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

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