Phenomenal: Light Maestro James Turrell Paired with Colorado Sculptor Scott Johnson
Trace Elements: Light Into Space by James Turrell pairs the internationally known light-and-space artist with Colorado College professor and sculptor Scott Johnson, at the Colorado Springs Fine Art Center. Both artists work with light to create perception, and to compel viewers to think critically about what it is they perceive. Johnson’s works comprise a high degree of materiality, as well, as if to reinforce that whereas light may be infinite, earth devastated by manmade environmental disaster is not.
In this exhibition there are no wall labels, no listings of materials; instead, visitors are given a map and sent on a conceptual adventure. First up: a bright hallway lined with panels, called the Incidental series, which Johnson produced with paper, acetate and varnished gesso. As painting-like surfaces, these are play-of-light “drawings” impelled by specific material interventions by the artist: Shelves surfaced with reflective material, that push a horizontal line of light upwards. Like lacy fingers, the light graphics evoke landscapes, and remind us how often we want to give form to randomness. The works play with the tension between representational space and physical space.
One of Johnson’s Incidental Series works, created for this exhibition, takes over a very large wall; the luminescent strips appear to be literally built into the structure. A light crevasse dissects the work horizontally, appearing to bend geological time. Three shorter, gentler light plateaus impart wavy, delicate reflections. The volumes of the hung panels contrast with the fleeting delicacy of the reflections.
Johnson these days appears to be the artist of choice for contemporary Colorado curators. This show also includes, in dimly lit space, Johnson’s The No Plateau. [According to Johnson’s website this work is actually called the Infinity Room.] This piece was also recently on display at MCA/Denver as part of “Another Victory Over the Sun”, and Johnson is one of seven artists selected by MCA Curator Nora Abrams and Aspen Art Museum Curator Jacob Proctor for the current group show, “Continental Drift” at MCA.
In No Plateau/Infinity Room, four rectangular boxes made from glass and cracked clay, are infused with light and positioned so the viewer can walk between them. Johnson describes the work as a reference to “an infinity room” plutonium pumping station at Rocky Flats nuclear facility. It leaked so badly that the whole room was welded shut, radiation levels (to infinity) beyond what instrumentation could register.
The work creates an expanded reflection on all the surrounding surfaces. (I kept thinking of Josiah McElheny’s Endlessly Repeating Twentieth-Century Modernism.) But whereas McElheny explores the Duchampian idea of multiples without end (or the absence of an original), Johnson on the other hand seems to propose that the land itself is finite, its cracked earth thirsting for compassion.
The impression is doubled up on encounter with another work by Johnson, The Rake of Evening II, which features several large, blackened tree trunks like pillars in the room. One of the trees smelled powerfully of forest burning. Given the recent Colorado fires, particularly the Waldo Canyon fire, I paused and experienced the visceral reaction to that smell that also penetrated my house this spring and summer.
Yet, the most powerful reaction viewers may have at this exhibition will be to Trace Elements by Turrell, the Arizona sculptor who came to prominence in Los Angeles in 1966 and has been working at Roden Crater, his monumental earthwork-observatory near Flagstaff, for decades.
Given Turrell’s longtime explorations with the psychology of perception, and interactions of two-dimensional and three-dimensional planes, it’s fitting that two of his green holograms, titled eponymously Holograms, can be simply accessed by sitting down on benches in front of them. (The works are on loan from Baldwin Gallery in Aspen.) It is unfortunate, though, that light from the hallway interferes, and the wooden floor pattern diminishes the holographic effect. Visitors should hurry instead into the darkened passageway where the radiant Trace Elements (on loan from the Denver Art Museum) serves up a stunning, if disorienting, experience.
A glowing rectangle appears opposite the door you entered, the color of lavender meeting fuchsia as if the spectral wavelength has shortened. I sat in the space for 15 minutes experiencing Trace Elements. Many other visitors entered (the clack, clack of their footsteps distracting), but didn’t stay long enough to walk up to the light, and realize that the apparent rectangle was actually a portal – an aperture filled with color. Suddenly I was being carried into that space, that emptiness that isn’t empty but filled with lavender light that somehow came from within me, but was also outside of and surrounding me. It was disorienting. I began to sway; my head began to hurt; my brain could not process the visual perception. I did not know how far into that light I could go. If I climbed into the space, where would I end up?
Turrell has fabricated atmosphere and created a perception of unending space. I want to go back. I want to experience that work for as long as I can, sit again int that room—suspended between the terrestrial and the ineffable.
The exhibition overall would have been stronger if the floor were carpeted and the sounds of human feet were tempered. Yet it does serve to remind, museums are not temples after all, though at times the high priests of art do take us to interior, sacred space.