California artist James Turrell has achieved something of the status of a secular saint in today’s jaded art world. Having relocated to the high desert outside Flagstaff Arizona in the late '70s, he has spent the thirty years attempting to turn an extinct volcanic crater into the world’s largest art installation, braving endless challenges of money, weather, and earth-moving. Along with this colossal and as-yet-uncompleted project, he has continued to create the much smaller light and space installations for which he is best known, in various venues here and abroad. Among his most loyal champions is Richard Andrews, currently the director of the Henry Art Gallery, which is hosting a new show of Turrell’s work.
,For this exhibit, Andrews has allowed Turrell to completely reconfigure the museum’s largest space, creating three rooms where the low level of light and ambiguous space leaves viewers in a state of happy bewilderment. Here with our review is KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin.
A lot of contemporary art is not much to look at. Installations and conceptual art driven by ideas and agendas have come to dominate high-profile survey shows like Germany’s Documenta and the Whitney Biennial, not to mention countless similar presentations in galleries and museums.
What a pleasure then to visit the Henry on the occasion of a James Turrell exhibit, and find almost nothing to read, and a series of exceptionally compelling things to see. Here is modern art that can truly be appreciated without a program or even a docent, enjoyed for the sheer visual kick it provides, and only afterwards for the questions it so brilliantly raises.
Turrell manages to achieve his startling effects by completely befuddling the most penetrating of our senses, the sense of sight. Only a perfectionist — as Turrell clearly must be — and a master of the science of perception — a subject Turrell originally studied in college - can create environments where, try as we might, change vantage point as we like, we cannot ever be quite sure what is right in front of our eyes.
In the room called "Schaffner," for example, several visits did not succeed in determining what was solid wall and what was light. Like most of Turrell’s spaces, one enters a room where accidental light is utterly eliminated — we see only what Turrell wants us to see. Stumbling into this blackened chamber, one perceives a short distance ahead a light-edged opening past which another wall — also edged with light — appears. Both walls appear to slant away at a rakish angle, and the far wall appears made of a dull reddish light. We are uncomfortably aware that what we think we see is not what is in fact there — though separating fact from fiction is almost impossible.
A nearby installation appears on first view like a TV screen set into the gallery wall, displaying a quickly changing succession of solid colors. Upon closer inspection, we discover that the TV screen is not solid at all, but merely a screen-shaped cutout, behind which is a completely ambiguous space filled with a flickering, colored light. Oddly enough, the only light for this deceptively simple exhibit is a hidden television set playing, of all things, an all-news channel. The piece literally transforms the chaotic imagery of daily events — lately, invasions and infections - into a shimmering, chromatic mist.
The high point of the exhibit occurs in the largest installation, called "Spread." Climbing a stairs into a large, wedge-shaped chamber filled with blue light, we gingerly step downhill towards the far end. A faint line marks the limit of our approach. We look ahead, and gasp — where the far wall should be, there is instead a dimensionless, unbounded space, filled with an almost tangible blue-violet fog. It is a moment both thrilling and deeply disconcerting — one understands why some people view Turrell’s work as a kind of spiritual experience.
The last room in the exhibit — devoted to images of the Rodin crater project — allows us to imagine what sorts of similar epiphanies will be available once, if ever, Turrell’s giant observatory is complete. The compact, dense display is another delight, a nearly wordless presentation of an idea that is absolutely epic and very nearly crackpot in its scale. In Turrell’s lovingly crafted model of the transformed volcano, we follow tiny walkways into the red earth and think about what we have just experienced at the Henry, writ large.
For centuries artists used light as a metaphor for the sacred. For Turrell, light is not so much a metaphor as a sculptural tool in its own right, one which he wields to both remind us of the limits of our knowing and to reconnect us with our sense of wonder.