Seeing the Light

The prettiest and most stunning work of the show, Milk Run II revels in the sensuousness of light. "Wedging," a flight term, refers to the strange visual effects one sees when flying into water vapor. This piece, part of the "WedgeWork" series, exploits the effect's capacity to create a hypnotic, quasi-mystical mood. Light is projected at an angle, producing three qualities: It is at once opaque, translucent and transparent. Like a Mark Rothko painting, the glowing planes emit the sensation of hovering. The light forms a triangular wedge, cutting diagonally across the room to the opposite rear corner. The red light is so dense that, like a scrim, it seems to be physically stretched between floor, walls and ceiling. A pinkish color collects in pockets along the rear wall, and a nearly pure blue extends along the side, like a "shadow" of color. Though we are physically prohibited from entering the space, our eyes move past the red curtain. The effect is both theatrical and intimate, and expectant: You feel as if the slant of light could be a prelude to some majestic vision, some angelic arrival.

Obviously, Turrell's exercises in optics never feel like dry, mechanical experimentation. In all of his spaces, he seeks to produce experiences similar to those once generated by monuments such as Stonehenge, the Valley of the Kings and Chichen Itza. In those sacred places, people felt they could grow closer to myth, magic and dreams. And in a Turrell space, even a modern observer feels something similar. The artist forces you first to see, then to see yourself seeing; the intensity of the experience is beyond words, a meditative state beyond thought.

As part of "Spirit and Light," the CAM's Cullen Foundation Education Resource Center includes color photographs and architectural drawings of the Roden Crater Project -- and models of permanent works that will soon be built in Houston. Turrell, himself a Quaker, will create a "skyspace" in the Live Oak Friends Meeting House; the installation will bring ever-changing outdoor light inside the building. He's also working on a light installation for the Museum of Fine Arts' new Main Street tunnel. The underground passage, scheduled for completion in March 2000, will connect the new Audrey Jones Beck Building to the existing museum; Turrell has designed a shallow installation in which the passage's walls will become vessels for light. (Significantly, the Menil Collection has also entered preliminary discussions about permanently installing a number of the artist's works in its neighborhood.)

Turrell's light spaces stretch the boundaries of both art and vision, and his ideas likewise stretch the capacity of language; any analysis requires somehow explaining things like "presentness" and "oneness of being." The works provide no answers, yet raise innumerable questions concerning the nature of art, vision and reality. Perhaps more than any other art being created today, Turrell's light works offer a completely subjective experience; there are no right or wrong ways to look at them.

Turrell invokes only the revelation of light itself. He makes us feel light's presence much as we experience light in a dream. We sense the color generated inside us -- the light within.

"James Turrell: Spirit and Light" is on view through July 26 at the Contemporary Arts Museum, 5216 Montrose Boulevard, 284-8250.

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