Employed by Harvard’s observatory in the late 19th century, the Computers were assigned to interpret glass photographic plates of the stars. They were hired not because they had astronomical knowledge — although some did — but because they worked cheap. Crunching data in the pre-digital age required lots of labor, and women could be paid substantially less than men. The information they compiled still informs astronomy today.
Halloran is a professor of art, not astronomy, but she works at the boundary of art and science, as well as the juncture of earth and sky. Most of her pictures in this show are derived from photos in Harvard’s archives and are made in a way that deliberately straddles painting and photography. She paints blue ink on translucent paper, and she uses these originals to produce white-on-blue cyanotypes (the technology best known from architectural blueprints). Light-sensitive paint is applied to make the prints, which are exposed by the sun.
The artist doesn’t portray the Computers literally, but she does offer silhouettes of leaping women on nine panels. Each bears the name of a member of Harvard’s ground crew, whose hopes may be inspired by the name of one of them: Annie Jump Cannon, the first female officer of the American Astronomical Society.
Other prints are derived, carefully but not exactly, from plates the Computers analyzed. The images, which have an appropriately Victorian vibe, combine milky swirls with fields of white dots on deep-blue fields. Most are contained within circles, as if glimpsed through a telescope, and some sprawl across multiple sheets. “Comet” rockets through five panels that in total are almost 18 feet wide. The picture is sufficiently sweeping to evoke a vast universe, but romantic enough to suggest a Jules Verne fantasy.
As a teenager, Halloran achieved fame as a skateboarder. More recently, she has become a pilot, a pursuit she celebrates in a video split across three screens. “Double Horizon” was compiled from footage shot during more than 30 flights she made while learning to fly. The viewpoint encompasses the city below and the clouds above, and kaleidoscopic effects sometimes fracture the image. As she does in her cyanotypes, Halloran contemplates technology through a lens of her own.
The Middle East Institute is a think tank that, 73 years after its founding, recently opened an art gallery. Policy came first, as it does in the MEI Gallery’s inaugural show, “Arabicity|Ourouba.” (The first word is an English rendering of the Arabic second one.) Issues of conflict and identity abound in the selections by 17 contemporary artists, chosen by London-based curator Rose Issa.
That doesn’t mean the art is mostly raw or confrontational. The pieces are well-crafted, and often uncontroversial. Few viewers will object to such found-object sculptures as Mahmoud Obaidi’s “Salam,” which arrays actual swords and daggers to write the Arabic word for “peace,” or Batoul S’himi’s “Arab World Under Pressure,” which cuts a map of the region into the side of a metal pressure cooker.
Some artworks address economic issues that are not specific to the Middle East. Anas Albraehe’s untitled painting of a dozing man depicts the plight of migrants and low-income workers who sleep in shifts in provisional housing. Adel Abidin’s “Consumption of War,” a video made with Finnish performers, depicts two battling corporate warriors who employ fluorescent tubes as light sabers.
Two works by Palestinian artists respond with humor to life in their semination. Sharif Waked’s video, “Chic Point: Fashion for Israeli Checkpoints,” is a satirical fashion show whose models promenade in clothing designed for quick inspection by Israeli soldiers. Khalil Rabah’s model airplane displays the emblem of the fictional United States of Palestine Airlines, each letter borrowed from the logo of a real airline.
More than half of the show’s contributors live, at least part time, outside the region the institute considers to be the Middle East, which stretches as far west as Morocco. So migration is a natural theme, pondered by such works as Khaled Barakeh’s combination of a life jacket and a kaffiyeh (a traditional scarf) and Said Baalbaki’s painting of a stack of suitcases. (Both the artists, Syrian and Lebanese, respectively, live in Berlin.) But sometimes the traffic goes the other way, as in Hassan Hajjaj’s hand-colored photo of a woman whose face is veiled by a knockoff Louis Vuitton scarf. Arabicity, like other cultural identities, is increasingly globalized.
Miriam Morsel Nathan
Fragility and endurance are central themes of Miriam Morsel Nathan’s “Some Piece of the Nature of Things,” a show of abstract works on paper at McLean Project for the Arts. Paint features in a few of these mostly black-and-white studies of what the Silver Spring artist calls “the landscape of fragmentation.” Yet conceptually, the pieces are drawings: wispy, offhand and characterized by spindly lines.
Nathan begins with random markings, which are then extrapolated by intentional additions. Most common are tendrils of ink, occasionally supplemented by charcoal or with lengths of wire that ramble and coil like the drawn lines. Some pictures position areas of yellow watercolor between the lines; the ones that most resemble actual landscapes include blocks of black acrylic that suggest buildings or mountains.
The artist is also a poet, and sometimes her curving lines suggest calligraphy in an unknown language. Her background as a writer may also explain her affinity for paper, which here has metaphorical significance. The material can be manipulated in many ways, she notes, yet “it survives . . . like us.”