“We are a way for the cosmos to know itself”
“We have begun to contemplate our origins: starstuff pondering the stars;
organized assemblages of ten billion billion billion atoms considering the
evolution of atoms; tracing the long journey by which, here at least,
― Carl Sagan, Cosmos
Seattle artist Julia Hensley has been quietly toiling in her studio, chipping away at the edges of the visible universe. She’s conjuring up pixelated fragments of an event horizon, colorful bursts of gas clouds, scattered bits of dark matter against fields of light, and bursting nebulae in negative. Her work translates the utterly foreign landscape of outer space into a specific visual language. Its expansiveness and unfathomable scale spans light years of distance impossible to absorb; but her blocky interruptions nestled against splattered paint taps into our cultural immersion in technology and digital composition of the world we know, framing it more comprehensibly. Hensley’s paintings could easily be a portrait of blown up and blown out Hubble telescope imagery.
We earthbound creatures are compelled to witness and document the things we can’t explain, faithfully recording what we’ve observed in a multitude of narratives – stories, mythology, songs, art, and science. Each of these is a system of classification in their time. We categorize everything, because humans want to make sense of the world and what lies beyond. But why? Do we wish to control it, or contain it? We obsessively compute algorithms with complicated software to track patterns of objects in space and maps of our relative location to those objects. We take note, and make marks. We count, we research, we compare, we contrast. Our space-bound cameras travel to the furthest reaches of the galaxy where we cannot go. We tirelessly observe, and wait. We are the watchers.
Hensley isn’t necessarily striving for a literal explanation of these ideas, but she does provide some formal aesthetic solutions based on the idea of observation, documentation, adhesion, construction, destruction, and repair. If the elements that cause the effect of creation to take place have any strength in metaphor, it’s here amidst disparate pieces of materials clumped together to form objects. Figures rotate around one another in space, attract and/or repel other objects. They blossom, bloom, and glow; colors spilling out across the visible universe like so much spilled ink. If a gaseous dusty cloud is the birthplace of stars, then Hensley’s gaseous forms are in turn generating a powerful group of paintings about them.
When looking at Hensley’s work, you have this idea of a grid and structure; that formally there is a lot of theory in these compositions. The interplay of abstraction versus representation that manifests as a digital conversation both breaks down and takes shape. Hensley very plainly (well, spectacularly) and unapologetically demonstrates that abstraction is firmly placed in observation. Here, this is what I am looking at. She is pointing to herself, pointing outside of herself. She’s creating tension with figurative shapes that stand in opposition to one another or stand poised in suspense of collision with each other.The color splashes, but somehow manages to not distract the viewer with unintentional associations. Patches of painted paper, metallic bits, and colored tagboard are integrated well into the work purposefully, without floating over the top of it as some collage falls in danger of doing. The white of the paper or canvas is as much a strategic use of color as the darkest value, emphasized by painterly strokes, bleeds, and blooms of ink. It’s clear this work is deliberately composed, constructing itself as it grows, moving along and putting itself together in the same way a musical composition is born - note by note.
Perhaps the work feels like music precisely because Hensley is also a musician. Alongside this series, she composed a limited edition set of Star Songs, a group of ambient works that mix an array of textures and sounds, rhythms, and lonely guitar accents. They linger in the air, gentle percussive notes against a crunchy drone. It’s not the same as listening to the theremin-like howling of Saturn’s rings, or Voyager’s recording of interstellar space. These are melodies we can understand better, but which still incorporate some of the more romantic, dark murkiness we would expect to find out in the deep. These songs create a compulsive desire to sit in a dark room and dream of our origins.
We are here, observing the stars from our earthbound vantage, viewing the limitlessness of the sky. Hensley lifts us up for just a moment to hover among the heavens. We bask in its light. Like Sagan, she takes us not only outside of ourselves but outside all we know of the planet where our feet are rooted to the ground. She sets us back down gently. We can't really be anywhere but where we are, but we know there is more than just this little blue dot. We remember to never stop looking up, to look beyond what we see with our eyes.