“St. Elmo’s Light,” by renowned light artist James Turrell, bears a fleeting resemblance to a movie screen. It’s rectangular and it glows, but viva la différence. Looking into its purple luminosity is like looking into infinity. It taps the theater of your mind.
On view through July 7, this spellbinding artwork is receiving its premiere right here in Easton’s Academy Art Museum. Named for the weather phenomenon in which glowing light in the form of luminous blue or violet plasma appears at the tip of a pointed object such as a lightning rod, ship’s mast, or plane wing, it plays with your perception and straddles the divide between science and magic.
It’s a real coup for the Museum to host work by a major living artist of Turrell’s caliber, especially as this show is concurrent with the artist’s retrospectives at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Following on the heels of its splendid exhibits of work by Mark Rothko and Pat Steir, the Museum is quickly making a name for itself by bringing the work of major artists to the Eastern Shore.
Turrell, who resides part time in Oxford, was brought up in a Quaker family. His lifelong interest in perception was sparked when he encountered the phenomenon of “inner light” experienced in silent meditation. He got his pilot’s license at age sixteen and soon became fascinated with aerial light effects, including the mesmerizing sensation of flying through sunlit fog. This led him to major in perceptual psychology at Pomona College (where he also studied art, geology, math and astronomy). By the time he finished his MA in art from University of California, Irvine, light itself was his subject matter, and his work became associated with the Minimalist and Land Art movements of the late 1960s to 1970s.
Strange things happen to your eyes as you gaze into the dreamlike field of color of “St. Elmo’s Light.” On my first visit, I saw veins of deep blue appearing along with hints of orange. The edges sometimes seemed to tinge almost grape-colored. The next time I came, fragments of white light flashed by for the first few moments, then as the soft luminosity calmed me, gentle shifts in the deep, undifferentiated expanse of color took over.
As Turrell recently told a New York Times reviewer, “Light is this thing we usually use to illuminate other things.” Aside from beautiful sunsets and the occasional shaft of sunlight falling on the floor, we generally don’t focus on light itself, yet it has long been a significant subject in art both as a visual phenomenon and a spiritual metaphor. Painters from J. M. W. Turner to the Impressionists to Mark Rothko are celebrated for their painterly illusions evoking the soul-stirring effects of light. Turrell takes it a step further and makes art that explores the mysterious ways we perceive light.
Eight holograms glow in the low light of another gallery across the hallway. They neatly line the walls like so many framed paintings, but they refuse to stay put. A triangle of orange light edged with green leaps out toward you as you approach; another triangle in shades of peacock blue and emerald pokes backwards into the wall. From the side, there’s only a faint glow of color but as you walk up to each panel, a simple geometric form materializes in the space in front of you. Hold your hand out in the brilliant colored light and the illusion momentarily vanishes, then swiftly reasserts itself. It’s as if you’re seeing two realities simultaneously. Like many of Turrell’s works, these holograms are just plain fun to play with and they leave you marveling at the physics of light and perception.
Much of the space is devoted to models, plans, maps, and photographs of Roden Crater, Turrell’s 40-year magnum opus, a work still in progress. Turrell located the extinct volcano in 1974 after an extensive search during which he crisscrossed the southwest by air. Since then, he has been steadily transforming the crater into a naked-eye astronomical observatory that is the largest single piece of art on the planet. Following in the footsteps of ancient peoples whose monuments mark celestial cycles, Turrell is in the process of constructing apertures, chambers and tunnels from which the paths of the sun, moon and stars can be viewed.
Just as the heelstone at Stonehenge marks the rising of the summer solstice sun, the rays of the sun will penetrate a tunnel in the crater at the solstice to illuminate a wedge of black marble inset with a disk of white stone. Moonlight will light the opposite side of the stone when the moon reaches its most southerly position on the horizon. This event, called the major standstill, occurs every 18.61 years. It isn’t something most people are aware of nowadays, yet it was important to the ancients, enough so that a number of stone circles in Aberdeenshire, Scotland were oriented so that at the major standstill, the moon appears to roll along the top edge of a large horizontal stone on the southern side.
From the myths and monuments of cultures worldwide, we know that these celestial events have long inspired wonder, awe and a sense of unity with the cosmos. Roden Crater will offer a direct experience of that cosmic dance, tracing sun and moon cycles, the day-to-day changes in the angle of noon light, the rising of constellations, and the turning of the stars around true celestial north.
Since prehistory, religion and folklore have affirmed light as the first ingredient in creation, so take some time over this show. Gaze into the light, play with its effects. If you hurry through it, you’ll miss the deep experience of opening your perception to a wider universe, even a wider consciousness.
For more information, including curator-led tours, visit: www.academyartmuseum.org
By Mary McCoy