James Turrell: Tangible Light – Some notes on the LACMA Retrospective (Part 1 of 2)

Posted: July 13, 2013 in Experiences, On Beauty
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

I first saw a substantial exhibition of Jim Turrell’s work in the late 1980’s at the Temporary Contemporary in Los Angeles. I became an obsessive fan of his work on that day.

I remember vividly the piece that turned me into a Turrell follower. I walked down a darkened hallway and turned to my right. A couple of people were standing in a room but otherwise I was alone. At the far end of the room was what looked like a glowing painting whose color shifted from red to blue across the length of the panel. I could not see any lighting that would explain the intense glow of the painting. Perhaps it was painted on a translucent plastic sheet and backlit. I did not know.

When the other visitors left the room I sat down on the floor against the rear wall and in silence I experienced the “painting”. After perhaps 5 minutes, I was unable to determine exactly what I was looking at. So, I approached it. The closer I got to the piece the more confused I was about what I was seeing. I walked up, within inches, of the piece and reached toward it. To my surprise, I was able to place my hand within the space of the piece and to realize that it was neither a canvas nor a translucent panel. This was not a painting at all. It was a cutout in the wall, lit from within the open space by a set of florescent tubes. My senses said it was solid; reality said it was nothing but light.

This was not a “well-lit” piece, it was a well-lit “nothing”. It was nothing become something through a sophisticated use of geometry, light, and perception. And… the material substance of the piece, its medium, was neither geometry nor light alone. It’s “medium” was the interplay of light and perception, the interplay of stimulus and neural response. It’s medium could not even exist were it not for light, vision, and neuroscience. At its most base level the piece could not exist without billions upon billions of bio-chemical synaptic conductance changes. That can be said of almost anything, but in this case, without that brain activity, the piece would have been, seriously, nothing. That was the late 1980s.

Fast forward to July 2013. Nearly 25 years have passed since that day I first experienced Jim Turrell. In the interim the magnum opus, Rodin Crater, has moved many tons of Earth closer to Turrell’s ultimate vision. His fame has grown exponentially. One no longer has the privilege of simply walking directly up to his pieces and placing a hand within. In fact, unless one forks over $25.00 per visit to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, his work is rarely even accessible.

It is the general inability to see collections of Turrell’s work that makes the LACMA show so significant. You might gather that I’m disappointed at the museum’s elitist view of the show whereby they have priced a lot of visitors out of the market and financially prohibited many would be Turrell enthusiasts from even seeing his work. Then again, I’m that free market capitalist dude that keeps saying we should just let the market work, so I’m being my own sort of elitist jerk for complaining. If the market will bear $25.00, so be it. But, for what it’s worth I think it does Turrell and the museum a disservice by charging what they do.

Let’s set aside the $75 that it cost for me and my 2 companions to get in. We did it. We saw the show. So, free market economics says that if I think the price is a problem we are part of it. Onward.

The LACMA Turrell Retrospective consists of 14 spaces and a “contraption”. The latter is a full body immersive experience that is booked solid for the rest of 2013, no doubt by patrons to whom $25.00 is the least of their worries. So, I did not get to see it. The 14 spaces are prints, 2 projections, a series of holograms, several spaces and corner constructions, a video and documentary exhibit on Turrell’s Skyspaces, models, and a documentary and photographic exhibit on Rodin Crater. All in all, it was a comprehensive show that provides a fabulous introduction to every aspect of Turrell’s ouerve.

Since I began by commenting on a light-painting, it should not be a surprise that my 2 personal favorite pieces are “Raemer, Pink, White” of 1969 and the 1992 piece “St. Elmo’s Breath”. Both of these pieces are similar in that they blur the distinction between physicality and evanescence. One must spend time with these works. When you do, they are powerfully emotional. Unfortunately, and I must say that I found this truly rude, the show was so busy that after 5 minutes of viewing pieces who’s signage specifically says to view for “5 minutes MINIMUM”, the security guards kicked us out of one of these spaces to make room for the waiting visitors. So, gone are the days of the 80s when I could “sit with a Turrell” for the time necessary to gain a full emotional response.

In my second part of this post I will describe much more of Turrell’s aesthetic and what I like about it. For now, let me just say that LACMA has staged a breathtaking overview of  Turrell’s work; one that demonstrates the breath of his art, the depth of his mind, and his devotion to showing us how to more intensely, more lovingly, perceive our world. Even at $25.00 per person it’s a must see show!

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