By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
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By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
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In late 2003 and early 2004, visitors to the Turbine Hall — the architectural canyon that is the defining feature of the refurbished power plant housing London’s Tate Modern museum — beheld The Weather Project, a work hatched in the Berlin studio of Olafur Eliasson. The son of Icelandic parents, Eliasson grew up in Denmark, where he maintains a home, and studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Arts in the early 1990s, but he was heavily influenced by the work of Robert Irwin and James Turrell, two artists who collaborated in perceptual experiments in the late 1960s, around the time Eliasson was born, and who, in the same period, became pioneering figures in Southern California’s emergent Light and Space art movement.
There’s no mistaking the influence of Turrell and Irwin in The Weather Project. Mirrors mounted on the ceiling doubled the Turbine Hall’s volume. A mist machine wafted synthesized London fog through the hall, and a giant semicircular form holding hundreds of monofrequency lamps, also doubled by the mirrors, appeared as if it were a whole sphere. This indoor sun emitted a narrow light frequency, illuminating the mist and bathing the space in a golden glow so intense that it appeared as if the world had been turned black and white, and then tinted yellow. Photographs of the scene are reminiscent of those Monet and Van Gogh paintings of landscapes flooded with colored light emanating from a circle in the sky. But the scene also was evocative of Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte — 1884, as the Turbine Hall became a sort of beach, populated by gallerygoers who lingered, lounged, and engaged in the sort of basic communal appreciation of light and atmosphere that normally draws masses to the seaside.
The same sort of social phenomenon that drew nearly two million people to the Tate to check out Eliasson’s concocted phenomena can now be found at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), which is hosting the first large survey exhibition of the artist’s work. Included are rooms dealing in manipulations of light similar to those at the Tate, and a number of works here are related to explorations Eliasson tried out in Los Angeles, in exhibitions at Marc Foxx Gallery, and in his memorable 2005 series of projects that drew viewers from room to room through the Jamie Residence in the Pasadena hills. The San Francisco exhibition, along with two other current shows of work by Turrell and Irwin, drives home a key point with regard to the legacy of the Light and Space movement — that in focusing on giving viewers opportunity to consider their own perception of phenomena rather than the more conventional art experience of decoding signs, styles and imagery, Light and Space was, and continues to be, a social movement toward a collective heightened awareness.
Turrell, who completed a perceptual-psychology degree at Pomona College in 1965, and later revisited the neighborhood to attend the Claremont Graduate School, is enjoying a homecoming with the permanent installation of Skyspace on the Pomona campus, and an exhibition that opened in September at the Pomona College Museum of Art, which continues into the spring. The show includes one of his Ganzfeld works, in which a bath of light emanates from one end of a room designed — with flawless surfaces, a sloping floor, no shadows, and curves rather than corners — to deny the human brain the visual cues it usually relies upon in determining spatial depth. There are two of his Tall Glass pieces, in which an illuminated rectangle of color shifts much like the changing color of the sky, but here as the result of a collection of individually programmed LEDs. Also included are several models for architectural projects dealing with one of Turrell’s favorite tasks, framing the sky, which is just what Skyspace does. If you can imagine the matte taken from a picture frame, then enlarged to gigantic proportions and suspended overhead so as to isolate a swatch of the heavens, then you have an idea of the experience. At dusk, programmed lights hit the underside of the matte with shifting color that accentuates and complicates the view of the changing sky. A reflecting pool beneath expands the experience, while a ring of benches affords opportunity for viewing to become a group encounter.
Irwin, meanwhile, is illuminating San Diego with the first retrospective of his work since 1993. No museum is better suited for such a show than the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD), with more than 50 of his works in its collection, six of them just acquired. The exhibition surveys Irwin’s full career, from early adventures in Abstract Expressionism to proposals for major public commissions, and includes one of the best-ever installations of one of Irwin’s “disc” works. But stealing the show, and revealing Irwin going full throttle as he nears 80, are new works, including a gigantic installation of fluorescent light fixtures appropriately titled Light and Space, an installation of high-gloss, color-coated aluminum panels that multiply reflections of their viewers and surrounding architecture like a Mondrian house of mirrors, and a pair of new pieces involving the scrim material Irwin has experimented with for years.
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