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ART REVIEW

A solar-powered theory of relativity

Exhibition delves into the late Jesus Rafael Soto's experiments with light, energy and reality.

January 07, 2006|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

Every schoolkid knows that E = mc2. Einstein's assertion of an equivalence between solid mass, which can be seen and touched, and fugitive energy, which can be felt and experienced, is the centerpiece of modern physics. After atomic bombs vaporized vast swaths of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the awesome power of the equation became a fact of daily life -- a fact soon to be wrestled with by everyone from politicians to artists.

At the Museum of Latin American Art, "Jesus Rafael Soto: The Universality of the Immaterial" provides a thumbnail sketch of the late Venezuelan artist's ruminations on this and related themes. The show is modest -- just 20 unique works and one 1979 suite of nine multiples -- and too small to do more than introduce Soto's long career. (He died at age 80 last January, nearly five decades after creating a small sensation in a landmark group exhibition in Paris.) And the selection leans rather too heavily on loans from commercial galleries to be able to provide an independent survey.

Still, individual objects of great beauty and conceptual sophistication are included -- enough to make one wish for a full retrospective of the artist, who has slowly reemerged from relative obscurity in recent years. Take the marvelous "Ambivalent Planes" (1981). It came late in his career, when his level of refinement was acute.

The painting is slightly larger than 3 feet square, with relief elements that stand out from the surface as much as 6 inches. It's divided in half horizontally. The upper rectangle is white, while the black lower rectangle is striated with vertical white stripes. Smack in the center, a vivid yellow square straddles the horizon line, like a quadrangular sun rising on a Modernist landscape drawn with mathematically organized precision.

The yellow square stands out on a post from the background. It is one among 20 similarly disposed relief elements, arranged in a symmetrical, visually syncopated grid in front of the painting's surface.

Soto's carefully considered color is significant. The fusion of physical material with optical energy finds its first expression in the painting's conscientious deployment of pigment and light. In typical Modernist fashion, he uses primary colors -- red, blue and yellow (in two tones). Because all 20 relief squares are raised on posts, they also cast shadows against the background plane. The shadows alert you to the simple fact of light falling across painted surfaces.

Soto's specific color choices elucidate similarities and differences between light and pigment. In the spectrum the absence of light is black, while mixing the entire spectrum yields white. With pigments, on the other hand, mixing the primaries yields brown. So brown squares join black and white ones in Soto's relief, as do gray and striped squares.

Why are there two tones of yellow? Perhaps the doubling is meant to indicate that yellow is a primary pigment but a secondary color of light.

Against the black-and-white pinstriped background, a number of the colored squares seem to shimmer and vibrate. The longer you look, though, the more the relief squares also appear to shift their location. They advance or recede in actual and optical space, providing a surprising counterpoint to the side-to-side chromatic vibration. Finally they lock into variable planes of space.

The effect is achieved according to familiar Bauhaus principles, optical physics and the push-pull compositional theories of Hans Hofmann. I counted seven different layers of real and perceived planar space in this work, but who can be certain?

The complex result is uniquely Soto's, however, and not at all the sort of shallow visual gimmickry you find in the flabbier work of lesser artists like Victor Vasarely or Yaacov Agam. One reason is that the empty space around Soto's flat, colored squares can seem dense and oddly tactile -- as physical and materially present as the painted wood and metal from which the relief has been assembled.

Soto's work can also resonate with sly narrative implications. That "sun" on the "horizon" of the "landscape" in "Ambivalent Planes" transforms a purely geometric abstraction into an organic opposition between earth and sky. In the upper white register, only white relief squares are deployed, yielding a celestial field of visual serenity and calm. All the lively, even chaotic and phantasmagoric visual action takes place in the register below. Think heaven and earth, eternal bliss and temporal flux.

"Ambivalent Planes" conjures a rigorously secular, almost scientific exposition of a traditional spiritual subject, usually told in representational terms. Not surprisingly, it's one that is familiar to Colonial Baroque painting in Latin America.

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