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Art review: The light through James Turrell's eyes

'James Turrell: A Retrospective' at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art captures the essence of the artist's spiritual connection to light and sight and gives insights on Roden Crater, his work in progress.

May 28, 2013|By Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times Art Critic

Visually, the projection reads multiple ways: It's a flat hexagon of light, a three-dimensional illusion of a protruding cube and an actual receding corner of the room. A viewer's consciousness shifts accordingly, slipping and sliding among image, object and space in a struggle to pull them into a stable, harmonious whole.

"Juke (Green)," a slightly later corner projection that creates a wedge of green light, is less successful. A rather inert display, its primary virtue is the introduction of color into the artist's developing repertoire.

The survey's loose chronology then momentarily jumps ahead four decades to a group of nine holograms made in 2008-2009. As you move past the glass panels, both large and small, wedges, disks and planes of rainbow color appear to unfold and disappear in atmospheric space. Adding little of consequence to the familiar, gee-whiz laser technique, they are the show's least satisfying works.

Other installations elaborate on the physics of optical perception. Some make wry allusions to television screens. Others create a labyrinth effect — visual doorways that seem to open into uncharted spaces, which can be entered only by imagination. Turrell's art exists at an intersection of science and fiction.

The number of visitors that can be allowed into many of these chambers at one time is limited. In the pitch black "Dark Matter," where minimal ambient light causes a strange knot of hovering gray to float within the inkiness, only two people can be accommodated at once.

Also, a suggested minimum amount of time to allow for the visual effects to occur is printed at each installation's entry, meaning that a few hours are necessary to see the entire show. (That's one reason for its extended run: The elaborate exhibition continues until next April.) Expect to wait in line.

Turrell, 70, apparently produced little or no portable work for long periods. Especially sparse is work from the 1970s and 1990s, presumably because of preoccupation with developing Roden Crater.

He was also executing commissions for private and public installations. About 100 "sky spaces," Turrell's name for observatory works related to the volcano, have been built around the world; the nearest public one is at Pomona College in the courtyard between the Lincoln and Edmunds buildings.

The retrospective, organized by LACMA director Michael Govan and curator Christine Y. Kim, is of necessity more a sampler from the past 47 years. Smaller, independently organized Turrell shows also open soon at Houston's Museum of Fine Arts and New York's Guggenheim.

The most appealing works at LACMA are usually the simplest, such as "Afrum" or "Raemar" — the latter a wide, floating wall that becomes a screen for subtle optical effects produced by eyes fatigued by surrounding pink fluorescent light. Others, such as a spherical chamber that an individual viewer enters on a sliding bed to experience an intense, 12-minute bombardment of flashing light, merely seem grandiose. (Titled "Light Reignfall," the MRI-like sphere requires advance ticketing and a signed waiver.)

Finding equilibrium isn't easy, and Turrell's art doesn't always manage it. When it does, though, the work opens a philosophical mind as much as a transparent eye.


'James Turrell: A Retrospective'

Where: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles

When: Through April 6, 2014. Closed Wednesdays.

Contact: (323) 857-6000,


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