I’ve always been drawn to the fanciful illustrations that adorn the covers of sci-fi magazines and books. Better than words, they conjure up images of faraway planets, visions of improbable habitats; the vivid imagination of the artists transforms outer space into a friendlier and curiouser place. “Like last century’s painters of the Wild West, space artists romanticize a new frontier,” says Terry Booth, the mild-mannered owner and curator of the three-year-old Brandywine Fantasy Gallery.

Starting tonight, Brandywine–named after an influential art school established by master cover illustrator Howard Pyle around the turn of the century–is hosting an exhibition of recent works by five prominent space artists called “Space Art: The New Frontier.” Dave Archer, one of the artists represented in the show, seems especially true to the romantic spirit Booth speaks of; he calls himself an “artist inspired by the spirit of space.”

Many of Archer’s images are eerily three-dimensional landscapes of planets in sundry colors and sizes floating amid traces of primordial mist. Unlike some of his colleagues, Archer isn’t too worried about astronomical accuracy. Instead, his paintings suggest glimpses into corners of a distant galaxy.

What also sets the 50-year-old northern Californian apart from other “spacescape” artists is the one-of-a-kind painting technique he’s perfected over the years. For years the mostly self-taught artist had been a student of the Chinese line paintings, “observing and drawing detail by detail from life.” One day, at the suggestion of a friend, he switched from painting on scrolls to reverse glass; he also switched from representational paintings to experiments with “nonobjective” landscapes. Then in the early 70s, Archer recalls, “another friend, watching me paint, said, ‘Why not try to paint with this small tesla coil of mine?’ So I did.”

They placed a pane of glass on ceramic insulators and daubed watery acrylics on the surface. Then they put the coil over the glass and charged it with electric current. “Electricity tries to reach the ground the fastest way it can,” Archer explains, “so it goes through the puddles of paint because water is a marvelous conductor. It heats up the acrylics, and the electricity follows the paint’s path to the edge of the glass. Then it goes into the ground. Why, I don’t know. It’s one of those mysteries of science.” Archer liked the resulting patterns of swirls and eddies so much that he stopped using a paintbrush.

“It’s like a conspiracy between me and electricity, a tremendous burst of creative energy–so to speak,” Archer says. Nowadays in his San Rafael studio, he works with a 1.5-million-volt tesla coil (named after the Croatian-born inventor who thought high-frequency radio waves instead of copper wires were the most economical way to transmit electricity). With the help of an assistant, he first slathers layers of acrylics and lacquer on a pane of double-strength glass. “I don’t prepare any sketches beforehand,” he explains. Then he dons a pair of heavy insulation boots and takes an aluminum wand in hand. The assistant turns on the electricity, and the “conspiracy” begins. The coil emits bolts of varying intensity, zapping the glass a la Bride of Frankenstein. With the tip of the wand, Archer guides the electricity’s whiplike arcs as they cause the paint to steam and bubble.

After leaving the glass to dry for a few days, Archer applies a thin layer of paint on its back. He then paints in the planets or, in other cases, scrapes off or adds paint to reveal orbs in relief. The precision of the circles comes from Macintosh-generated patterns that he silk-screens onto the glass. The electrical current can have a mind of its own, and despite safety precautions Archer has been burned more than once. But he likens the whole process to the act of creation. “The clouds created by this tool are full of raw and wild energy, very primal.” And they achieve the result he’s after: “When the image looks right to me,” he adds, “then I’m content with the result, regardless whether it’s authentic or not.”

Even distinguished scientific types have been taken with Archer’s evocative views. The Hayden Planetarium in New York honored Archer’s work with its first one-man show ever. Copies of his works decorate the walls of NASA and the U.S.S. Enterprise (in the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation and the upcoming movie). A four-by-four-foot glass panel titled Art Worlds will soon be on permanent display at the Museum of Science and Industry. Archer says an astronaut once told him, “It doesn’t quite look like this out there, but it sure does feel like it.”

While appreciative of the attention of sci-fi fans and collectors, Archer sees his paintings as fine art. “They are not cover illustrations, or political cartoons. They don’t serve any practical purpose. I hope they speak to you on a mysterious level,” he says. Then, paraphrasing James Joyce: “A painting of mine should hold the viewer in aesthetic arrest.”

Other artists featured in “Space Art: The New Frontier” are Adolf Schaller (who has done Emmy-winning visuals for Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series), Bob Eggleton, Franz Lurz, and the Adler Planetarium’s Mark Paternostro. Archer, Schaller, and two others will be present at the opening tonight from 5 to 7:30, timed to coincide with the World Science Fiction Convention at the Hyatt Regency this weekend. The exhibition runs through October 12; admission is free. Brandywine Gallery, at 750 N. Orleans, suite 205, is open Wednesday through Saturday 11:30 to 5:30. For more info call 951-8466.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Ron Delaney.