This iteration of
Viewpoints features three aquatint prints from the portfolio First Light (1989-1990) by James Turrell (U.S., born 1942). These prints are based on the artist's early light projections in which a single, controlled beam of light is projected from an opposing corner of a room, creating the illusion of a three-dimensional form.
Below is the featured commentary by University of Washington faculty that accompanies the installation.
Perception and Ambiguity
-Steven Buck, Professor, Department of Psychology and Adjunct Professor, Department of Radiology
James Turrell wants us to explore how our brains use pre-conscious strategies to construct our perceptions of the world from ambiguous information.
The brain quickly interprets the ambiguous white pyramid in
Alta as seen either from above or from below. But, like the classic Necker Cube, the brain can then instantly flip its interpretation of the ambiguous sensory information. The contours of the very dark background resolve this ambiguity, but only if we look closely—it's as if Turrell wants us to experience our brains wrestling with the ambiguity before showing us the resolution.
Turrell shows how the brain deals with another type of ambiguity in
Enzu, akin to M.C. Escher's impossible figures. The base of the figure appears to have both depth and width that extend upward but the top appears to have only width. The clash of the two interpretations is smoothed over in the middle of the figure. Perhaps Turrell is pointing out how the brain uses congruent local cues in preference to conflicting global cues in constructing our perceptions.
Shanta is the least ambiguous of these works but leads to the most improbable perception. The angles of the figure contours and the intersecting lines of the walls and floor lead to the interpretation that we are looking at the side of a white block, which is somehow attached halfway up the wall. Here, Turrell demonstrates the brain's use of heuristics to construct perception, even when it leads to an improbable conclusion.
Lift Off, Touch Down
-Sonal Khullar, Assistant Professor, Division of Art History, School of Art + Art History + Design
Shanta, the title of James Turrell's work conjures peace and calm, which is what the word means in Hindi and Sanskrit. The other titles of the works on display here remain enigmas but I like their sound. They span the world and its many languages, the zones of inner space and outer space, and the modes of material investigation and mental contemplation. Enzu sounds earthy, Alta mighty. One might be a crater, the other a mountain. Enzu sounds like an Igbo word, Alta like a Latin root. Like Turrell's art, they bespeak exploration and elegance, striving and simplicity.
His prints from
First Light recall the work of Nasreen Mohamedi (1937 – 1990), an Indian artist known for her abstract drawings. Both artists seem to be reaching for the skies and stars while remaining grounded on Earth. Although Mohamedi's shifting planes and spare geometries have been compared to spaceships and flying carpets, she was deeply interested in the workings of crabs on a beach of which she wrote in her diaries. Turrell's levitating prints, light installations and
Skyspaces too are concerned with earth, ground and being in the world. Their magical properties and mysterious illusionism notwithstanding, they are an invitation to examine the relative shapes and symmetries of the gallery, museum, city and environment around us.
Not unlike the marvelous eighteenth-century observatories built by Sawai Jai Singh in Delhi and Jaipur, they produce revelation and reflection. They demand the discovery of stillness in movement and silence in sound. They gesture towards the heavens, the immeasurable, and the unknown while retaining a human scale, a bodily presence, and an intimate point of reference. Looking at them, I find myself wishing to lift off and touch down.
Seeing is Believing
-Galen Minah, Associate Professor, Department of Architecture
Imagine a translucent alabaster pyramid illuminated from below in a dark room. The object is the only thing in the room, becoming a light fixture in the dark space. It has a singular presence shaped by its light and precise geometric shape created by the contrast of the lighted surfaces to the dark space of the encompassing room. The translucent pyramid appears to be filled with a white substance that is a combination of its material and the light. The darkness of the room, the singularity of the pyramid, and the glowing presence draw you toward it. You can touch the surface, but that isn't really necessary, because what you see is enough to know that the surfaces are smooth, the edges are precise, and that it is a three-dimensional solid.
James Turrell knows that this experience can be reproduced through vision and illusion. By projecting an intense light through a light-shaping device onto two intersecting walls and floor in the corner of a room, he is able to create an illuminated pyramid that appears three-dimensional and tangible. Everything you experience is by seeing; the combination of light and perception, vision and illusion.
Alta, Turrell has taken the experience one step further. Since the illusion is based upon perception, you can recreate the experience in an aquatint print in two dimensions
if the light-dark contrast between the figure and background has very subtle tonal variations on the planar surfaces of the pyramid. Again, you experience a solid pyramid in space. By combining your perception with the graphic design of the artist, you become a participant in the experience, and seeing is believing.