Manipulating Light

A major survey into the understanding of light in the context of physical space and object opens at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.

The use of light as an artistic medium, as something to be engaged with, is intrinsically tied to an audience’s liminal ability to perceive a sensory experience. The American artist, Robert Barry, stated in a 1969 interview with Arthur Rose: “I’m not only questioning the limits of our perception, but the actual nature of perception … various kinds of energy which exist outside the narrow arbitrary limits of our own senses. I use various devices to produce the energy, detect it, measure it, and define its form.” This interest in perception and the subjective physical limits of the art object were of primary interest for many American artists working during the 1960s and 1970s; specifically artists based in California at the time. Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface, which opens this September at Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, investigates and focuses in on these artists and how they appropriated and utilised light as a medium in their work. The exhibition, curated by Robin Clark, will include 13 different artists which include Larry Bell, Mary Corse, Robert Irwin, James Turrell, and Doug Wheeler. These artists were each chosen by Clark for the fact that they each “embrace light as a premium medium in their art and demonstrate a keener interest in perception than in the process of crafting discrete objects.”

Each artist approaches light as a material that can be manipulated and constructed to alter the audience’s perception of it. The human eye is limited but can be optically manipulated through the interaction between artificial and natural light upon different objects and materials. The paintings of artist Mary Corse (b. 1945), play with colour and the physical format of the canvas to create images which tend to dissolve the borders between art object and light. Her white minimalist paintings are visually sensuous in their use of small glass beads/spheres that are affixed to the canvas, which tend to create a visual shimmering blanket that reflects light back out onto the viewer. Corse, along with Helen Pashgian (b. 1934), are the only female artists included in the exhibition, though Clark is quick to point out that this is merely indicative of the fact that, for the most part, the artists working with light during the 1960s and 1970s in California tended to be male, and the exhibition is not meant to address gender. It would be amiss not to point out that Corse, as an artist typically categorised as a minimalist, competed against the art historical idea that minimalism, with its hard lines and forms, is inherently masculine. Corse and Pashgian both have the ability to subsume the structural, “masculine” form of minimalism and to form a hybrid object that both reflects and reproduces light as well as reducing the object to its basic properties of construction.

Pashgian’s work, which could also be considered minimalist, takes the “hard lines” of minimalism and softens them – her freestanding sculptures blurring the line between the physical occupation of space by an object and its ability to animate that space to produce an evocative and atmospheric environment. Her resin pieces, spheres and discs cast as small sculptures, are dynamic in their ability to transform a space by their very illumination by light. As such, they tend to change depending on their placement within a space, and never permit the audience the chance to acclimatise themselves to the object’s physical presence. Temporality manifested as expectation, the fragmented effect of waiting, lends a dynamism and mystery to Pashgian’s work that is mirrored in the work of many of the artists included in the exhibition including DeWain Valentine (b. 1934). Like Pashgian, Valentine uses the physical sculptural object as the basis of his work, but then subverts the form back unto itself through the reflection and transparency of the materials used. Valentine, whose family was involved in rock mining, takes inspiration from the surface of polished crystals and rocks – the surface a contradiction between the opaque hardness of the material and the transparency of its pigment (or lack thereof). Using resin he creates large column-shaped sculptures that, when placed within the architectural confines of a gallery, create a feeling of spatial recession that isolates both object and audience within the installation. There is almost a sense of theatricality to a work such as Diamond Column (1978), as its very occupation of gallery space mimics the presence of an actor on stage – the actor becoming a manifestation of the audience’s own preconceived notions and ideas.

Clark argues that the disorientating feeling produced by light-based works and installations is attributable to the very immateriality of light. It is not a tangible object that can be mimicked, but is something that can be manipulated, whether through the placement of objects or use of colour within physical spaces. Yves Klein stated, at a 1959 lecture at the Sorbonne in Paris, that: “The painter of the future will be a colourist of a kind never seen before, and that will occur in the next generation. And without doubt it is through colour that I have little by little become acquainted with the Immaterial.” Though Klein was emphasising colour, rather than light, it is his acknowledgment of the immateriality of the art object that is interesting to relate to this exhibition. Light and space-based art is dependent on the erosion of the line demarcating physical knowledge and sensory experience: perception of the immaterial object being the primary emphasis. James Turrell has perhaps taken this idea to the ultimate extreme with his creation of “skyspaces”; observation structures within the environment that dictate the experience of viewing the sky and light. Turrell uses light as his medium, with the actual physical structures being secondary and merely a conduit to transport the viewer. In a sense, the audience becomes the actor upon his stage as the work does not exist without the viewer there to actually take part. For Turrell, light is not an aid, something to assist us in seeing, but it is the actual art object. His ability to transform the physical properties of light is indicative of a lifelong obsession with it as a material.

The physicality of the art object is explored time and time again by artists and it is interesting that these artists selected for the exhibition tend to explore this from a visual perceptive standpoint. The conceptual artist Sol LeWitt (b. 1928) argued: “What the work of art looks like isn’t too important. It has to look like something if it has physical form. No matter what form it may finally have it must begin with an idea. It is the process of conception and realisation with which the artist is concerned. Once given physical reality by the artist, the work is open to the perception of all, including the artist.” For LeWitt, the artist himself (or herself), was not cognisant of how the art object would ultimately end up as the finished object was a post-fact reality subject to judgments by both audience and artist. The paradox between the plan and the finished object led many conceptual artists practising during the 1960s and 1970s to a distrust of art historical theory and criticism. Clark emphasises that most of the artists included in the exhibition, save for Robert Irwin (b. 1928), were primarily influenced by fellow contemporary artists and those that historically preceded them, rather than any specific texts or philosophies.

Robert Irwin is the oldest artist of those exhibiting and could perhaps be deemed the most influential as his work, which focuses on the perceptual phenomena of both objects and site-specific installations, is extensive and varied. He originally began experimenting with painting, using the canvas form as well as the applied pigment, to alter the viewer’s perception of the size and limits of the physical object. These experiments ultimately led to installations using light and scrim to create environments that invite and envelop the viewer into the work. The progression from dot paintings on canvas to aluminium and acrylic discs to site-specific installations demonstrates not just the extent of Irwin’s oeuvre, but reveals an underlying fixation with light and its material qualities. His installations layer light and shadow through the placement of scrim within specific spaces, producing a geometric ambience to be both experienced and perceived. Scrim, an almost translucent material often used as curtains, enables Irwin to create barriers that are neither impenetrable nor permanent yet at the same time are restrictive: the audience’s perception of the space is rendered into a hazy illusion of reality and thus they are forced to question the authenticity of their own sight.

The immersive environment was a key point of interest for Irwin, as well as Larry Bell (b. 1939) and Doug Wheeler (b. 1939), and the three artists famously exhibited together at the Tate Gallery in 1970 in an exhibition organised by Michael Compton. The difficulty of articulating, via catalogue text, light-based installations was recognised by Compton and he therefore avoided even attempting to describe and analyse their works. The exhibition comprised three galleries – one each for Irwin, Bell and Wheeler – in which each produced a work based on controlling the viewer’s perception of space and light. The visual ambiguity and feeling of disorientation produced by each work was compounded by the fact that they were part of a chain of movement, as the three galleries were connected. This interaction forged an intangible aesthetic that carried on into their future works; an aesthetic based on the reductive quality of the object and an emphasis on the corporeal energy of light.

Whereas the site-specific works of Irwin, Bell, Wheeler and Turrell investigated light and its physical qualities as dependent on the dichotomous structures that reflect and absorb it, Michael Asher (b. 1943) explored light and sound, as sculptural form (as with his Plexiglas sculptures) and as immersive environment. It would be easy to categorise the work of Asher as solely an institutional critique of the structures (both physical and ideological) that exist within the art world; but Clark moves beyond this common conception of his work and looks at Asher’s work with a new approach and analysis. His early works show an interest in investigating the basic structures of form, which ultimately lead to his current engagement with the overall structures and constructs of the art world itself. Asher, along with many of the other artists selected to exhibit, has been incredibly influential and inspiring for many contemporary artists. Clark states: “For artists who came of age during the 1990s and 2000s, engagement with light as a medium and questions of phenomenology tend to come bundled with a more self-conscious social practice than that of their predecessors, but they retain a focus on the environmental, the atmospheric, and the specifically contingent that are the enduring hallmarks of Light and Space work produced in southern California during the 1960s and 1970s.”

Each artist selected for the exhibition takes natural and artificial light as inspiration in their work, and it is not surprising that they are all California based and/or born. The misty haze of heat, especially as when in the desert or by the ocean, is a by-product of light, and must have been an influence on each artist – whether an acknowledged influence or not. Clark describes this light as: “The liminal, perceptually ambiguous light that happens when water evaporates into the atmosphere as mist or fog along a shimmering maritime horizon.” She also emphasises the importance of artificial light (neon tubing etcetera) as it is the antithesis of natural light in that it is contained energy; a form of light that can be much more easily manipulated by the artist as with Bruce Nauman’s Green Light Corridor of 1970. The exhibition will thus be an important aid in our art historical and critical understanding of the influence of light as related to physical environment and object.

Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface opened 25 September 2011 at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego and ran through until 22 January 2012. It was part of the Getty-funded initiative Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980.

Niamh Coghlan