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Seeing the Light

As the Contemporary Arts Museum guard pulls back the curtain to James Turrell's installation Night Light, he instructs you to follow a handrail through a winding corridor into a pitch-dark room. Ascending a ramp, you cling blindly to the walls and rail for support. In the blackness, your vision turns inward.

After you're seated in the viewing chamber, your eyes go to work adjusting to the darkness; the retina's cones, which sense bright light, give way to the rods. You wait silently and patiently, increasingly aware of your own breathing. Implicitly, Turrell asks you to trust, let go and give yourself to the dark.

After several minutes, you continue to see nothing, save for a faint red glow that expands, contracts and disappears. Undulating blobs of blue and fluorescent green float before your eyes, unanchored by scale and distance -- the same sort of blobs you'd see if you closed your eyes. You wonder: Are these part of Turrell's projection, or are they products of your own optic system? Are they "illusions" -- tricks of the eye to fool the mind? Is the light coming from outside or from within?

As the boundary between inner and outer worlds vanishes, you confront a dilemma similar to that of philosopher Chuang Tzu: Awakening from a dream, he did not know whether he was a man dreaming that he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming that he was a man. For a few minutes, you, too, exist in a state of suspension. It knows neither birth nor death; it exists in an everlasting now; it just is.

For more than three decades, James Turrell's ambition has been to reveal to us the extraordinary properties -- physical, symbolic and psychic -- of everyday light. In his ethereal environments, light seems almost palpable; he uses it the way a painter uses paint.

Born in Los Angeles in 1943, he majored in psychology and participated as an artist in scientific experiments with anechoic chambers, biofeedback devices and ganzfelds. Since 1966, all of his pieces -- quartz-halogen projections, fluorescent space constructions, wedges of artificial light, apertures onto natural illumination -- have been concerned with light as the fabricator of illusion.

Since the early '70s, he's worked on a legendary project to hollow out an extinct volcanic crater. Piloting his own plane around the Southwest, he searched seven months for the right place to create an effect he describes as "celestial vaulting," in which the sky seems a low ceiling, rather than infinite and untouchable. He found the Roden Crater, north of Flagstaff, Arizona, and is now shaping it into an interactive light sculpture and observatory, one that will include serpentine tunnels, moonlit crannies, luminescent chambers carved in rock and subterranean pools whose appearance will change depending on the position of celestial bodies. If all goes as planned, the Crater Project will be completed in the year 2000.

At the Contemporary Arts Museum, "Spirit and Light" transforms the museum into a series of magical spaces where we can go and dream. Organized by CAM curator Lynn Herbert, the exhibition surveys Turrell's work from 1966 to 1998. It includes six light chambers and "First Light" (1989 90), a series of 20 luminous aquatint prints.

Turrell's installations are not simply about the voluptuous act of looking; he makes the viewer conscious of his sleight of hand. The openings of Flash and Zorkoff are the size and shape of a standard TV screen. On those "screens" flickers a light so mesmerizing that the viewer feels an urge to reach out and touch the pure color. Perhaps the screen is a smoky sheet of glass? But no -- it's only a hole in the wall, looking into an inaccessible small space that seems filled with mist. The surprise -- "substance" changed into nothingness -- is both intense and subtle, like waking from a dream.

In Afrum-Proto, one of Turrell's earliest works, a quartz-halogen projector directs a high-intensity beam onto a corner. The light creates the illusion of a three-dimensional object somehow attached to the two walls. But as you approach the cube, its three-dimensionality dissolves; you recognize it for what it is, a beam of light. Stepping back, you're amazed that, though you no longer believe in the illusion, you're fully able to recover it.

Later installations display even more metaphysical grace. As with Night Light, you enter Atlan (1995) through darkened, mazelike entrances. Standing in the dimly lit space of Atlan, you see what appears to be a dark, monochromatic painting. Over 20 minutes, it changes to a luminous blue field that seemingly envelops you in twilight. Still, it's impossible to determine what the flat rectangle is -- at least, until you approach the wall and see that it's not an opaque painting at all, but a huge windowlike aperture.

The blue light inside seems to have physical heft -- to be watery, perhaps. The eerie blue space seems both related to divinity and oddly threatening; you think of heaven, of the formless universe. Your arm goes through the wall as if you were a ghost. It's a space you can't quite grasp, a space that keeps its secrets, even when exposed as emptiness.

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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