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Art meets science; it’s a natural

Earlier this week, while others prowled the aisles at Ralphs and Vons in search of Thanksgiving fixings, Santa Monica artist Lita Albuquerque was in the bowels of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, poring through the invertebrate fossil collection and learning new facts about the sea slug.

“I actually visited the sea slug specialist and found out that sea slugs are extremely colorful when they’re alive,” Albuquerque says enthusiastically. “And there are thousands of species of starfish.”

Who knew “sea slug specialist” was a viable career option? That’s the kind of public awareness the museum hopes to foster with its exhibition “Conversations,” which pairs museum scientists with six local artists and allows those artists -- Albuquerque, Kim Abeles, Tony Berlant, Paul McCarthy, Ed Moses and John Valadez -- to create art installations using items from the collections. Sound design will be provided by Phyllis Ginter.

The exhibition, which opens Feb. 20, appears to be the latest move in the museum’s attempt to attract new audiences as it gears up for a $300-million expansion and renovation project. In recent years, the museum’s First Friday series has targeted the coffeehouse crowd by showcasing writers and performers. That series included October’s controversial “Laugh L.A.,” featuring performance artist John Fleck and comedians Rick Overton and Frazer Smith. Event producer Peter Bergman, a veteran of Firesign Theatre, claimed that he was fired after that show because it included some Bush bashing. The museum has denied his allegation.

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Albuquerque, who has mixed science and art in a recent project for Caltech and this year’s “BioBallistic” show at the L.A. Municipal Art Gallery, contemplates creating a series of star maps, borrowing small objects, perhaps beads or shells, of different sizes to represent the varying luminosities in the actual star-scape. “It’s one of my ideas. It hasn’t been gelled yet,” she says.

No sea slugs among the stars, probably, but Albuquerque was glad to have seen them all the same. “They only show 1 to 2% of what they have, so it’s been quite something to go into the back rooms and meet the scientists, and go through cabinets of extraordinary things,” she says.

-- Diane Haithman


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