Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface

There are various eyes. Even the Sphinx has eyes: and as a result there are various truths, and as a result there is no truth.

—Friedrich Nietzsche

We eat light, drink it in through our skins. With a little more exposure to light, you feel part of things physically. I like feeling the power of light and space physically because then you can order it materially. Seeing is a very sensuous act–there’s a sweet deliciousness to feeling yourself see something.
—James Turrell

The Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego is currently showing Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface at their two locations. The show is an overview of the mainly California, Light and Space movement. They range from the little known Douglas Wheeler or De Wain Valentine to the art world giants Robert Irwin and James Turrell. The Light and Space movement is often mistaken for Minimalism and indeed on the surface, that appears to be true. However, where Minimalist artists—Donald Judd, Robert Ryman and Ad Reinhardt to name a few, sought to objectify experience through reduction against the subjective psychology of abstract expressionism before it, the Light and Space artists were focused almost exclusively on phenomenology and the nature of perception. The overlap between the two art movements appears in the geometry, reductive presentation and material of Light and Space artists’ work.

It is certainly no accident, that California artists in opposition to their east coast counterparts, developed an acute receptivity to light and material. The prevailing light of California’s climate, whether it the glaze of dream-like sunshine in the south or the foggy, ethereality of the light in the Bay area to the north, light in California is very different from the light of the northeast. The weather is itself reductive and outdoor spaces tend to be more important than indoor spaces. The material sensitivities of Light and Space came from a combination of Hollywood backstage craft and car culture. Robert Irwin has talked about his many hot rods. The American Graffiti (A film by another Californian – George Lucas) obsession with cars led to a hyper-sensitivity to surface, sometimes painting more than 17 coats of paint and lacquer. That same obsession with surface carried over to art with slick spheres of resin or highly polished, chemically treated glass. The California Light and Space artists found materials purely a medium for delivering altered states of perception, not objects unto themselves.

There were two striking components of the show in San Diego. The first was the odd juxtaposition of a show which focused on the phenomenology of light and space in a place where that was ever present. In other words, the exhibition conveyed indoors what was usually experienced outdoors. Secondly, I found the show largely melancholy, which was surprising given the context of the work.

I have seen several of James Turrell’s Skyspaces, or openings that he has carefully shaped in the ceilings of various locations which allow the viewer to confront the photons penetrating our atmosphere throughout the day as a tangible experience. We don’t often think of light (photons) having physicality until we witness a cutting laser, but photons indeed carry mass. This mass in reaction to the physical components of our atmosphere creates a living entity that becomes an object unto itself, as a sculpture or a car would be. Without the grounding of other objects it is difficult to lend scale and in turn, mass to the sky.

"Afrum" by James Turrell at the MCASD

The subtle layers of color variation created by photons hitting various particles in our atmosphere ends up becoming simply blue, or grey. It is the unwitnessed umbrella to our everyday existence, taken for granted and rarely experienced as an entity unto itself. Turrell of course, wants us to return to a more ancient perception of our atmosphere, the sky with mass. Unfortunately, there was no sky space at MCASD, but only Turrell’s artificial light spaces. Experiencing Afrum (White) or Stuck Red and Stuck Blue, reduced his work to a parlor trick. These obvious riff’s on colorfield painting, although beautiful, held much less potency than his Sky Spaces command. Walking into an empty gallery space or a darkened theater-like room to view one of these works somehow nullified the phenomenon. We are so accustomed to artificial light being projected at us now, the pieces ended up looking nostalgic, empty diorama’s of light from some museum of dead physics.

Robert Irwin’s large coated glass piece and cast acrylic column, carried a similar fait accompli to Turrell’s work. Combined with pieces by John McCracken, Helen Pashgian, Craig Kauffman, and De Wain Valentine, who primarily work(ed) in acrylic and resins, felt dated, and quaint. The experience was akin to re-watching Logan’s Run, the 1976 science fiction movie starring Michael York and Jenny Agutter, and realizing the memories of a 13 year old boy cannot sustain the much older, adult man. The sophistication of computer graphics (CGI) today has ruined most films prior to 1990 relying on special effects (the notable exceptions being Blade Runner, Star Wars and of course 2001: A Space Odyssey). The reason for this is Arthur C. Clarke’s third law of prediction, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I went to MCASD with recollections of magic and left seeing dated technology and dated art. The exhibition’s focus is on phenomenon, but one generation’s phenomenology is another’s banality.

The exhibition was not entirely without merit. Irwin’s cut out windows at the La Jolla branch demonstrated a simple yet brilliant shift in our perception of glass that seemed timeless. Arguably, in this age of architecture overrun by glass facades and boxes, e.g., Apple stores, Irwin’s work seemed highly relevant. By removing roughly one square foot of glass from the center and the corner of a gallery space window that overlooked the ocean, perception immediately clouded the idea of surface and space. This object (windows) that we take for granted is actually a physical reality altering our environment. Were you indoors or out? Were you looking through an opening or entering into a different dimension of time/space? My friend Carol who joined me at the La Jolla branch where the cut outs are, immediately questioned whether the holes in the glass were holes at all. It required us walking right up to the hole and putting a hand through it to confirm.

Larry Bell’s cubes also held up surprisingly well. Perhaps it is his extraordinary attention to detail and use of glass as opposed to acrylics that carried them. Bell has been producing these glass cubes for decades now, focusing on the confusion of volume. Donald Judd in his essay Specific Objects (1965) sums up this emergent new form of Light and Space sculpture,

Abstract painting before 1946 and most subsequent painting kept the representational subordination of the whole to its parts. Sculpture still does. In the new work the shape, image, color and surface are single and not partial and scattered. There aren’t any neutral or moderate areas or parts, any connections or transitional areas. The difference between the new work and earlier painting and present sculpture is like that between one of Brunelleschi’s windows in the Badia di Fiesole and the façade of the Palazzo Rucellai, which is only an undeveloped rectangle as a whole and is mainly a collection of highly ordered parts.

On the left, Brunelleschi’s Fiesola façade. On the right, Palazo Rucellai sketch.

Judd aptly recognized early on, what was unique about the Light and Space movement, that is focused on volumes created by light and space as an object. In Brunelleschi’s Fiesola façade, the windows are illusory spaces that borrow from Persian geometry and leverage linear perspective to create dimensional complexity that is not inherent in the physicality of the façade itself, unlike the Palazo Rucellai, which relies on the standard formulaic divided space of windows and columns. Bell’s “ghost boxes” as they’re sometimes called, works off the same principal as Brunelleschi but advances it with 20th century material. The object becomes the volumetric space contained in the cube while simultaneously referencing an even larger dimension reflected and refracted in the glass that forms the cube itself.

At the downtown location, a lone painting (I’m using that term loosely) in a darkened room by Mary Corse called Untitled (Space + Electric Light) left me unsettled and full of delight. The piece is a 4’ x 4’ square of milk plexiglass with neon lighting behind it, but Corse deliberately tampered with the neon, causing the lighting behind this otherwise clean, white illuminated square to flicker and jitter. These disruptions were not the typical fluorescent transformer flickering, but something more potent. The quality of light gave the piece an alien quality. The buzzing and flickering left the viewer wondering if they were viewing something greatly advanced or a technological relic from the past.

An installation by Douglas Wheeler called DW 68 VEN MCASD 11, worked in a way I normally expect when experiencing a Turrell. In fact, when I entered the room I thought it was a Turrell. A wall with recessed neon white light emanating from all four sides at the end of the room made the entire room a light sculpture. Wheeler should be as famous as Turrell and Irwin, but for unknown reasons he has not achieved their prominence. Wheeler’s work uses light as a device for nullifying edge and transgressing the classic rectangle of painting. An obsessive artist with a mathematical precision to his work it must be considered largely off-putting by a generation of critics who support junk-assemblage postmodern punk works. Despite the fastidiousness of Wheeler’s work it was a joyful highlight of the MCASD exhibition.

Surface of a California hot rod (L) compared to "Untitled" by Craig Kauffman 1968 synthetic polymer vacuum-formed plexiglass with acrylic lacquer 23 x 51 x 12in.

The best of California Light and Space art, like all art, transcends time and provides as much of a platform for ethereality today as it did when first shown in the sixties. If some of the works materiality doesn’t hold up after four decades, we realize that our own environment hasn’t either. The utopian promise of the aerospace and industrial design that grew out of 1950s California often looks dated and beleaguered today, just as watching the original Star Wars does. A large number of mainly European artists owe their success today to the artist of the Light and Space movement of the sixties and seventies, Olafur Eliasson the most famous among them. The Pop art world swallowed much of the promises offered by Minimalism and the Space and Light movement, with its easy to digest accessibility. But now that the weight of decades of irony feels more like a desert found at TGIF’s—too sweet, too big and leaving you with a stomach ache after. The return of aerospace dominance, this time with a darker pretense in the form of unmanned drones and video-guided bombs, leaves an opening for revisiting the Light and Space movement. Our sense of phenomenon may have shifted more comfortably into CGI but our need for grounding in the wonders of the present will never leave us. A similar show at David Zwimmer in NYC in 2010 was eloquently summarized by the poet critic Peter Schjeldahl,

In the sixties, puritanical New Yorkers (me included) like to deplore the air of lotus-eating chic that Bell shred with other California minimalists. Today, after what seems an eternity of having been pummeled by the big-ticket swank of stainless-steel bunnies by Jeff Koons and tanked sharks by Damien Hirst, I find Bell’s slickness generously candid…There’s no crime in art’s looking like a luxury. It is a luxury. Meanwhile, the intellectual integrity of the cubes, merging Euclid and reverie, proves rock solid.

Our systems of knowledge are all built upon perception and the ontology of phenomenon. The only limitation to that knowledge is our denial of things greater than ourselves and our unwillingness to embrace the unknown and unknowable. Although at times quaint and dated, the Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface exhibition can still serve as a gentle reminder that wonder can be a gateway to modesty.

This entry was posted by Erik Odin Cathcart.

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