Visual Arts

The Light Fantastic

It's tough to name the feeling you get being rolled, head first, into James Turrell's Gasworks -- maybe a little anxious, maybe a little silly. Yet when the friendly attendant in a white lab coat reminds you not to sit up once the light show begins inside the spherical chamber, you're bound to wonder whether this MRI adventure is the clinical end that art has finally come to: a flat-on-your-back experience inside some kind of a Wallace and Gromit orgasmatron.

With its long bed of rollers and gray, gas-refinery shape, the contraption is the perfect prop of sci-fi doom. But metaphorical encounters with light and color have always engendered new beginnings. The sunset range of colors -- sometimes so intense you think your eyes are closed -- inside Turrell's industrial cave of wonders is no different. In his version of the beginning, light reveals the question, "Am I seeing or am I imagining?"

This isn't a new line of inquiry. Art has a lengthy history of presenting perceptual tugs of war between images and the realities they depict. Yet in his sensational exhibition "James Turrell: Infinite Light" at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, Turrell rephrases it into poetry that seems to consist of nothing more than light and emptiness.

In several of his light installations, large, flat rectangles of luminous color appear to float on walls, only to reveal after moments of study deep underlying spaces soaked with color. In another, cracks of light -- like the bright seams radiating from a door ajar -- appear to bite clean geometric wedges of color out of dark rooms.

Turrell has been creating this brand of magic for more than 30 years. But this is the Valley's first extensive sampling of it.

The show is long overdue here, given that Turrell, a leading artist of his 50-something generation, has been living outside Flagstaff since the 1970s.

The exhibition fills SMoCA and occupies two additional galleries inside the Scottsdale Center for the Arts, just across the walkway from the museum. Those galleries include prints and models documenting the artist's ruminations about light and his lengthy effort to turn Roden Crater, an extinct volcano northeast of Flagstaff, into a celestial observatory for the naked eye.

But it's SMoCA's Gasworks and four other light installations that lead many viewers emerging from them to ask, in tones of genuine wonderment, "What did you see?"

You'd think that question would come up more often in museums, institutions dedicated to the practice and aesthetics of looking. But it doesn't. Too many people assume that artists define reality and impose a set of right and wrong ways to understand it.

But Turrell's exquisite works burrow into the relativity of experience. Their visual ambiguities shift the work of the mind from looking to seeing. In the process, they advance the assumption that seeing is an individual experience, something that's different for everyone. That difference is best experienced alone, or in small groups.

None of Turrell's light installations is intended to hold more than four viewers at a time. The Gloaming is an inky dark room where only two viewers can sit for up to 20 minutes. Gasworks, whose light show runs for eight to 10 minutes, allows only solo viewing.

Considering the lines of people from Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas waiting to get in to see the Norman Rockwell exhibition at the Phoenix Art Museum, this might seem to be an odd way to run a blockbuster. But it's about the only way to savor what Turrell offers.

Like other revelatory experiences, this one should begin in the dark. Museum staffers tend to direct visitors to start the exhibition at Open Field, a dramatic blue room around the corner from the entrance. But The Gloaming is an installation that prepares your eyes to see the low-light realities of color that intrigue Turrell.

The space appears at first to be completely black. But after the initial lacy afterimages of outdoor light fade from your mind, your eyes seem to reach into the dark to pull in a subtle variety of unexpected shapes and patterns. One is a faintly glowing doughnut with a black hole that seems to oscillate around the middle. Other images, such as dancing pinpoints of light, might also appear.

The contemplative setting underscores a curious historical contradiction in Turrell's light installations. Though based on modernist principles of relativity, they draw much of their power from the long-forgotten sense that light is a precious commodity. Even now, in our electrical age, it is no less a wonder than it was for Vermeer, who stood his models in the stream of light beside his studio windows, or for ancient hunters who, by torchlight, scratched images of their prey on the uneven walls of caves.

That sense of wonder pervades these works in ways that children are especially attuned to.

On one of the days I was viewing Occlusion, which features a large greenish room behind what at first appears to be a flat rectangle on a wall, two little girls were staring at the rectangle from a distance.

"You know what's funny about that light?" said one to the other. "It doesn't have any shadows."

To prove it, she marched toward the rectangle on the wall. Midway there, her friend told her to stop.

"I can see your reflection on the floor," she called from across the room.

The stopped girl looked down, then called back, "But how can there be a reflection if I don't have a shadow?"

These conundrums reveal as much about the nature of Turrell's installations as they do about how the mind works when it sees.

Those workings produce some dramatic effects. That's probably why Open Field is the recommended starting point of the show. Like the other spaces, it begins with the illusion of a vivid rectangle on a wall -- a blue one. As you stare into its depth, the corners and dimensions of the space beneath the surface appear. Unlike the other installations, this is a space you can walk through. When you do, it's a space without horizons, a fog of color. And the view back out through the opening is as dramatic as the view in. If your eyes are attuned to the light, the blue makes the dull white of the outside walls appear to be a pale gold that intensifies the longer you stay in the space.

It's a mirage of complementary color. But one that makes you feel as though you're walking on blue air.

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Edward Lebow
Contact: Edward Lebow