C Bangs: Imaging Consciousness and the Cosmos Through the Artist’s Vision

D. H. Tarnowieski

It is said that a picture can tell a story that cannot as quickly be told in words. The symbolist figurative paintings of Brooklyn artist C Bangs are testament to the power of imagery to convey at a glance ideas that might take a speaker hours of talk or an author countless pages to articulate in words. 

Bangs’ work is a marriage of the artist’s vision and frontier science on many levels – energized through her union with astronomer/physicist Dr. Gregory L. Matloff. The collaborative atmosphere of her relationship with Matloff has impacted the nature and future direction of their work.  The ongoing conversations about the laws of physics that underlie the universe serve as a passionate inspiration for Bangs. They both broaden her awareness of what makes the Earth and the larger cosmos tick and inspire her paintings.  Through their work and travels together, she has met many other scientists and visionary thinkers. Their ideas about everything from the nature of consciousness to the birth and death of stars have deeply influenced her work.

One of these meetings occurred in 1991 with a noted quantum-consciousness physicist, Dr. Evan Harris Walker. Both a rebel and an early pioneer of the physics of consciousness, Walker was also an artist. He and Bangs enjoyed an ongoing exchange of ideas on the reality or non-reality of “space-time” and on his innovative theories concerning the relationship between quantum mechanics and consciousness that lasted until his death in 2006.

Bangs has incorporated Dr. Walker’s quantum consciousness equations in her paintings, in a manner designed by mutual agreement to posit questions related to his theories.  Bangs notes that while “Functioning as design elements that often speak to the interconnectivity of everything in the cosmos, the equations parallel the sacred writings found in illuminated manuscripts.”

Illuminated manuscripts, documents that layer images with spiritual doctrine are also an inspiration for her work.  In some of her paintings, Bangs has included visual references to the famous Voynich Manuscript, an illustrated 200-plus page document acquired in 1912 by the antiquarian book dealer Wilfrid M. Voynich. This manuscript is a late medieval period “codex” that includes more than 100 folios, some of which were folded one or more times to fit the book. The book is written in an elegant but completely unknown script that despite repeated attempts by cryptographers has never been deciphered. The work’s illustrations are the only clue to its possible textual content.

Among the illustrations in the Voynich Manuscript are those included in an astronomical section that features drawings of circular design with images of the sun, the moon and star arrangements. Bangs’ paintings often employ circular designs that include the visionary writings and equations of Evan Harris Walker or that are conceptually akin to the circles of nude figures holding stars found in the Voynich Manuscript’s astronomical section.        

Other elements Bangs often includes in her paintings are mythological female archetypes, such as Earth goddesses or fertility figures – a use as old as art, itself.  Bangs' inclusion of the female archetype and other mythological symbols is prominent in her works included in the collections of the Bob Blackburn Printmaking Workshop at the Library of Congress, Accademia dei Fisiocritici and the Pantera Contrade Museum in Sienna, Italy, the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Virginia, and the Mint Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina.

“Over time,” Bangs comments, “I was greatly influenced by the ‘Gaia Hypothesis’ – a theory formulated in the 1960s by independent research scientist James Lovelock in his work for NASA and further developed through his collaboration with noted microbiologist Lynn Margolis that began in 1971. Once familiar with their research, I began expressing through my artwork the concept of Earth as a living system in which all life cooperates to create and maintain supportive conditions for itself by fashioning an environment conducive to its continuity and survival.” 

Bangs began to merge science and art in the 1980s after she met and married Matloff .  “I’ve collaborated with Greg on his books and magazine articles to visually manifest his visionary space-science ideas. I have always believed the cosmos to be a creative process of transformation in which all things are purposeful and ultimately interconnected, and our ongoing dialog on this has only reinforced my conviction.”

As a young woman, Bang's visit  to the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico ignited her interest in the cosmos.  For years, she visited her parents over the winter holidays in San Juan Puerto Rico where her father had helped establish and taught at the Cornell University Hotel School Extension Program. These visits unfailingly included tours of the countryside. One year they found themselves in the town of Arecibo, where because of her father’s connection with Cornell they visited the Arecibo Observatory, a part of the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center operated by the university under an agreement with the National Science Foundation.

“Walking towards the observatory through the woods and hills that surround it is an amazingly tranquil experience,” Bangs recalls, “but one that is suddenly jarred by the awesome appearance of that giant metallic dish nestled in those gentle hills. Since the early 1970s, radio astronomers have used this largest of the world’s radio telescopes to listen to the electromagnetic signals generated by the cosmos in the search for any artificial signals that would indicate intelligent life. The observatory is home to the largest curved focusing antenna on the planet, which makes it the world’s most sensitive radio telescope. Arising out of the tropical flora, it always looked to me like something transplanted from another time and space.”

On their very first date four years before their marriage, Bangs and Matloff discussed their mutual love for the Arecibo Observatory. “No one understood the awe the observatory had evoked in me the way Greg did,” she says. “It was through our conversations about the sheer majesty of that enormous structure and related talks that we came to the realization that we had come home to each other.”  

From that time on, their mutual interest in cosmology, mythology, history and science fiction has formed the bond of their working relationship. “Our collaborative endeavors have taken us down many roads and I’ve created the chapter frontispieces and other art for all but one of his seven books. Working with Greg is always an adventure, and a news story that got national pickup amusingly referred to us as ‘the physics professor and artist wife who boldly go where few couples have gone before.’”

Attending scientific conferences with Greg all over the world, Bangs savors and learns from presentations by some of the planet’s leading astrophysicists and other scientists. “I continue to exhibit and also to present my own papers at these international astronautical congresses. In 2000, as part of a symposium on realistic near-term space missions held in Aosta, Italy, I curated an exhibition titled ‘Messages from Earth.’ The premise was to include artists’ concepts of comprehensible communications to extraterrestrials in the tradition of the message plaques sent into space in the 1970s as part of the Pioneer 10 and 11 missions. Following the exhibition, I donated the entire exhibition of Xeroxed images to the city of Aosta and to the NASA Marshall Spaceflight Center’s In-Space Propulsion Program in Huntsville, Alabama.”

That exhibition helped pave the way to Bangs’ first funded work for NASA. In 2001, she worked with Matloff on the development of a new radiation-resistant solar-photon sail holographic coating technology that would enable the sending of 3-D images into space by as early as 2020. The prototype holographic images she produced include those of human male and female figures that combine separate features of the different races as well as a diagram of where Earth is located in the solar system and galaxy. A diagram of the solar-photon sail spacecraft and equations related to its velocity form another component of the work. 

To create the work, Bangs first sculpted and then painted the human figures in preparation for their later illumination by a laser to produce a rainbow hologram.  Line drawings were made to accompany the figures and to demonstrate to aliens how humankind can abstract a three-dimensional figure to two dimensions. The rainbow hologram was constructed at the Center for Holographic Arts in Long Island City with the assistance of a team of holographers who contributed to the technical aspects of the work.

One of three existing sets of the images Bangs created is housed at the NASA Marshall Spaceflight Center. A second set was purchased by Brooklyn developer Charles Cara of Cara Development Company and later donated to City Tech, where it will soon be on permanent display. Bangs retains the third set.

From 2002 to 2004, Bangs was awarded NASA Faculty Fellowships.  Working with physicists, engineers and space scientists, she visualized their concepts for numerous poster sessions and workshop proceedings. She describes the work she did at NASA as “an amalgam of mythologies, science and hope for human evolution. Through this work visualizing concepts for experts working at the frontiers of the space sciences, [she] discovered ways of employing visual metaphors and of drawing upon mythology to demonstrate ideas that conceptually sounded at first more like science fiction than science fact.”

As their most recent book, Living off the Land in Space, was being written, the artwork Bangs contributed was influenced by her participation in NASA workshops on manufacturing in space and the design of Earth-like internal spacecraft environments that would help ensure the successful completion of interplanetary voyages by human beings.

In a February 2007 solo exhibition at Pratt Institute, where Bangs received her master of fine arts degree, she exhibited the chapter frontispieces for the book along with other works she created as a NASA Faculty Fellow.  Another section of the exhibition included drawings and digital work for an award-winning poster, Encountering the Old Mythology on Wings of New Technology, created in 2003 for NASA's In-Space Propulsion Technology Program, and for a second poster created in 2004 titled The Art of Aerocapture. Later, in spring 2007, Bangs’ undergraduate school, The University of the Arts, featured an alumni profile, “The C Bang Theory,” in Forum, the publication for alumni and friends of UArts. The article ended with this observation: "By reflecting on the language of our time represented in a different reality, Bangs brings together ancient systems with new explorations to create artwork that is timeless.”

Published by Copernicus Books in association with Praxis Publishing in June 2007, Living off the Land in Space has spurred numerous presentations, including a book discussion at New York City College of Technology( City Tech) CUNY in November.  In 2008, the college will host a second presentation to coincide with the permanent installation of the rainbow hologram. “Additional visionary books by Greg alone or with other co-authors are in the pipeline,” Bangs notes. “I look forward to continuing to provide imagery for these works that combine the scientific optimism they herald with the mystery and eloquence of archetypes that are such a central part of my work.”





photography by Mark Lee Blackshear