The surface of Io, Jupiter's moon, blisters with volcanoes. Lava flows in vast rivers, beneath plumes of sulfur belched by the hundreds of eruptions.
In the next orbit, the moon Europa drifts quietly. Photographs portray it as scrubbed raw, its florid face cracked by a coating of frozen seas.
These lunar siblings, complementary opposites in the Galilean moon system, are subjects of one exhibit in the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center's newest show, NASA | Art: 50 Years of Exploration. This multidisciplinary program encompasses a 73-piece space art show organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service and NASA with the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, as well as four in-house curated exhibitions — pushing the final art work count well beyond 100 pieces. The FAC will also host numerous film screenings, field trips and lectures.
The Smithsonian exhibit (from which the entire show takes its name) is a collection of works from the NASA Art Program, an initiative begun in 1962 to creatively document the advancements and culture of the space program. Norman Rockwell, Robert Rauschenberg and Annie Leibovitz are among those who participated.
"A lot of the earlier ones were drawings done right on site," notes FAC curator Blake Milteer. "Artists were given access to these first tests and first launches."
The program is now defunct, but artists still use space as a muse, as evidenced by the four shows Milteer curated.
Monica Petty Aiello: Frozen | Inferno is a series of 25 works — all but two of which were created just for NASA | Art — studying the surfaces of the extreme moons. Petty Aiello, a Denver artist, works with paint, yarn, resin, water and ink to build layers of landscape.
From a distance, her works look like flat abstracts; they may suggest a sunlit, lily-pad-topped pond (Io), or life forms under a microscope (Europa). But upon closer inspection, the depth in each work reveals itself as an impossibly detailed artistic rendering of an alien expanse. Yarn strands or swirls of paint suspended in layers of resin seem to create miniscule shadows. An iridescent wash that coats each encapsulated moonscape casts shimmering reflections on the floor.
Images from NASA's Galileo and Voyager missions — still striking years later — provide Petty Aiello's starting point (most of the photos are public domain and available on NASA's Web site, she says).
"The actual geology of the place inspires the development of new painting techniques to emulate it," she says, adding, "I actually get all these spacecraft images and sit down with scientific specialists and deconstruct the geology, and then I try and come up with painting techniques to interpret that."
Petty Aiello's experimental working method illustrates the way creativity and curiosity fuel both the sciences and art.
"I think in a way, they come from similar kinds of sensibilities, in terms of discovery and in terms of pushing our known boundaries," says Milteer.
On a larger scale, Milteer sees the history of art as akin to the development of the sciences; a legacy of "visual exploration and inquiry," dotted with "moments of discovery."
Milteer points to the exhibit next to Frozen | Inferno, Vance Kirkland: The Mysteries of Space, as one example of such artistic inquiry. In his signature use of undulating dots, celebrated Denver artist Kirkland imagined nebulae and novae during the heyday of the space program but before the Hubble Space Telescope. Astonishingly, Kirkland's renderings of celestial bodies, though decidedly abstract, are similar to photographs of nebulae we see today.
From the researched landforms of Petty Aiello's moons to Kirkland's conceptualized star clusters, the FAC's NASA | Art delves into the nature of exploration as well as the parallels between art and science — which at first glance may seem as opposed to one another as Io and Europa.