Encompassing astronomy, history, materiality, attention, and labor, Glass, Metal, Thread: Building Our Observable World presents drawings and textiles made by artist Anna Von Mertens from 2015 through 2022. She writes, “I think objects can absorb time, absorb our physical presence. That is why I make detailed drawings; that is why I sew quilts by hand.” The artist’s close observation and meticulous making are evident in the three discreet (yet in dialogue) series on view: Remnants, Measure, and Objects (100 Emojis).
This exhibition premieres Von Mertens’s Remnants drawings, for which she finds inspiration in the formation of precious metals through exploding stars. To acknowledge the chain of cosmic processes, the artist developed her own complex process. First, she gathered gold and silver necklaces and arranged them on light-sensitive paper in swirling forms that recall a nebula or supernova. Then, she exposed them to sunlight to complete the cyanotype process. The three-dimensional tangles of jewelry created both points of contact on the paper, and slippages into shadow, which she scanned and projected onto black paper. She then painstakingly drew the forms with metallic gold and silver pencils. Von Mertens writes, “A necklace might simply act as reminder of someone, the bestower of a gift. These elements are a connection to others. Here, in my drawings, they indicate the connection to all things. These elements came from cosmic events so far from our reality, so physically distant—and yet, here they are; here we are.”
The exhibition includes the entirety of works that comprise Von Mertens’s research on American astronomer Henrietta Leavitt (1868–1921). Leavitt was a Harvard “computer” who studied photographic glass plate negatives of the stars. Her observations and calculations of cycles of brightness in variable stars gave astronomers the first tool to measure the distance to faraway stars. Leavitt’s discovery led to those by other scientists who have become household names, including Edwin Hubble. Von Mertens celebrates Leavitt’s contributions with graphite drawings of some of the original glass plates that Leavitt studied, which the artist accessed through the Harvard College Observatory during the formation of her research-based exhibition at the Harvard Radcliffe Institute. Von Mertens also used software to determine the position of stars above Leavitt’s birthplace on the day she was born and above the location of her death on the day she died. She hand-stitched the arcing star trails for each date into large black textiles, which are installed with a distance between them to represent Leavitt’s lifespan.
Colored-pencil drawings from Von Mertens’s Objects (100 Emojis) series animate the symbols we view on our phones using patterns that reference traditional quilts. In giving a different kind of attentive awareness to these objects, Von Mertens brings the virtual world into contact with our physical world, a revealing and enriching act.
Glass, Metal, Thread: Building Our Observable World is the center point of multiple educational programs. Anna Von Mertens will give a public artist lecture and meet with students. University Galleries’ staff will lead art-making workshops for ISU students, families, K-12 students, and community members. University Galleries continues collaborating with the Children’s Discovery Museum for Art Around You, a series of exhibition tours and workshops for children ages 7 through 10. Free virtual and in-person curator-led tours are available by appointment for the duration of the exhibition.
Glass, Metal, Thread: Building Our Observable World is organized by Kendra Paitz, University Galleries’ director and chief curator. This exhibition and programming are supported by University Galleries’ grants from the Illinois Arts Council Agency, Harold K. Sage Foundation, and the Illinois State University Foundation Fund.