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A Visionary, Yet Arguably Ironic, Display

September 05, 1996|SUSAN KANDEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LOS ANGELES — It's impossible not to use the word "visionary" when describing the work of James Turrell; that's one excuse.

Here's another: Though the word is embarrassingly shopworn, when applied to Turrell it feels brand-new.

Though Turrell's room-sized installations continue to startle viewers, he is best known for the Roden Crater project, located in an extinct volcano in Arizona. For decades, the artist has been at work on this earthwork, calculating the celestial movements in relation to the site and reshaping the crater's rim to provide a tangible experience of light and space. In a show now on view at Ace Contemporary Exhibitions, he shows work that relates to this endeavor, at least peripherally, in terms of its interest in producing specific optical effects.

But these scale models for what Turrell calls "autonomous spaces" are different from his other work. Not merely visionary, they are arguably ironic, which makes them the fin de siecle tropes our particular century deserves.

These spaces seem destined to structure perceptual experiences: to render the light extraordinarily thick, to change the color of the visual field, to bring the sky into the interior, etc. Yet, with titles like "Alien Exam," "Human Sacrifice Crater" and "Cold Storage," they also transform trauma into allegory.

Purportedly, some are in the process of being constructed to scale. One wonders why, though, since they are so remarkable precise as shown here.

* Ace Contemporary Exhibitions, 5514 Wilshire Blvd., (213) 935-4411, through September. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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