Phenomenal implies two things, not necessarily related: a sensory experience or something that is extraordinary. The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego
closes the gap between these meanings to create an extraordinary sensory experience with its highly ambitious exhibition, Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface
now open at all MCASD locations.
James Turrell, Stuck Red, 1970 and Stuck Blue, 1970. Construction material and fluorescent lights. Photo: Philipp Scholz Rittermann
Phenomenal is a facet of Pacific Standard Time, Getty’s initiative drawing together over 60 cultural institutions across Southern California to celebrate the birth of the Los Angeles art scene with works from 1945 to 1980, resulting in the largest arts project ever to take place in the region. The MCASD’s exhibition, which features 13 artists’ work from the 1960s and ‘70s, showcases the intersection of the Light and Space movement and the Los Angeles Look (also known as Finish Fetish) with influential art that dematerializes the object by harnessing light and space to alter perception.
The title of the show is apt in many ways, but once you get beyond the unexpected, visceral experience, the most fascinating aspect of the exhibition is how these artists such as Larry Bell, Robert Irwin, Bruce Nauman, James Turrell and De Wain Valentine turned studies in phenomenology into minimal art. As each work plays with a presence or lack of natural or artificial light, and either its own space or the space around it, it’s clear that these objects and environments were born from scientific and philosophic exploration into how visual perception can create altered states or make complex things appear simple from afar.
Larry Bell, Untitled, ca 1980. Coated glass and chrome frame. Photo: Philipp Scholz Rittermann
The art provokes visitors to question initial reactions and perceive with awareness what is in front of or around them. Color in Peter Alexander’s Orange Wedge disappears into the air as the acrylic sculpture thins from the base up. Light makes white dynamic through Mary Corse’s use of glass microspheres, shadows and even high frequency energy. Sense of direction is altered upon first look at Irwin’s scrim and the downtown lobby’s coated glass Bell panels; it’s difficult to immediately know whether you’re looking through the work or seeing a reflection on its surface. John McCracken’s slabs are simple, blocky shapes and single colors, but their highly reflective finishes lend them transient color, imagery and motion. The Color Box for Ron Cooper’s shimmery, gold #54 July/August 2nd Level Density, and an up close look at Irwin’s white oil painting reveal that the perception of color is very different from actual present colors.
Ron Cooper, #54 July/August 2nd Level Density, 1968.
Some visitors hesitate and even refuse to enter pitch dark rooms for Eric Orr’s Zero Gravity
and Turrell’s Wedgework V
, and the narrow space of Nauman’s Green Light Corridor
. But facing the unknown rewards visitors with peaceful, meditative and curious states, and endows them with literally new ways of seeing as their eyes adjust to the conditions. These works are the highlights of the sprawling exhibition, offering excitement and wonder similar to the recent Suprasensorial
exhibit at Los Angeles’ Geffen MOCA
(which focused on Latin American artists working with light and space, some even prior to Los Angeles’ movement) as they truly transform environments into immersive, phenomenal experiences bearing little resemblance to the world outside.
Bruce Nauman, Green Light Corridor, 1970. Painted wallboard and fluorescent light fixtures with green lamps.
The exhibit runs until January 22nd, 2012, and the full list of artists is available on MCASD’s website. For anyone who wants to view more work by Alexander, Corse and Irwin, Quint Contemporary Art might satisfy your hunger with their new exhibition, New Out West, which closes November 12th. Start your day at the MCASD buildings downtown, then head to MCASD La Jolla. Afterward, make another stop at La Jolla’s Quint gallery. It’ll be a fantastic, memorable day.