Artificial Light

September 15 – October 29, 2006
Curated by John B. Ravenal
Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla | Spencer Finch | Ceal Floyer | Ivan Navarro | Nathaniel Rackowe | Douglas Ross

Given its role as the basis for vision, light has served as a central subject throughout art history. With the invention of electric bulbs, artists began using actual light as a medium. Growing in part out of theater, these early twentieth-century works made dramatic presentations of changing colored illumination.

During the 1960s, motivated by interest in new materials and forms, artists renewed the interest in actual light as an artistic medium. Dan Flavin used fluorescent fixtures in his Minimalist sculptures. Bruce Nauman explored perceptual and psychologi- cal issues in neon and fluorescent works. James Turrell framed natural light to transform it into something mysterious.

More recently, artists such as Jenny Holzer, Tatsuo Miyajima, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres expanded the range of content in light art. They infused their work with politics, philosophy, and personal biography. These artists paved the way for the current genera- tion, whose renewed fascination with light as an artistic medium addresses a spectrum of concerns.

The international artists selected for Artificial Light use natural and artificial light to engage issues of perception, memory, energy, and power. Their work maintains the strong interest of their predecessors in leading viewers to heightened awareness of their relationship to the object and its surroundings. But it contains literary, historical, and political content all but expunged by Minimalism and Post-Minimalism.

Following their site visits and participation in VCU School of the Arts’ Visiting Artists program, the Artificial Light artists have made new works for the exhibition. Their sculptures and installations address aspects related to artificiality, including technology, nature, beauty, and mystery.

Allora and Calzadilla’s Growth (Survival) combines a hybrid tropical plant with a kinetic light piece
by Jenny Holzer. After researching artificial light in military imaging technology and in NASA plant experiments in space, Allora and Calzadilla realized that the LED lights used to display Holzer’s pithy statements about sex, violence, and power could serve as grow lights. They created a botanical monster by grafting tropical plants onto a hanging succulent, then placing it in front of Holzer’s work to draw energy. The living sculpture engages in a complex play of meaning with the Holzer texts as it lives out its uncertain future.

Spencer Finch’s Kaaterskill Falls re-creates the quality of light at a famous site in the Catskill Mountains. Finch visited the falls with a colorimeter, a handheld device that measures color and light. Its readings guided his composition of plastic gels over fluores- cent tubes. The end result emits the same average light as the original site did at the time of his visit. Two vertical boxes refer to the two narrow tiers of Kaaterskill Falls — a central subject for nineteenth- century writers and painters seeking to replicate the sublime in nature.

Ceal Floyer’s Overhead Projection continues her bare-bones approach to making art about perception and assumptions. Here she uses a humble device familiar from classrooms and lectures — the overhead projector — to throw the image of a clear light bulb onto a wall. Despite the proximity of the mechanism to the image, the projection creates the uncanny illusion that the bulb provides its own light. Floyer likens these playful confusions between fiction and reality to Brechtian distancing: illusion is quickly defeated by showing the apparatus that produces it.

Iván Navarro’s experience growing up in Chile under General Augusto Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship has given him a keen interest in issues of power and deception. His glowing Black Electric Chairs re-create the form of Modernist architect Marcel Breuer’s famous Wassily Chair of 1925. Navarro replaces the original’s gleaming tubular chrome with black-light neon. The scary electrified forms transform utopian design into suggestions of instruments of torture whose seductively glowing black light surges with undercurrents of darkness.

In Nathaniel Rackowe’s Dead Reckoning, a series of shed-like structures made of corrugated roofing material, plasterboard, and timber form a corridor pierced by regular openings. Viewers can enter and leave at various points. Inside, an overhead beam carries a high-wattage light bulb, driven by a visible motor-gearbox assembly. As the bulb moves back and forth, it shoots changing shafts of light across the gallery. The work’s title refers to calculating one’s position, especially at sea, by estimating the direction and distance traveled — a play on Rackowe’s interest in spatial positioning and using moving light to define and explore space. Dead Reckoning exudes a sinister quality, its scanning and tracking light seeming to test the boundaries for vulnerabilities.

Douglas Ross’s Picture Motion, an installation of rapidly spinning window blinds, transforms ordinary vision into filmic experience. Made of stiff plastic slats and motor driven, the quickly rotating blinds produce a stroboscopic effect — a visceral pulsing that makes static things appear to move and motion appear discontinuous. Ross first made Picture Motion in 2000 at the World Trade Center. Facing north from the 91st floor of Tower 1, the work transformed a magnificent view of midtown Manhattan and beyond into live cinema. In Richmond, the installation contemplates less grandiose vistas, an effect more closely matching Ross’s original aim of transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary.

John B. Ravenal, Curator