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ART REVIEW : Larry Bell's Light Images: Through a Filter Darkly

February 04, 1988|Cathy Curtis

At 4:10 on a winter afternoon in Laguna Beach, a wispy, glowing band of orange floats on the horizon above the endless blue of the ocean, and beyond it the sky pales here and there into a colorless blur.

A short walk away, colors similarly glow, mingle and fade--on sheets of paper sheathed in plexiglass at the Laguna Art Museum. These are Larry Bell's "vapor drawings," the Southern Californian artist's attempts to capture the evanescent mysteries of light with the help of some handy laws of physics.

Marshaled in strict vertical or horizontal bars or in egg-shaped or wavy formats, Bell's colors seem to shimmer, the way light does on puddles covered with films of oil. These effects are created not with pastels or paint, but by manipulating the reflective capabilities of the paper.

Trapped by a thin metallic film, light is reflected through one or more layers of a non-metallic substance (such as silicon monoxide) that vaporizes and condenses on the paper in a vacuum chamber.

The viewer sees different colors because each silicon-monoxide layer has a different index of refraction (the angle at which light bends when it enters a material). Variances in the thickness of the deposit transmit different portions of the visible light spectrum to the human retina.

This complex and precise process tends to intrigue viewers who feel insecure with the subjective realm of art and prefer good solid facts and evidence of hard work. But Bell would be the first to assert that all his hard work would be meaningless if the works didn't stand on their own.

This group of works fails to create the kind of visionary realm in which each piece reinforces and deepens the insight of the next, partly because of problems with the installation itself.

The protective plexiglass containers allow the viewer's own image to intrude clumsily in front of the patiently orchestrated effects of ambient light. Fragile these works may be, but surely there is another, less intrusive, way to protect them.

There is also, of course, a built-in contradiction involved in capturing the fleeting quality of an optical "event" on a fixed, two-dimensional surface. Bell's more famous vacuum-chamber pieces are glass cubes that offer changing angles of refraction as the viewer walks around them. On paper, the illusion of mutability is much harder to pull off.

In these days of dime-store toys that change from one image to another as you flick them back and forth, the now-you-see-it, now-you-don't metallic sheen of these drawings no longer retains its novelty. So the success or failure of the pieces depends mainly on Bell's various manipulations of color and pattern.

The more colorful pieces generally are the lesser ones, with their curious combination of 1960s-style rainbow- and light-box imagery and a bright, impersonal look that wouldn't be out of place on a New Age music record jacket or the cover of a high-tech company's annual report.

The subtlety of Bell's manipulations is easier to appreciate in the absence of vivid color. In "LNVFBK2" of 1979, for example, a vertical expanse of black paper slowly invaded by a silvery coating adjoins a reversed image with silver on top gradually fading to black. The austerity of the image suggests an hommage to master abstract painter John McLaughlin.

"LL4," also of 1979, could be a lonely highway vanishing into the mist. "MSHF 8" suggests a ghostly silver-and-white grille.

A few pieces in the show are cast-paper variants of Bell's ellipse formats, produced at Gemini Editions Ltd. in Los Angeles. Like Bell's art, Gemini's output has attained the commodity status of a BMW for a certain level of Southern California collector. You can't go wrong with classy brand names, the reasoning goes. They're Established.

Alas, along with being Established often goes an endless stream of rehashed commentary and description, and an eagerness among lesser institutions to get their own share of the pie. Reevaluation and fresh commentary are apparently beside the point at the Laguna Art Museum, which has stepped on the Bellwagon without bothering to contribute a new perspective on his work.

Education curator Dinah McClintock's catalogue essay (for which former director William Otton credits himself as editor) attempts to discuss Bell in Art 101 terms, as the creator of a "distinct, original solution to an artistic problem."

The Problem, neatly wrapped up for our inspection, is how to create the illusion of depth on a flat surface. McClintock retreats into a hasty summary of spatial developments in modern art, studded with foot-noted acknowledgements to art historian Dore Ashton--and to Otton's unpublished dissertation.

On and on it goes, droning about generations of artists. This mixture of rote information and blather ("a living, breathing space") brings to mind a weary art history teacher whacking her pointer against slides on a screen to point out details that may be on the exam.

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