Featured photo: Christine Zuercher’s astronaut-type suit stands in GreenHill as part of LEAP. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

A dark, blank canvas ripe with infinite possibilities. That’s how artists have imagined outer space in the new GreenHill exhibition LEAP, which opened on March 16.

A space for exploration and joy.

An unexplored frontier to exploit.

An equalizing universe where liberation is within reach.

An escape from the terrestrial confines and conflicts of our time.

“One of the themes, you know, I think about outer-space art has to be not necessarily escapism, but this desire for a better world,” says curator Edie Carpenter.

She points out Greensboro photographer Rondell Lane’s piece, “Escaping the Chaos,” which is hung at the entrance of the show. In the photo collage, Lane casts himself as the subject floating midair in the center of the piece, beams illuminating him from above as he rises upwards into a UFO floating in the sky. In the background, a Shell gas station anchors the viewer, offering context of place. Lane, with his back to the viewer, wears a plain, black shirt and blue shorts along with white-and-red sneakers. His body language is relaxed, at ease, almost limp as he makes his ascent.

A visitor gazes at artist Rondell Lane’s “Escaping the Chaos” in LEAP at GreenHill. (photo by Maaroupi Sani)

Often, stories of abduction are colored by fear, animosity, anxiety. But as a Black man existing in what appears to be Somewhere, USA, Lane has turned the idea of an abduction on its head, instead welcoming the event as is evidenced in the work’s title.

“There’s this sense of, we’re overwhelmed by reality,” Carpenter says.

Throughout the show, others like Lane — particularly the works of Black artists — look to the stars as a place of escape or empowerment. In Charlotte artist Sloan Siobhan’s “Akasha Card Deck,” Black figures are cast in glinted silver, gold and turquoise exuding elegance and power. In her description of the work, Siobhan states that the Black bodies are “ethereal beings.”

Visitors gaze at artist Sloan Siobhan’s works in LEAP at GreenHill. (photo by Maaroupi Sani)

Indeed it’s a familiar theme that runs through the work of Afrofuturists like Octavia Butler, George Clinton and Sun Ra. This idea that by casting ourselves into another realm and time, there is space for exploration, freedom and even self-determination in a way that has been deterred by our current constraints.

And yet, in other parts of the exhibit, artists take a much bleaker view of space exploration.

In his work, “Left Behind by the Billionaire Games,” Charlotte artist Bryant Portwood shows a vision of possible near future in which billionaires like Elon Musk regularly visit space, exploiting its untouched resources, as the rest of us have no choice but to look on from Earth.

In the foreground of his painting, about a dozen people gather and gaze up at the sky, each of them wearing a pair of sunglasses. It’s a bright and sunny day; the images of two rockets blazing off into space are reflected in the lenses. In the background, viewers get a better look at two additional ships which take off behind the crowd.

Artist Bryan Portwood’s piece in LEAP at GreenHill. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

In a similar vein, Cecil Norris’ “Space Race,” finely rendered in graphite on paper, shows a rocket mid-blast as it enters the atmosphere with logos of Mobil, Amazon Wal-Mart, Google and Apple affixed to its shell.

“They’re asking, who is left behind in the whole movement towards space?” Carpenter says.

Curator Edie Carpenter of GreenHill at the LEAP show opening. (photo by Maaroupi Sani)

The idea of capitalism bleeding into everything that humans touch, even in outer space, is also explored in Charlotte artist Marcus Kiser’s piece “After These Messages,” an animated video featuring Kiser’s hand-drawn works that start off with a Saturday morning cartoon-like intro of a show titled, “The Last Black Star Fighter,” which quickly gets interrupted by commercials. In the subsequent ads, products like “Kosmic Kulture Krunch,” which evokes Blaxploitation themes, and “Cosmic Punch” entice viewers. In a more insidious turn, an ad for a “Cosmic Rifle Association” flashes across the screen. In much the same way as Norris and Portwood, Kiser prompts the question of how far humans would have to go to shed their capitalistic tendencies and if space, would indeed, be vast enough to reach such a point.

Jeffrey Pender’s sculptures and Sloane Siobhan’s mural on display as part of LEAP at GreenHill. (photo by Maaroupi Sani)

Other works by Kiser and artists Jason Woodberry and Quentin Talley — which altogether is called Intergalactic Soul — fill the back section of the gallery where a video game installation and comic-style prints of two young space explorers, Astro and Pluto, cover a wall. On Saturday, March 23, the three artists will host a free performance consisting of hip-hop and spoken word inspired by sci-fi and Afrofuturism at the Van Dyke Performance Space from 5-7 p.m.

A visitor gazes at artist Marcus Kiser’s works in LEAP at GreenHill. (photo by Maaroupi Sani)

In addition to the two-dimensional works that make up the show, several sculptural pieces, many of them whimsical in nature, round out the show with an air of levity and curiosity.

With “Ckleubbie,” artist Kennedy Giovanelli has conjured a grotesque yet strangely loveable creature with rabbit-like ears, bumpy Cheeto-like skin and a facial expression that looks vaguely human. Nearby, Ian Dennis’ “Colin Newman,” depicts what essentially is a large, androgynous, anthropomorphic plush doll made of fleece and thread, laying prone with its head looking up slightly at an angle like it’s just woken up from slumber.

“They’re very playful,” Carpenter says.

“Ckleubbie” by Kennedy Giovanelli in LEAP at GreenHill. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

In one corner of the gallery, artist Christine Zuercher takes the idea of play to another level, as she imagines a whole bureaucratic entity called the American Interterrestrial Society. In her works, which span from gum bichromate photographs to tiny sculptures, Zuercher creates artifacts she has found as an explorer who is a member of the society. On a podium she displays an antenna and a machine microchip that was discovered during one of her explorations. As part of the same installation, an astronaut-type suit stands in the gallery, less of a sculpture, Carpenter explains, and more of a uniform that Zuercher wears when creating her pieces as said explorer.

“Her work had always struck me as incredibly poetic and imaginative,” Carpenter says. 

And that’s the throughline of the exhibit: imagination. The ideas brought forth by each of the 25 artists in the show imagine outer space and the beyond in varying ways. And although much of it is an unexplored realm, the show will touch audiences who view it in a personal way because of its grounding in the human experience.

Visitors in the gallery during the opening of LEAP at GreenHill. (photo by Maaroupi Sani)

“When we say we’re doing a show about outer space, space is really a reflection of us,” Carpenter says.

LEAP: Artists Imaging Outer Space is on display at GreenHill Center for NC Art through June 29. The show has several accompanying events, including an open call for community artworks related to space for a show on June 7. The Intergalactic Soul show takes place on Saturday at the Van Dyke Performance Space from 5-7 p.m. To learn more about the show and the events, visit greenhillnc.org/leap

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