Were I to be the type to indicate my top ten favorite shows at the end of a blogging season I can declare with certainty that number one has come and gone. Refract, Reflect, Project: Light Works from the Collection at the Hirshhorn Museum ended its exhibition on April 8.
While there were several pieces that might otherwise be declared lemons, concepts that fell apart both aesthetically and conceptually, there were three pieces that compensated for anything else that faltered.
Olafur Eliasson Round Rainbow; Robert Irwin, Untitled; and James Turrell, Milk Run.
The first time I encountered Eliasson's work was at the 2003 Venice Biennale where an incarnation of Room for One Color was being exhibited. Simply described, it is a room of such intense yellow lighting that optically cancels out all color within the space. Passers by glimpse into a yellow space where the occupants are blanched of color, reduced to a grey-scale. Occupants within the space capable of looking out of their yellow shroud notice the world still passes them by, filled with color. It is more than an effect on the rods and cones of the eye, it is also visible in 35mm and digital photography.
Round Rainbow is much less shocking, but is certainly meditative. Rotating slowly from the ceiling above, an acrylic disc arcs intense white light like a prism onto the surrounding walls. It is from both the deprivation of light as much as it is from the rotating rainbow of colors that is soothing. The piece, while easy to figure out, none-the-less is admirable for its capactiy to splinter the spectrum.
Robert Irwin's Untitled has this quiet intensity that at first is so casual that people pass it by with the assumption to not give it a second thought. But, the work is capable of doing something to the eye, even in periffery. It's ability to dissolve, both the piece and the wall behind it, is the captivating force that inspires a second glance. If the eye focuses on it too long, at the proper distance, the only other thing it inspires is vertigo. What is lost, thanks to the grey band that stretches across the middle, is comprehending where the piece ends and the shadows begin. Or, if there is even a piece there at all.
Turrell and Irwin both participated in light deprivation experiments early in their artistic careers, and the effects have been most vivid in Turrell's installations. Intended for just a few people at a time, he has been quoted as saying that his pieces should "become a record of how you see, so that you see yourself seeing." As critic Robert Hughes has emphasized in the text and video American Visions, "Turrell's work doesn't happen in front of your eyes, it happens behind them." While he has several dozn pieces with the title Milk Run, the particular piece that was deinstalled at the Hirshhorn was the essence of light deprivation, with a single beam of yellow, red and blue light emitted from a crevice in the wall. Opposed to the multiple images you may find on Google Images with the same title, The Hirshhorn's Milk Run's lack of light transformed the materiality of the room, expanding the walls infinitely beyond their natural boundary. This caused the visitor to constantly clutch for the wall, often grasping nothing. Those visiting on weekends to the space would tread with caution, careful not to bump into another person as they tip-toed through the space. Those who visited during the weekdays would tread with caution, convinced the floor no longer existed.
Though the three examples above could be reduced to smoke and mirrors, what part of art isn't? The Renaissance Window we so conveniently recognize as painting today was bound to astound the first viewers of its convention in the Renaissance. We know the figures of the frescoes in Italy are painted, but what is difficult to determine still is where the real architecture ends and the painted architecture begins. The great difference is that the Renaissance Fresco is an image, and its careful execution is the dependent factor of its success or failure. While the three works of art mentioned above still deal with issues of perception, they do not deal with an image.