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August 23, 2006

John Ravenal

Ceal Floyer

Douglas Ross

Nathaniel Rackowe

Ivan Navarro

Paul Laster interviews John Ravenal, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, about Artificial Light, an exhibition exploring the medium and theme of light.

AK:  Light plays a key role in the making of photography and film. Early modernist artists such as Man Ray, Christian Schad, and László Moholy-Nagy used light to construct photograms, or camera-less photographs. Who are some of the earliest artists working with light as a medium in its own right?

JR:  Light, both natural and artificial, has fascinated artists from the beginning. Think of its reflection off gilded backgrounds, its play on sculpted surfaces, and its depiction in oil painting. Its meaning has ranged from divine revelation to technological discovery. In the early 20th century, following the widespread availability of electric light, artists began using actual light as a medium. These early works consisted of dramatic presentations of changing colored light. They were inspired by 18th- and 19th-century spectacles projecting illuminated color and by 19th-century advancements in artificial theater lighting. One of the pioneers was Thomas Wilfred, a Danish American who in the '20s designed an organ, the clavilux, which played colored lights. Moholy-Nagy also designed a kinetic light sculpture in the '20s, Light Space Modulator, which sent reflections around the room cast by projected light on its shiny rotating surfaces.

A lot of this early light-based art took a painterly approach to light and shared a utopian perspective, growing out of constructivism and the Bauhaus, that celebrated new technologies and their impact on perception. One should also look at early avant-garde film for interesting abstract treatments of light. A fascinating artificial-light piece from the '60s is Yves Klein's Fire Wall, with 100 gas jets spewing International Klein Blue flames.

AK:  A number of artists related to the Zero Group, which was active in Europe in the late '50s, the '60s, and the early '70s, directly engaged luminosity in their work. Do their experimental sculptures and projects still have an impact on contemporary art? Why are their light works so rarely exhibited?

JR:  Zero Group artists did often use inventive materials and methods, including light and motion. The group was founded in mid-'50s Germany by Otto Piene, Heinz Mack, and Günther Uecker. Soon, they teamed up with other European artists: Arman, Jean Tinguely, Yves Klein, Lucio Fontana, Piero Manzoni, Antoni Tàpies, and Arnulf Rainer. Their work reflected a postwar desire to start over, from "zero," rejecting figurative and expressionist styles that seemed loaded with historical baggage. Their minimalist aesthetic paralleled developments in the US and helped pave the way for kinetic art and op art. Other European groups — Gruppo T, Gruppo N, GRAV — also explored environments of moving light patterns in space.

Their impact on American art played out in various forms; for example, Otto Piene headed the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at M.I.T. But in this country, the hallowed status of key minimalist and postminimalist artists — Judd, Flavin, Martin, Nauman, Serra — overshadows this European collective's history. Perhaps the noncommercial nature of some of the Europeans' experimental work has also inhibited serious art-world support for exhibition and re-evaluation.

AK:  In the '60s and '70s, several artists living in the US, including Dan Flavin, Keith Sonnier, Anthony McCall, James Turrell, and Joseph Kosuth, began using light as a medium of expression. Have their works had a direct influence on any of the artists in your show?

JR:  Flavin's work is the iconic example for anyone working in light, and if you use fluorescent tubes, you're going to have to contend with the reference. Spencer Finch understands this and chooses, for the most part, to reject Flavin. The connection remains on the superficial level of materials. Iván Navarro, on the other hand, deals head-on with Flavin — with his materials, forms, even his language. One of Navarro's exhibitions revised Flavin's Monuments for V. Tatlin by presenting a new group of fluorescent sculptures and even issuing an artist's statement that only slightly modified Flavin's original text.

Turrell provides another model, as iconic as Flavin's, which emphasizes dematerialization and perception, rather than formal/compositional issues. I would say that his influence on younger artists goes deeper than Flavin's; it's more open-ended and allows multiple paths to develop out of it. Several artists in Artificial Light relate to Turrell's notions of reframing pre-existing reality in order to heighten our awareness and draw attention to vision itself. This is especially true for Douglas Ross, whose installation with motorized window blinds — Picture Motion — is about mediating vision. Ceal Floyer's subtle play with illusion has affinities with Turrell. And Finch's interest in the phenomenology of vision also shares a strong interest in Turrell.

Sonnier, Antonakos, Kosuth, and McCall are all important predecessors but not as directly influential on current art as someone like Nauman. His fluorescent light corridors and rooms, with their manipulation of viewers' visual and physical responses, provide inspiration for Navarro, Nathaniel Rackowe, and Allora and Calzadilla. Other non-light artists from that period should also be factored in as influences — Smithson, Matta-Clark, Judd, Cage, and LeWitt.

AK:  Artificial Light focuses on a select group of contemporary artists whose sculpture and installations use light as the primary material. What guided your selection of artwork?

JR:  I chose to focus on a current generation, to feature emerging or underexposed artists, and to limit the number invited so I could work closely with them by commissioning new work. I also chose artists who bring an expanded range of content to the medium of light. They may incorporate the phenomenological interest of their predecessors, but they also reintroduce the capacity of light to reference science, religion, history, literature, and politics. Beyond the use of a similar medium, this is the particular focus of the show: how the abstract and nonrepresentational material of actual light can serve content. Themes of energy and power course through the exhibition, along with allusions to film, video games, architecture, botany, landscape painting, modernist design, capital punishment, and the sublime.

AK:  A number of contemporary artists, including Sarah Lucas, Terence Koh, Kori Newkirk, Sylvie Fleury, and Glenn Ligon, make light works with neon, but no neon works appear in the show. Did you exclude neon because of its relationship to words and representational imagery?

JR:  One work in the show does use neon, not as a sign but as freestanding sculpture. Iván Navarro has remade a pair of modernist architect Marcel Breuer's famous Bauhaus Wassily Chairs, replacing the gleaming tubular chrome with black-light neon. They're scarily fragile objects that transform Breuer's utopian dreams into nightmares of seduction and torture.

Fluorescent light is also featured in only one of the works — Spencer Finch's beautiful re-creation of the light at Kaaterskill Falls in the Catskill Mountains. In the past, Finch has left the fluorescent fixtures visible. Recently, he began concealing the fixtures in a box and sandwiching the hand-cut strips of colored gels between layers of white and clear Plexi, a more painterly approach.

The other works in the show use a range of light sources. Allora and Calzadilla's Growth (Survival) borrows a major LED light piece by Jenny Holzer and uses it as a ready-made growth light for a hybrid tropical plant. Allora and Calzadilla will make the plant by grafting various species onto a host hanging fern, and Holzer's pithy statements about sex, violence, and survival will keep alive the botanical monster.

Ceal Floyer's piece uses the conventional educational device — the overhead projector — to cast the image of a single inert light bulb onto a nearby wall. The projection creates the uncanny illusion that the bulb provides its own light, even though the apparatus sits in plain view. I think of the piece as humble theater, given its affinity with notions of Brechtian distancing by revealing the mechanism.

Nathaniel Rackowe's Dead Reckoning uses a single high-wattage incandescent bulb that travels slowly back and forth along a beam inside a linked series of shedlike structures made of corrugated roofing material, plasterboard, and soft timber. Viewers can enter and leave the piece at various points, and the moving bulb shoots shafts of changing light across the gallery. The piece has a simple stage-set construction but also exudes a sinister quality, as if scanning the boundaries for vulnerabilities.

Douglas Ross's Picture Motion is the one piece that uses natural light, which he transforms into something artificial. By installing rapidly spinning blinds on the windows, he creates a stroboscopic effect, a visceral pulsing that makes static things appear to move and motion appear discontinuous, like early film. Ross first made Picture Motion in 2000 during a residency in the World Trade Center, where he looked out to the magnificent view of midtown Manhattan.

AK:  There have been several published accounts about problems related to the conservation of Dan Flavin's light works and the higher auction value of his works with original components. How do museums and collectors maintain and preserve light works for future audiences?

JR:  This is a complex issue that also relates to other new-media works, including video and kinetic art. Some museums and collectors severely limit the "on" times. Others search for backup parts while they're still available. Sometimes one has to consult with the artist or estate about "migrating" the work to updated technologies. It raises fascinating questions about where exactly in the work the art resides — in the ideas, the original materials, or the viewer's experience — or whether these can even be separated.

AK:  Light works need a fair amount of negative space surrounding them to be properly seen. You've chosen multiple pieces by each artist, which must have limited the number of artists that could be displayed. If you had twice the amount of space or were able to expand the show into a series of exhibitions, whose work would you want to add?

JR:  I'm glad to be working with a small group of artists, each making one new work for the exhibition. I originally thought of doing a large historical survey of light art, but this wasn't feasible for the university gallery that invited me to collaborate with them. Commissioning new work was a more exciting option, especially as the artists have taken part in the VCU School of the Arts program by teaching, lecturing, and doing studio visits.

When I look back on the catalogue for the seminal light exhibition Kunst Licht Kunst in 1968 at the Stedelijk van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, it's tremendously impressive, but the thought of seeing that much light art at once also sounds daunting, if not downright numbing. There are many other contemporary light artists I'm interested in and could have added or would be happy to exhibit — Olafur Eliasson, Jim Campbell, Mark Handforth, Martin Creed, Cerith Wyn Evans, Diana Thater. But for the purposes of this exhibition, I feel I have the perfect group.

Artificial Light is organized by VCUarts Anderson Gallery, Richmond, in partnership with the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. It is on view at the Anderson Gallery from September 15 to October 29, 2006. The exhibition travels to the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami, where it will be on view at MOCA at Goldman Warehouse during Art Basel Miami Beach, from December 7, 2006 to February 18, 2007.

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