Washington Post review of "Lia Halloran: The Same Sky Overarches Us All"

L.A. professor finds heavenly inspiration in Harvard Computers 

By Mark Jenkins 

November 1, 2019 

Los Angeles artist Lia Halloran wants to touch the heavens and to celebrate women who had the same ambition long before her. Her “The Same Sky Overarches Us All,” at the University of Maryland Art Gallery, mostly consists of seven-foot-high vertical prints inspired by a group of women known as the Harvard Computers. Halloran weaves their story, along with her own and the universe’s, into cosmic vignettes.

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.