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November 13, 2004 - February 12, 2005, at Griffin Contemporary, Santa Monica

by Mat Gleason

“Raemar,” 1969, reconstructed
2004, mixed media installation.

"Enzu Blue,” 1968, reconstructed
2004, mixed media installation.

"Gard Red,” 1968, reconstructed
2004, mixed media installation.

James Turrell is one of those artists whose work is seen much less than it is discussed. His legendary desert crater has taken him out of art world circulation, but out of sight has not been out of mind. His name alone has become synonymous with the reverentially hushed silence surrounding the effervescent effect of his artworks, few and far between as they may be. And so the rarity of a Turrell exhibition that does not require roughing it through desolate Red States is a slam-dunk on the itinerary of any art world denizen.

Early Light Works consists of three seminal pieces from the oeuvre of an artist who helped make the world take Los Angeles seriously. In two of these works from 1968, Turrell used halogen projectors to focus light across darkened rooms. By utilizing the architecture of the spaces, simple geometry was transformed into having the appearance of solid objects. Light itself seemed to transmute into solid matter (to get picky, yes, light is matter, but it is a far cry from the Rock of Gibraltar). In either of these pieces, Gard Red or Enzu Blue, the viewer is confronted with the presence of three-dimensional geometric shapes. Once the lack of true dimension is realized, the reaction tends to be the opposite of when traditional drawn illusionistic space is encountered. Even paintings that we feel we can walk into elicit the desire to know how the work was done. Turrell’s illusionistic space tends to instead draw out a fascination with the power of light. The artist fools the eye, like multitudes before him, but is simply met with muted, respectful awe when the truth of the image is revealed.

The main gallery will host a 1969 light sculpture entitled Raemar constructed of a large partition wall hiding fluorescent light. The result of this piece is the sense that the firm wall is floating. Where he does not seek to create mass from light, he uses light to destabilize our notions of mass. Turrell can be seen to perpetuate some classic 1960s artistic positions: a desire for utter certainty, as well as, paradoxically, an almost mystical path (through the heart of scientific engineering and application) of the truest seeker. His Arizona-based Roden Crater project

More so than any artist outside of Michael Heizer or Robert Irwin, Turrell does deliver to art audiences primed for and fascinated with pure experiential artworks. His groundbreaking use of light as a formal medium may be one of the simplest great breakthroughs in the history of the visual arts. Beyond critiques of apolitical bombastic formalism there is little wiggle room in which to dismiss the artist’s legacy. He compels one to see and think in terms outside of the current dialogue. If humankind is on the path to some glorious Utopia, Turrell’s pieces may one day rank with the Lascaux caves. But if this species of ours is on our way to ending with a bang or whimper, his determination to privilege the ephemeral may get its airing at some latter day Nuremburg.