If a science-fiction writer had to invent an art form existing on another planet, it might look like Richard Godfrey's "Clara's Song," an installation at Rancho Santiago College Art Gallery in Santa Ana.
Visitors look through a window cut waist-high in a white wall to see a coldly perfect image: a blue pyramidal object suspended nose down above fathomless cloudy-blue water. On the surface of the water lies a glass-like floating black square. In the watery depths, a twin blue pyramid sits serenely. The walled-in environment glows cherry red near an "eternal flame" burning on top of the pyramid's base and fades to black.
You have come face to face with the Fourth Dimension, and it looks like an Olympic logo.
But wait; there's more. The trickling of water and the blowing sound of the burner offer an aural component. An olfactory tickle (unintended, the artist says) is provided by the distinctive aroma of gas.
All is not what it seems, however. The water is in fact only 12 inches deep. That "floating square" is actually the top of a well that recycles 900 gallons of water through a platform of reinforced plywood lined with a plastic membrane.
The color effects are achieved through the use of red fluorescent light and black light on the white-painted polyurethane foam pyramid and temporary walls. A metal hood built into the top of the false ceiling supposedly funnels most of the gas outdoors, with the help of a fan.
If this all sounds somewhat familiar, that is because another of Godfrey's light pieces ("Little Sisters," which had no fire component) was on view last year at the Laguna Art Museum's South Coast Plaza annex.
In a brochure essay for the installation that is thoughtful and thorough if turgidly written ("experiential experimentation of the most objective variety"?), Shifra M. Goldman mentions the various artistic influences that helped shape the look of Godfrey's art.
These influences include the rigorous geometry of the early 20th-Century Russian constructivists, the intricate patternings of Tantric art, the shadow-effects in California artist Robert Irwin's work and the stylization of Art Deco and postmodern architecture.
Goldman thinks that what Godfrey does might be called "space-age abstraction." Indeed it might. But this seems to be a "space-age" creation in the consumer mode of Tang or Teflon rather than, say, the haunting photographs of planets taken by satellite cameras.
For this viewer, Godfrey's piece has a prepackaged, superficial quality that is galaxies away from the sensory, poetically allusive aspects of "light-and-space" work by the masters of the field. The artist's "vision" seems to have more in common with the crowd-pleasing creations of computer graphics or holography than with the outer limits of contemporary art.
Although his piece looks as though it might initiate the viewer into a sensory experience, what you see at first is what you get; no further optical effect seems to be waiting in the wings for the patient observer.
Nor does this San Francisco Art Institute graduate seem interested in creating thoughtful metaphors. His basic imagery is so pedestrian, it shuts off imaginative wanderings. The shape of the foam-core sculpture and the hackneyed torch effect are reminiscent of commercial design, a field that siphons off the trendy surfaces of art movements but ignores their probing intellectual and perceptual content.
In the end, "Clara's Song" seems to have something in common with another song, Peggy Lee's "Is That All There Is?"
"CLARA'S SONG," Installation by Richard Godfrey
Gallery hours: Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Fridays, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.; Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.
Rancho Santiago College Art Gallery, 17th and Bristol streets, Santa Ana
Information: (714) 667-3177 or 667-3173