Arts & LifeCulture

‘Hear the Stars’: Nathan Randall Green’s abstractions of astrophysical concepts

Jan. 23, 2022, 8:23 p.m.

I stepped into Qualia Contemporary Art Gallery by chance in early January; the gallery was crowded and, as the nosy art student that I am, I had to peek in to see what the hype was about. 

I was struck by the brightness in the room when I came upon abstract painter Nathan Randall Green’s solo show, “Hear the Stars,” available on view at Qualia Art Gallery until Friday. The walls were not the familiar, pristine white of an average showroom. Each canvas was painted in pastel colors, its rough edges revealing the white wall beneath. The flamboyance of the paintings drew my attention, but Green tastefully instrumentalized what could easily have been a disaster of oversaturation to create dynamic compositions for his series. 

On Jan. 9, a few days after I first encountered “Hear the Stars,” Qualia Art Gallery hosted Green for a panel discussion, “Hear the Stars: A Conversation Between Art and Cosmos.” In addition to Green, the panel included Berkeley physics professor Daniel Kasen Ph.D., whose work focuses on theoretical and computational astrophysics and nuclear physics, and gallery founders Dacia Xu and her business partner, who wished to remain anonymous. The panel discussion was centered on the intersections of science and art, presenting novel perspectives through which to view Green’s painting series.

Introducing the event, Xu emphasized the gallery’s mission to create an interdisciplinary dialogue since its founding in 2020. 

“We want to act as a little bridge to provide and enhance multidisciplinary communication with interdisciplinary education,” Xu said.

Xu and her co-founder both came from scientific backgrounds and wanted to create an experiential space for people to immerse themselves in their emotions and perceptions rather than rely on their cognition. Their philosophy counters modern-day pedagogy, which does not provide room for students to appreciate art or science authentically. “You don’t get to sit with yourself and appreciate the world. People think [experiential art is] useless because it [won’t] get [them] into Facebook or Google, but I think it relates you to your humanity,” Xu said. 

This mission to provide experiential art for viewers resonates with Green’s series title “Hear The Stars.” The Bronx-based, Texas-born artist told me more about the origin of this title in a separate interview:

“I heard that phrase in a country-western song about a man who lived in several big cities and then moved back to his hometown. And he said, ‘It was so quiet, you could hear the stars.’ I love the idea of being sensitive enough to hear stars,” Green explained.

During the panel discussion, I learned more about Green’s motives behind his paintings, which are driven by his interest in the cosmos and based on the astrophysical principles that allow us to understand them. 

In Green’s words, he develops his own understanding of astrophysics “through making pictures that roughly describe a phenomenon that I’m fascinated by and humbled by and scared by and inspired by.”

Aesthetically, I found Green’s paintings most interesting because of their irregularly-shaped canvases that are rounded on the edges and further customized by layers of paper pulp and gesso. The work communicates in graphical vocabulary with striking, almost straight-from-the-tube colors. Green told me later in an interview that he “[places] that language on top of a rough-textured surface [to see] where the paint drips and slips and slides and reacts to the surface of the picture.” This element of unpredictability and textural contrast within each block of color gives each painting a distinct charm. I am generally not a fan of abstraction, but I agree that in attempting to visualize abstract physical concepts, realist techniques would have been insufficient for Green’s purposes. 

The compositions of the paintings in “Hear the Stars” feature distinct iterations of geometric rays that occupy boxes of varying dimensions. They attempt to depict occurrences ranging in a wide time-scale, entrapping the fourth dimension within the constraints of a two-dimensional plane.

“[It is] roughly about following one beam of light through time and space, where the pinprick moment is the present,” Green explained. “I really want them not to be a picture or window into another reality, but to be an object that is imbued with ideas.” This sense of tactility is clear in the visible traces of Green’s arduous process, which involved both sanding and painting.

From a viewer’s perspective, the division of the canvas into quadrants is particularly effective at suggesting chronological order, although Green’s abstraction allows for multiple interpretations. Each installment in his series is beautiful in its own way — depending on the order in which the individual reads it.

Notes from the presentation show a diagram of the Inflationary Epoch (left) being compared to one of Green's paintings (right)
Notes from the presentation show, explaining the Inflationary Epoch and its translation onto Green’s paintings (Photo courtesy of Nathan Randall Green)

When asked about what astrophysical concepts inspired his work, Green replied, “Some are trying to think about the Inflationary Epoch, the millisecond when the universe was created out of nothing.” However, his work also touches on other astrophysical objects like supernovae, multiverse theory and its implications on spacetime inflation, Endless Cyclic Universe theory and more. 

In response to Green’s artist philosophy, Kasen affirmed that we as human beings have “made a larger separation between science and art in our lives, maybe because we’re not out in the dark sky often, seeing the stars and being connected to the natural world.”

He also argued that astronomy as a discipline is generating tools for the “storytelling of where we came from,” pointing out Peñasco Blanco’s Supernova pictograph and “Celestial Atlas” (1822) by Alexander Jamieson as human attempts to capture scientific phenomena through the vocabulary of visual arts.

Kasen sees “science as a kind of opportunity to be an artist,” asserting that “it may be a technical artistic medium, but all art mediums [require] a lot of techniques and take many years to perfect.” He explains that the beauty of artistry lies in “not just seeing the universe but trying to actively understand it by creating it.” These visualizations enable a better public understanding of the universe as we scientifically speculate about our own origins amidst a lonely, lonely cosmos.

I think this is an important distinction to make between Green’s paintings, which depict his philosophical meditations on astronomical concepts, and other pictorial representations of space. Standardized visualizations of space like those created at Caltech’s IPAC center, or this incredible Voyager 1 illustration by Rhode Island School of Design MFA student Jack Madden — who also completed a Ph.D. in astrophysics at Cornell — attempt to give an accurate and comprehensible form to abstract phenomena. Conversely, Green’s paintings should be viewed as a love letter to the grand scale of astronomy that is beyond our current comprehension. I think there is space for both art that explores science and art that improves the rhetoric of science, and Green’s ruminations on the awe of scientific phenomena excel at the former. 

No single artist works alone. Yes, one may be a solo artist, working alone in a studio, but I believe that artworks come about as a result of the intellectual and emotional support given by the people who surround an artist. I asked Green about the “powerhouses” who inspire his work, and he grinned while talking about his loved ones who have always cheered him on. 

“Two things inspired me with this body of work. One was watching my wife become pregnant [and] give birth to my daughter, which — I just — I couldn’t believe, you know. It’s the most normal thing in the history of humanity, but it’s the most powerful thing when it happens to you,” Green said. 

He also recounted a visit with his mother to an observatory in Fort Davis. “We got to gaze at the heavens through this amazing telescope, where you just feel kind of humbled and infinitely small,” Green said. He was struck by this feeling, but also reflected, “It’s powerful to know that we have the technology to have these views of ourselves […] both of those things are humbling and exciting and inspiring.”

Bhumikorn Kongtaveelert '25 is the culture desk editor for the Arts & Life section and the Energy and Environment Beat Reporter for the News section. Contact The Daily’s Arts & Life section at arts ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

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