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'Lightstick' Of Illusion

October 25, 1987|ZAN DUBIN

You will only see its essence if you don't look directly at it; you can only see it in the dark; and if you're not prepared for what you see, you might think that you're hallucinating.

An apparition? A new sort of hologram? Neither. It's "Lightstick II," an electrical artwork installed downtown that lends new meaning to the term optical illusion.

The two-inch-thick vertical bar of bright red light, invented and designed by artist Bill Bell, is affixed to an exterior wall of the Museum of Contemporary's Temporary Contemporary at the corner of Temple and Alameda streets.

When stared at straight on, the six-foot-tall device appears to be a steady strip of light. But when one glances past the strip, the museum's acronym, "MOCA," spells itself out horizontally in bright red neon-like letters. (Other words, such as art , can be made to flash from the computerized artwork.)

"Images appear to jump out of the lightstick and hang in space for a fraction of a second," writes Bell, whose similar works flash everything from bicycles to elephants.

"The optical effect is created by what Bell calls 'saccadoscoptics' " explains a statement written by the museum, "and that is a combination of rapid eye movement and persistence of vision.

"What appears to be a steady light is actually an array of 2,500 separate light-producing elements, each independently controlled," the statement says. "The individual elements are flashed on and off in accordance with patterns stored in the memory of the device. The rapidity of the individual flashes of light are well beyond the capacity of the eyes to perceive, yet when one's eyes are moving, each flash of light is retained at a different place on the retina and one sees the flashes strung together to form the programmed word" or image.

Adds Bell to the statement: "Your nimble, educated mind integrates this series of dots into complete words."

"Lightstick" is one of several public art works or works situated outside of museum or gallery walls around Los Angeles. The Museum of Contemporary Art commissioned the piece, which was permanently installed at its Temporary Contemporary site in the spring of 1986, said museum spokeswoman Cynthia Campoy. Before that, the work appeared outside the museum's first administrative offices--now located at its Grand Avenue site--on Boyd Street downtown.

Bell, a former San Francisco Bay Area resident, could not be reached by phone at his home in Massachusetts. However, he is represented on the West Coast by the Victor Fischer Galleries in Oakland where many of his illusionistic electrical pieces are on display. Victor Fischer says one work flashes forth a flower pot with the Latin names of 16 flowers, one shows a Christmas candle emitting the words "Peace and Good" and others depict road signs and a skier.

"They are a source of constant amusement here in the gallery," Fischer said. "I see it all the time; people walk by and one says to the other, 'Did you see that?' and the other one says, 'I didn't see anything.' "

San Francisco's Exploratorium, a science and art museum, has displayed Bell's work, as have other similar institutions around the world, Fischer said.

Bell, 59, majored in physics at Princeton University, served in the United States Army artillery and has worked as a computer engineer and lived among and studied nomadic camel herders in East Africa, Campoy said.

AWARD GIVEN: Emerson Woelffer, the veteran Los Angeles painter and longtime instructor at Otis Art Institute of Parsons School of Design, is one of five artists to have recently won an unrestricted $5,000 grant from a new foundation that seeks out under-recognized established artists.

The Greenburger Foundation, headquartered in New York, was founded three years ago by real estate entrepreneur and art collector Francis J. Greenburger, "to acknowledge artists of extraordinary talent who are under-recognized by the general public," says the foundation's director George Hofmann. This is the foundation's second round of grants.

Woelffer will be officially honored with fellow grant winners, whose names will be announced publicly in January, at an awards dinner at New York's Guggenheim Museum next April, Hofmann said. The five winners will also be featured in an exhibit slated to begin the same month in New York then travel to Los Angeles. The Ruth Bachofner Gallery will probably host the local show, Hofmann said.

The Greenburger Foundation will annually give unsolicited grants to five artists, painters and sculptors exclusively. The winners are recommended by five judges--an artist, a museum director or curator, a critic or art historian, a collector and a gallery owner or director--who each pick one artist they deem deserving of a foundation grant, Hoffman said. Earl A. Powell III, director of the County Museum of Art, recommended Woelffer for his award.

"I wanted to focus on one of our artists, and I think Woelffer is clearly of great stature," Powell said.

Woelffer, 73, has been painting in Los Angeles for 27 years and has taught painting at the Otis/Parsons for eight years. He has received numerous other awards, including a grant from the Guggenheim Museum, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Pollock-Krasner Foundation. His most recent local exhibition was at the Wenger Gallery on La Brea Avenue. "I was delighted to receive the grant," Woelffer said, "because I didn't have to apply for anything; it just came out of the sky."

Greenburger, whose father, a New York literary agent, handled Kafka, Camus, Sartre and others, has always had an interest in the arts, Hofmann said, and the large New York real estate firm he founded fuels the foundation. Greenburger's total financial assets amount to "a couple hundred million dollars," Hofmann said, adding that that the amount of money in the foundation is "strictly Greenburger's affair."

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