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ART : Slick Art Is His Business : In 1987, Briton Richard Wilson filled a gallery with oil, creating an optical illusion so disorienting--and popular--that he did it again, and again.

October 16, 1994|Kristine McKenna | Kristine McKenna is a frequent contributor to Calendar

'Say you're sitting in a train at a platform that's due to pull out, the train next to you moves, and you think you're moving," says British artist Richard Wilson, the subject of an exhibition opening today at the Museum of Contemporary Art in conjunction with the UK/LA Festival.

"Suddenly you see the platform and realize you haven't moved. At that moment you've experienced a fault in the body mechanism between eye and brain, and you've been fooled. That's the experience you have in the oil room."

For those not plugged into the international avant-garde grapevine, "the oil room" is an installation Wilson first completed at Matt's Gallery in London in 1987. The piece, actually titled "20:50," is on view at MOCA through Jan. 8; it has been re-created four times at locations around the globe and never fails to cause a ruckus.

Here's how it works: Imagine a walled ramp extending into a room. The enclosing walls of the ramp are about shoulder height, and beyond the walls is a room completely filled with black oil--about 700 gallons--that creates an unbroken reflective surface. You, the viewer, are up to your neck in oil, but because of the reflection that surrounds you, you can't quite figure out where you are. The piece is so intensely disorienting that people often flail about and wind up smudging themselves with oil in an effort to get their bearings.

"This is my most popular piece, probably because it's the most psychological--in fact, there will be two on the planet when this one is completed," the 40-year-old artist explains during an early morning meeting in a cafe in downtown L.A. (The other oil room is on view in London in the collection of advertising magnate Charles Saatchi).

"When you enter the room you don't see the work, because there's nothing to see--you're simply looking at a room, or so you think. In fact, you're seeing a reflection, but it's not the kind of reflection we're used to seeing in mirrors.

"As you move into the room, the ramp rises and narrows in order to create the feeling of running out of space," he continues. "The ramp is all you have to keep from mentally falling into the reflection, and you reach a point where it's like Alice through the looking glass and you flop into another world. The slight raising of the ramp intensifies the feeling of disorientation because normally when you wade out into a liquid--say, at the beach--you go down and out into that expanse. This operates in reverse, and though you're aware something unusual is happening, your faculties aren't acute enough to know the floor sloped up. People sometimes suffer extreme vertigo in the piece."

Hearing about the oil room, one gets the impression that it's not unlike a spooky carnival attraction. Wilson, however, intends that his art do more than toy with people's equilibrium.

"There are two kinds of work: There's slap-shot work where you walk in and say, 'Wow!' You get one view of the thing and it's an incredible experience. Then there's work that unfolds slowly and experiencing it is a process of layers peeling back. I want both to happen in my work," he explains.

There are, indeed, subtle resonances to Wilson's work, but it's nonetheless firmly grounded in a Wow! school of art more identified with America than England.

British artist David Mach, Wilson's contemporary and friend, also makes insanely grandiose work that defies belief (say, a life-size artificial elephant hoisting a refrigerator with his trunk), but mostly Wilson's work is in a tradition of mind-boggling American Conceptual sculpture that stretches from Gordon Matta-Clark, Walter De Maria and James Turrell in the 1970s to current work by Chris Burden and Nancy Rubins. All of these artists deal in one way or another with issues of scale, perceptual phenomena and the sublime. However, unlike an artist like Turrell who creates sculpture out of light that has a palpable metaphysical presence, Wilson intends that his art remain firmly tethered to the real world.

"Metaphysics? Religion? Never touch the stuff," he says with a laugh. "I like the physicality of the work I make and don't see myself as a Conceptual artist, because the pieces I make are so incredibly physical. However, I suppose they are Conceptual in that they disappear and, like most Conceptual art, must rely on the written word for any kind of longer life."

An intense man who is cordial yet private in a way that is distinctly British, Wilson is amazingly animated considering that he's being interviewed at 7:30 in the morning after having just gotten off a plane from London. He lives there with his wife, Sylvia Ziranek, who is a performance artist, and their two children (Wilson's youngest child, a daughter, was born just five weeks ago).

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