James Turrell’s Stuck Red and Stuck Blue (1970), construction material and fluorescent lights
  • James Turrell’s Stuck Red and Stuck Blue (1970), construction material and fluorescent lights
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While sampling one of the “immersive environments” in Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface, currently at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, I suffered a mild panic attack, but don’t let that keep you away. Bruce Nauman’s 1970 Green Light Corridor isn’t just immersive, it’s exclusive. If you’re not thin, forget it. You sidle slowly and tightly along a 12-inch space between 10-feet-high, 40-feet-long walls illuminated by Kool-Aid green fluorescent bars. It’s a claustrophobe’s worst dream. It’s also a mind-bender, literally, because the environment and its duration induce perceptual changes. Once you’re in the crease, the green morphs to mellow white, and when you emerge, the light in MOCASD’s glassed-in oceanfront gallery looks gauzily magenta. While you’re readjusting to the light (and trying to breathe again) you don’t just see the ocean, you smell and feel it, because the room has been retooled as an environment by Robert Irwin, who cut out panes from the front and corners of the glass walls.

In the 1920s, the Surrealists championed what they called the “marvelous,” which signified the unmediated contents of the unconscious or familiar realities combined in disturbingly unfamiliar ways. Their art depended on representation and anecdote. Much later, in the 1960s and 1970s, artists in Los Angeles produced their own local version of the marvelous. Anecdote, content of any traditional kind, didn’t matter. The Californian Marvelous was compounded of color and illumination, and of volumes shaped from plastics like fiberglass and Plexiglas. Because of its hard, high gloss, a lot of this work was unhappily tagged “finish fetish” art.

I saw Phenomenal after a week in Chicago, where autumnal light has a glassy, moist, iced-over clarity. Southern California’s light is dustier, more arid and feverish. Helen Pashgian’s spheres, crafted from polymer resins, are teasing enchantments of hot, compressed color. They’re classic globes, because they contain a world, the world of our perceptual apparatus. They pick up ambient light and restore it to our vision as ephemeral ribbons and sine curves of color. And their reflective depths house images of us in our surround: I counted two visitors, a guard, and me, along with window frames parabolically arced across the globe’s surface. Pashgian (and other L.A. artists) didn’t like the term “finish fetish”: “The point is not finish at all, but to see through the work. ‘Finish fetish’ makes us all sound vaguely pathological.”

Some artists started out as abstract painters who eventually eliminated imagery — picture-ness — from their work and made the art object itself the image. Irwin, born in 1928 and the senior member of this crowd, became known for floating parallel lines on monochrome fields, but he turned more and more to an investigation into what he called “the whole process of seeing, and perception itself,” and by the late 1960s he’d stopped painting and begun to craft convex acrylic and aluminum discs mounted on wall posts so as to appear suspended in space. The aluminum ones look solid and cast winged shadows. The acrylic discs virtually disappear in the space around them.

Doug Wheeler also began as a painter (and fine draftsman) much influenced by Mark Rothko’s aspirational romanticism. By the mid-1960s he was creating “light encasements” by spraying lacquer on Plexiglas boxes backlit by neon tubing. He turned the traditional hanging art object into an emanation, working out of Rothko’s tradition but with very different materials and with no moral purpose. Wheeler’s ambition was transformative. He told a Time interviewer in 1968 that he wanted viewers to feel that if they walked into one of his things they’d be in another world.

Larry Bell made a variant on this through-the-looking-glass art. After painting in a hard-edge, minimalist idiom, he started to pull those geometric austerities into three-dimensional sculptural forms, embedding cubical and elliptical mirrors inside chrome-framed boxes. As in Pashgian’s spheres, you look into Bell’s boxes and see a version of yourself, refracted and fragmented by structural dynamics. Common to these artists is a sensuousness that isn’t objectified as mark-making. The spiritual trace isn’t Rothko’s Judeo-Christian tradition but, appropriate to California, Eastern philosophies, where object and subject evanesce into each other, and we’re perceptually enfolded — the art is us and we are it.

De Wain Valentine’s work, like Bell’s, negotiates the act of seeing. Consider his imperious Diamond Column: a dolmen of clear polymer resin contains a translucent lozenge of fuzzy-gelatinous green light. The refractory energy causes the degree of opacity to change, depending on where you’re standing. I watched a person on the other side of the column walk past: I saw him on the edge for an instant, then he vanished into an apparently solid mass, appeared briefly in the “eye” of the form, then emerged again, an art-made artful dodger.

Most of these artists share the assumption voiced by John McCracken: “Color is the structural material I use to build the forms I am interested in.” Their work is elemental yet decorative. Because of the way they treat materials, we feel we’re never too far from the surfboard and customizing shops where a couple of them actually worked. They gave heavy, solid volumes a happy airiness. Hard-gloss surfaces never looked so supple and warm.

For a different kind of illumination, see Infinite Balance: Artists and the Environment at the Museum of Photographic Arts. One of the most prestigious distinctions in the world of photography is the Prixt Pictet, a juried prize given to a photographer whose work most acutely addresses issues of sustainability. The short list includes some of the best-known photographers in the world, and a selection from the short list is on view at MOPA. Photography is extremely selective seeing, and the image-makers in the show teach us how to see what we need to know about environmental endangerments and depredations. The images are, most of them, gorgeous, especially when they’re depicting awfulness: the gorgeousness intensifies the reality and so intensifies the urgency of the issues addressed. They have to be beautiful in order to horrify.

China is on everybody’s mind. The Israeli Nadav Lander has been documenting the Yangtze River while the Chinese Miracle (or Monster) is under way. One picture shows a man wading in shallows washing his motorbike. (The mind goes to thoughts of horses brought to drink from pristine streams.) In another, fishermen standing on the shore are wrapped in a noxious haze beneath a huge, new, half-completed bridge. The Chinese Yau Lu’s heavily manipulated images create the appearance of classic landscape scroll painting, except that his idealized scenes of mountains and rivers in the mist are actually slag, garbage, and construction-site debris covered with a crust of scabby netting. We see both at once: the serene edenic countryside of old and the industrialized corruption of that pastoral site.

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