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The Full James Turrell Experience in Houston

"Twilight Epiphany" by James Turrell at Rice University, just one of the artist's Houston installations.
"Twilight Epiphany" by James Turrell at Rice University, just one of the artist's Houston installations.

On Sunday, the James Turrell retrospective "The Light Inside" lands at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in an unprecedented examination of the American light artist's work.

It's just one of three independently curated, concurrent exhibitions that explore Turrell's five-decade career, the other two running at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Before the MFAH exhibition opens, you can get a preview of Turrell's work thanks to several commissions and installations in Houston by the renowned light artist. They're must-sees to get the full James Turrell experience in Houston before or during the show's four-month run.

Live Oaks Friends Meetinghouse Skyspace

Since 2001, James Turrell enthusiasts have been traveling to the Live Oaks Friends Meeting House in the Heights to experience one of the artist's 70-plus skyspaces -- an installation that plays with the changing light and conditions of the sky. It's also one of two such skyspaces in Houston.

Every Friday and Sunday evening, the meetinghouse is open to the public to come in, sit down and take in the sunset through a hole in the roof. But it's not just some fancy skylight -- thanks to an orange glow around the ceiling that deepens as the sun lowers in the sky, it's a peaceful experience that allows you to experience "a light that inhabits space, so that you feel light to be physically present," says Turrell. Feel free to lean all the way back and rest your head against the pew to take in the show.

Turrell, who grew up in a Quaker household, conceived of the meetinghouse, located at 1318 W. 26th Street. Weather permitting, it is open a half hour before sunset on Fridays and Saturdays, and stays open about another half hour after the sun sets. Private tours can be arranged as well. The MFAH is planning special programs with the meetinghouse in conjunction with its Turrell exhibition.

 

Twilight Epiphany Skyspace at Rice University

The second Houston skyspace by Turrell can be found at Rice University. Since last June, Twilight Epiphany has been attracting students, tourists, art lovers and couples on date night to a hill to the east of the Alice Pratt Brown Hall. There, you'll find a Starship Enterprise-esque, pyramidal structure that can seat up to 120 people on two levels.

Like the meetinghouse's skyspace, the Rice installation consists of a square patch through the ceiling, which allows you to note the changing colors of the sky in a serene, peaceful environment. But whereas just orange is used at the meetinghouse, Twilight Epiphany provides a full range of color thanks to a 40-minute, timed light show. Also, where the meetinghouse is lined with pews, the Rice installation's slanted marble seats allow you to rest your head back with less strain.

One advantage the meetinghouse does have over the Rice skyspace is its inherent reverence. A recent visit to the meetinghouse was quiet and respectful, while a visit the week prior to the Rice campus was busy with people talking, moving about and using their phones -- something the artist insists against.

Of course, if you want to avoid the crowd, Twilight Epiphany is open for both sunrise and sunset. The former is usually pretty deserted, whereas the latter requires reservations. The installation is open every day for sunrise and sunset, except for Tuesday sunset. The MFAH is also planning special programs with Rice in conjunction with its Turrell exhibition.

 

"The Light Inside" Tunnel at MFAH

One of Houston's most cherished Turrell installations is already on view at the MFAH. Like the upcoming exhibition, it's also called The Light Inside and is a permanent, commissioned light tunnel that connects the Caroline Wiess Law Building with the Audrey Beck Building.

Unlike his two skyspaces, this is an installation that you don't sit passively to experience, but move through. Open since 2000, the tunnel is filled with neon and ambient light that is all-encompassing. As you walk through the tunnel, the color shifts from an intense blue to crimson to magenta. The effect makes it feel as if you're floating, but just be wary of the tunnel's edges -- a woman once sued the museum because she broke her arm falling off the walkway.

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