ Planet Earth is blue/ And there’s nothing I can do.” The sentiment is the same. We have touched the celestial spheres. Now what?
If there’s a single thread to tie together “Other Worlds, Other Stories,” a forward-looking show at the new Washington Project for the Arts, it’s this sense of stumbling progress. Jeffry Cudlin, mission control for this exhibit, has assembled 11 artists doing mostly representational or figurative works. This comes as a surprise, knowing Cudlin’s penchant for conceptual art from his time as curator at Arlington Arts Center. After all, tweedy conceptualism might be the best tool for uncorking a topic as mind-expanding as space.
Instead, Cudlin (an occasional City Paper contributor) is concerned with a question that’s closer to home: What does it mean to leave Earth but never really leave it behind? Steve Strawn, one of the artists in “Other Worlds, Other Stories,” conveys space travel as a cynical endeavor. “Mars Is Great” (2015), a photo, shows a bunch of astronaut figurines sitting around what could be a campsite. There’s a miniature grill, a miniature portable toilet, and miniature spacemen kicking back. The diorama, which looks like it might have been snapped in a sandpit, is supposed to capture the smallness of space travel—the smallness of the traveler. Even millions of miles into an adventure through the cosmos, we still have to pee. It’s funny but infuriating to think we carry our limitations forward even as we exceed them.
Heidi Neilson and Douglas Paulson turn such petty frustrations into petite bourgeoisie obligations with the “Menu4Mars Kitchen” (2015), a full-service spacefarer’s guide to dining in space. Dozens of recipes and freeze-dried food packages on display at the gallery hint at a performance. One is planned for Feb. 6, in fact: a “Mars-feasible Ethiopian dinner,” according to the group’s literature. “Menu for Mars,” which is supported by New York’s Flux Factory, scratches the itch for non-representational art, but the project is so pedestrian, so intentionally perfunctory, that it brings us back to the show’s central question: Don’t we want to leave this all behind? Who, besides technicians at NASA, looks to the stars and dreams of preparing thermostabilized meals for the crew?
To be sure, there is some preciousness in “Other Worlds, Other Stories.” Casey Johnson’s “Oculus” (2014) is a wooden sculpture in the form of a space capsule, a vintage-looking suborbital ascender that might have been dreamed up by Jules Verne; it hangs in the space like a matte golden ornament. Peer into its porthole, though, and inside is an LED starscape. That’s what I’m talking about: the sheer sense of wonder contained in the bolts and widgets of a worldly contraption. The Apollo-Soyuz Test Project at the National Air and Space Museum looks like it’s made of aluminum foil and bubble gum, but this claptrap vehicle can transport me to another time and space. The very physical manifestation of the celestial in Johnson’s “Oculus” is the same portal, but from a different era.
Roxana Pérez-Méndez’s “New Espacio, Edicion Final” (2007-15) deploys an optical illusion called Pepper’s ghosts to plant a hologram of an astronaut in the middle of a rocky lunar landscape. (It’s the same 19th-century technology, more or less, that put the departed Tupac Shakur onstage with Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg at the Coachella Festival in 2012.) This one might have spoken to the fact that, even though our space technology changes, our needs—comfort, warmth, pressure, a way to pee, something to talk about—really never do. Or something. I couldn’t quite read the combination of goofy special FX and elegant, free-floating sculptural form. The Puerto Rican flag on the capsule and planted on the planet didn’t convey much about a Puerto Rican space program, other than the fact of it. There isn’t enough alt-history to Pérez-Méndez’s science fiction, although her execution is fantastical.
Gray Lamb’s “New Institute of Historical Cosmological Exploration (NIHCE)” (2015) is another conceptualist piece, but it’s one this show could do without. NIHCE compiles portraits, artifacts, and documents from NIHCE, a NASA-style bureaucracy from some other alternate dimension or timeline. The bar for this sort of fictional museum display—whether it’s about aliens or the Illuminati or asteroid landings—has been raised very high by the innumerable projects like this that emerge in art school, especially throughout this region. Ostensibly their focus is museums and their predilections, but these mock-investigations are never barbed and the documentation is nowhere near tedious, obsessive, or exhaustive enough to be compelling.
My favorite stroke of the show might be Cudlin’s decision to include Lucy West, a painter based in Idaho. Her practice is about as far from the contemporary art gallery circuit as her studio: West is a space landscape painter, a member of the International Association of Astronomical Artists. Her work is fascinating in the sense that it forms the visual basis for things that remain very much unseeable and unknowable: far-off clusters or stellar nebula whose light we only know from long ago. Artists’ depictions of deep space inform what we understand and believe about how space works. In that sense, the straightforward way that we—earthlings in this dimension and timeline—understand the space around us is every bit as fantastical as some of the alternative modes suggested throughout the show.
For the most part, “Other Worlds, Other Stories” declines to tackle the big questions, focusing instead on the little answers. It might seem like a paradox in science fiction: As the science comes into view, the fiction falls away. Instead of asking what’s out there, we merely inquire: How are we going to go, and what will we eat when we get there? In the end, I side with artworks like Pinder’s that seek to hold the truth at bay, to indulge in the sense of anticipation, like an eclipse that dazzles with possibilities. I fear the truth is closer to what a lot of the other works here suggest: When we get there, unwashed and somewhat slightly dazed, the stars won’t look that different after all.
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