Thursday, January 31, 2013

Making Things With Light

On a Saturday night in Portland, with the threat of frozen precipitation during my weekend getaway from LA, I found myself at Disjecta on the north side of town. The gallery recommendation came via circuitous route from LA friends.

I knew only that it was installation work.

Chris Fraser, a Bay Area artist, works with camera as concept, ergo he works with light. Passing through the entry of the space one first had to negotiate a cloud of paint fumes while adjusting to the dim light. The dawning recognition of simple shapes and color followed.

The installation was built of light and surface: a corridor constructed around three sides of the room, each segment of which was cut to allow in light from pendants mounted in a central space.

We entered the corridor gleefully and then slowed. It was easy to rush and immediately apparent that this was not right. Art intends to stop you in your tracks, and we obeyed, pausing in this dark 8 foot wide x 7 foot high opening.

In the first segment Fraser cut thin vertical notches out of the wall, an inch or less wide. Three strips of light, purple, red, green, cut through the gap and splayed onto the concrete floor at three distinct angles, and painted parallel lines on the outer wall of the corridor. The sheen of fresh latex paint defined the incandescent light as crisply as a laser.

One or another color would flick off at intervals when an unseen figure passed in front of the light outside the corridor. Occasionally an abbreviated silhouette caught in an inch strip of light on the wall.

In the second segment Fraser notched the wall on the diagonal. The notches themselves were triangular if viewed from above, the angle opening to the outside of the wall. This brought to mind a prism.

We wondered if we were walking through a triptych: was each segment a distinct light painting, this assemblage the role of the curator credited at the start of the show?

The ambient light in the corridor seemed to increase after we passed the second, diagonally cut section. Here we slowed again: it was hard for the eye to delineate the corner despite the lift in the darkness. It was as if concentrating on the colors had fuzzed our ability to see the subtle gradations of white that marked the intersecting walls. We oozed through this alpenglow, anticipating a moment.

In the last segment of the piece, a cluster of bodies and wide bands fills the eye. The tight notches give way to openings a foot or more wide. Wide enough to pass through, the last one (the foot of the corridor was walled off) was ostensibly a door to the central courtyard of the installation.

In the center space were a trio of industrial caged lights lined with translucent purple, red and green Mylar. The alternating combination and contrast of lights as you move through the space casts distinct colors: the lights were not actually blending to create secondary or tertiary colors, yet the eye read them as such. Fuchsia, white, yellow, distinct, recombinant hues. The colors really weren’t there, but were implied in the shadows cast by the corridor roofline. Lights at differing distances from the white wall stacked in bands of different hues.

In that final moment, color coats the wall thickly, while the light source becomes evident through the cutaway. People lingered here chatting, and their crisp black silhouettes broke into the color. The relationship of light, shadow and color resolves in this passage, and it brings a playful feeling of recognition.

Fraser’s previous work with light often uses a mobile source, the sun, to make the installation innately dynamic. In one piece he installed slatted raw wood panels in the bay window of a partially gutted San Francisco townhouse, framing a day's changing shadow and light. I read that the Disjecta installation was his first use of colored lights, but anyone who’s tracked the sun from morning to late afternoon knows its changeable hues.

When I entered the corridor at Disjecta I remembered the delight with the neon work of Dan Flavin. Both use light to pigment space. "I want to call attention to a type of beauty that usually goes unnoticed" Fraser said. Walking slowly to absorb the space and the effect reveals the art already there. 

I was aware in this piece, called "In Passing," of why art is considered a sacred act: it calls us to mindfulness, to creation. In this simple intervention, cuts in a wall, Fraser calls our attention to what already is and in that creates a space of awe at the nature of things. I found myself wondering if the three colors were a prism being split by the aperture. If the colors were being split, like the atomized colors of a projector, which we see in an image in a million shades and hues, and the lines a refraction of those components. 

"Rather than describing the dry mechanics of how light moves through space, I prefer to show concrete examples of what it is capable of doing." That simple motion is capable of delighting the heart.

Chris Fraser:

Disjecta, Portland

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Do you hear what I hear?

i said to the barista "wow, you guys have a bangin' sound system here." it was like being in the ocean. the music totally surrounded me, like warm water so thickly salted it cradles you into weightlessness.

he pointed wordlessly behind me, and i followed his sightline. i'd missed the black-clad quartet arranged in the front corner when i scanned the room at the first swell of strings. half of them backed against the plate glass and the bright december sun outside.

i sat at a table about three body lengths from the source of the sound. warm cup on top of newsprint.

i would not normally sit in the shop, but the music moved me to stay. i would not normally welcome the same ole' christmas chestnuts. i don't believe the myths. what's more, i don't care for most of the tunes: showy bright and silly. i grew up in los angeles. winter wonderland is quaint, dated, and as resonant with my life experience as explosions made in the nearest soundstage that some action hero will later be dropped into via cgi.

first violin focused on her part, tripping up a set of sixteenth notes with simple intent. it was admirable playing, neither terrible nor sublime, but her focus said that it might be graceful one day. watching her track the cascade of black notes before her made the music come alive. it burrowed into my heart. there was a subtle bodily collaboration from viola, second violin, and cello: an inclined head, a torso leaned forward, an elbow shot out. a whole posture unfurling - dropping hands, bow and shoulders, lifting chest, chin and smile in the relaxed aftermath as vibration evaporates into stillness.

i sat at attention, through images of clip-cloppity horses, blond angels in red and white raiment, turbanned silhouettes shuffling forward under a clear night sky. then the harmonies of 'silent night' rose softly. i sat floating in their music, in the buoyancy of it. it was as if their bows drew directly across my heart. motes of rosin caught the sunlight of the window.

i clutched my cup, choked at the sweetness of it, letting salt tears drip into the ocean of their music.

i sat at meditation this morning. i discovered after a year of practice that trying to focus on my breath often brings up anxiety, with it a slight asphyxiation. when offered, i will often choose sound as the object of attention.

the heater set the tone. the vent clacked and clattered. a dull rush enveloped the staccato notes. it encircled my consciousness. periodically a flat arc of a car's passing. closer, a woman coughed a rough triplet, low low lower, the plosive notes offset by pause. the sounds spontaneously built the space, carving concentric circles that marked distance from my ears, my consciousness, inside and outside the building.

the teacher spoke. i heard the bright pitch of her voice. it tickled through my head. i relinquished, somewhat, the meaning of her words, and simply felt five horizontal copper strands vibrate with the pluck of her tongue. i registered the rise and fall of her tone, when syllables were drawn long, or pulled over a series of notes. a cascade or a cataract.

i listened as intently as i could. sometimes my breath shortened, and commanded my attention. it usually does when my legs start to fall asleep. a bright voice. thought: call the cat sitter. a cough. my own mental voice storytelling, explaining, imploring. the demand of my tingling legs. from outside: an instruction to return to expanded consciousness if the concentration is stable. thoughts tinkling like a xylophone.

i settle on the symphony of the heater.

and then it stopped. the system cycled off. it was like thick cotton wool and tattered pinky gray insulation tearing back. breath. a rustle of limbs and shifting weight. footsteps and laughter muffled by the glass door.

soft quiet layers, a gentle flow of woodwind and brass. surging gently.

i heard people
near me

with the machinery off, i settle on the symphony that is.