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Art Preview: James Turrell turns on the light

Artist's grand-scale projects -- here at the Mattress Factory and inside a huge Arizona crater -- express his fascination with light, space and perception

Sunday, May 26, 2002

By Mary Thomas, Post-Gazette Art Critic

James Turrell, one of the most significant contemporary artists on the international scene, and two important local arts figures -- the Mattress Factory's Barbara Luderowski and Michael Olijnyk -- were at the early stages of what would become their life works when they met in 1980.

James Turrell was back at the Mattress Factory - site of earlier installations and successes - to prepare his lastest show. "Into the Light," which opens next weekend. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)

More than two decades later, they come together again to celebrate their successes in that pursuit.

Next weekend, an exemplary gathering of Turrell's installations, comprising his first major exhibition on the East Coast since that year, will be the focal point of a 25-hour celebration of "James Turrell: Into the Light" and the Mattress Factory's 25th anniversary.

Born in 1943 in Los Angeles, Turrell lives on his cattle ranch 40 miles north of Flagstaff, Ariz. The ranch surrounds the large volcanic cone he's tenaciously transforming into the Roden Crater artwork. While that's his most publicized project, there's much more to the man and the artist whose encompassing thinking and expansive living match the scale of the crater.

Turrell is generally described as an artist who works with light and space, creating environments in which the visitor may experience light itself as an object rather than simply as a source of illumination.

Or, as he puts it, "I use the material -- light -- to work the medium of perception," which helps to explain his three permanent works in the Mattress Factory collection. Two conjure illusory space by using intense projections of colored light, and the third investigates visual response to total darkness.

But he's also a theoretician, psychologist, seer, philosopher and spiritualist, with more than a passing acquaintance with physics, astronomy, anthropology, construction and engineering.

 
 
"James Turrell: Into the Light"

Where: The Mattress Factory, 500 Sampsonia Way, North Side.

When: Opening event 5 p.m. June 1 to 6 p.m. June 2. (call for information and reservations). Exhibition continues through April 30, 2003.

Admission: $6; senior citizens and students $4; children under 12, members and Thursdays free. Advance registration for "Gasworks" is $10 with a credit card, $5 for walk-in or members advance registration.

Parking: Free in adjacent lot or on street.

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday.

Information: 412-231-3169 or http://www.mattress.org/.


Related article

Artist James Turrell reaches for the sky by transforming an Arizona crater

   
 

Throw in sculptor and fund-raiser, and you begin to get an idea of the complexity of this 1984 recipient of a five-year MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, often referred to as the "genius" award.

The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D. C., purchased four early works by Turrell two years ago. The pieces were, significantly, the gallery's first acquisition of installation art, "signaling our 21st-century goals ... to acquire masterpieces of classic modern art," according to director Earl A. Powell III.

"[Turrell's] subject matter -- how pure perceptual experience facilitated the experience of consciousness itself -- is unique," Jeffrey Weiss, gallery head of modern and contemporary art, said at the time.

Making sense of senses

The stage was set for his preoccupation with light in its most expansive manifestations early on, when young Turrell, the son of an aeronautical engineer, took to the air, earning his pilot's license at age 16.

Unrestrained vistas of light and space were the medium through which his physical form flowed while his mind became accustomed to unfettered boundaries.

Flying has been part of his pragmatic as well as his esoteric experience. He's supported himself at times in such occupations as crop-dusting and, as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, he flew monks out of Tibet.

Related to this was his grounding in the Quaker faith during his Pasadena childhood. His grandmother, at Quaker meetings, would invite him to "go inside and greet the light," a concept, he recalls, that wasn't so easy for a young boy to grasp.

Still, those early influences sparked an investigation that has been thorough and driven.

While earning a degree in psychology from Pomona College in 1965, he focused on perceptual psychology, with a particular interest in the phenomenology (the study of phenomena) and in sensory synesthesia, which Turrell explains as "one sense affecting the sensing of another sense."

So analytical process informs a large component of his thinking, as when he muses on taking a "look at our looking -- how we formed that looking."

In other words, Turrell is fascinated by how we interpret what we see -- the way cultural constructs inform our visual reality. He finds pleasure in the self-reflective act of investigating "not only that which we perceive but ... why we perceive it that way."

He also espouses the notion of an "architecture of space" wherein "light makes the space. Generally we use light to reveal or illustrate things, but that light also obscures is interesting." For example, one can't see stars in daylight, or see out of windows at night if the lights are on inside. Light can be used to construct space, Turrell says, as with footlights on a stage, which keep the cast from seeing the audience. "It's the same physical space, different psychological space."

But Turrell is also in touch with the visceral and emotional side of light, citing its importance as the source of vitamin D and a preventative of SAD (seasonal affective disorder). We'd "use a lot less Prozac if we'd just step outside," he says.

Among Turrell's latest and biggest installations for the Mattress Factory is "Skyscape," a light "observatory" that is part of "Into the Light," opening next weekend. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

Humans have a "strong physical relationship, strong psychological relationship" to light, Turrell says, from the thinking state induced by looking into a fire to the large amount of spiritual symbolism "expressed in the vocabulary of light."

Its power, he thinks, is destroyed when it's used with narrative, as in cinema. If used in a more primal way, as he attempts with his work, that power comes to the fore.

"This becomes a very emotional work [evoking the] greater emotive power of light by not having the hand evident. Then it's closer to 'pure thought,' or, thought without associative reference."

A "skyspace" (room with an aperture open to the sky) designed for the Live Oak Friends Meeting House in a suburb of Houston was so effective that it became controversial within the Quaker congregation when the spectacular effect of the seemingly descending sky distracted the meditative members.

To experience "Gasworks" -- a work included in his Mattress Factory exhibition -- the prone visitor is rolled into a light-saturated 12-foot wide fiberglass sphere in a manner that resembles having an MRI. "It has this wonderful thickness to it," Olijnyk says. "It feels like cotton on your face."

Turrell likens "Gasworks" to the "first steps in constructing a reality, which we would call a virtual reality. I believe [the time will come when we] won't have to have TV, [we] will be able to transfer images from individual to individual without TV. ...

"Those things are interesting to me -- how this will be constructed -- how it's projected mind to mind. And we're going to do that. This is primitive at the moment, but it won't be for long."

Playing with people's perception doesn't come without a cost, however. Works in one New York exhibition were so convincing that a visitor leaned against a "wall" of light. She fell and broke her wrist, for which she sued the artist.

And a pirated clip from one of his works, Turrell says, was inserted into a Pokemon cartoon, setting off a rash of seizures and nausea that sent more than 700 people to the hospital in Japan in 1999. The clip had been compacted, removing the spaces that had been inserted precisely to prevent the possibility of inducing photosensitive epilepsy.

"It was really a big thing to go through that," Turrell says. "This was a 'War of the Worlds kind of broadcast.' ... You sit across the room [and see it] on TV. It's quite compelling, but it doesn't do much. However, Japan has this big [number of] HD TVs, and children sit [close to them] -- so the children and their grandparents were the ones made ill."

Kindred spirits

Turrell has a neatly-trimmed full white beard and mustache that give him an almost-professorial air of distinction, cranked up a notch by his black-on-black artist garb and dark eyes that radiate inquisitiveness.

Part Santa Claus twinkle, part adventurer, his gaze is ultimately centered, at times turning inward, always seeming privy to some secret information that results in a demeanor of quiet excitement.

His hair and beard were red when Mattress Factory director Luderowski and curator Olijnyk first met him.

Turrell was flying high. The Whitney Museum of American Art was exhibiting his work. He'd purchased the crater in Arizona, giving physical form to the colossal project that had been gestating in his mind.

The Mattress Factory was also beginning to feel the stirrings of something greater about to happen. Its staff was beginning to plan installation exhibitions on a regular basis, making a significant leap from a '70s-style artist loft-studio-natural foods restaurant co-op space to something that would eventually become a globally recognized alternative museum.

Mattress Factory board member Diane Samuels saw Turrell's Whitney show, and it was her glowing praise that led Luderowski and Olijnyk to make a cursory investigation of his work. They arranged to meet with Turrell in New York City shortly after, and during a cab ride from TriBeCa to the East 80s, they closed the deal for an installation in Pittsburgh in 1983.

The installation became two, each the beginning of a new direction for Turrell: "Pleiades," his first dark piece, and "Danae," the first work that had light inside and outside the aperture at the same time.

Later, the installations were bartered for Olijnyk's huge band saw and stash of black walnut, which the three parties rented a U-haul to move to Arizona, trailing Turrell's newly purchased Jaguar that had collapsed in the museum's driveway. But we digress.

The two 1983 works, along with "Catso Red," which was donated to the museum by a collector in 1994, make the Mattress Factory the only American venue in which to see so many of Turrell's pieces permanently installed.

A new building rising on the North Side at foreground, left? Not quite It's an installation titled "Skyscape," designed by Turrell for viewing the sky and atmospheric changes and constructed in the Mattress Factory parking lot. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

Turrell has high praise for the feisty museum that has persevered against fiscal hard times and wavering acceptance, similar to those he's experienced while hanging on to his ideals for Roden Crater.

"These alternative art spaces fueled a very uniquely American art form. The '60s was a seminal period when fresh art, new art, was done. Many of those spaces are gone. Mattress Factory is one of the few that's survived."

They were places that offered artists space to expand into, and the time to create. A problem with some museums, he says, is that they don't like to have a gallery dark. "[Installation] artists showing in them are trying to work it all out while having the pressure of getting it done."

Turrell says he's "forever grateful" such alternative venues existed. "I have great allegiance to this place."

"Barbara [Luderowski] hates that she's become establishment," he says, but notes that she's also stayed connected with young artists and new art. That's less often done by larger museums, Turrell says. "The way the Whitney has done it is not very respectful. The way the Biennial is done, you wonder if you gain very much by being in it.

"It's important how you do those things. [Mattress Factory] is a place where you want to have shown [your work]."

He's also concerned about the direction the United States has taken in supporting the arts. Pointing out that the country's never been richer, he says cuts in funding for culture and the arts is an "embarrassment."

"After 9/11, they're encouraging people to go buy again -- this terrible consumerism with which we have to deal. Let's please make this more than a consumerist Mecca.

"I'm not going to change this society, but I think we have to step up and become a culture."

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