Last week I was in Southern California for the final week of Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego and La Jolla. The three-venue exhibition was part of Pacific Standard Time (PST), the six-month visual art extravaganza that is now the largest cultural collaboration in the history of the region.
The project’s mission is to commemorate the dynamic history of art in Los Angeles from the 1940’s through the 1970s. In the words of Deborah Marrow, Director of the Getty Foundation and one of the mastermind’s behind the project, “through Pacific Standard Time, the region’s enormously creative history has been preserved and re-examined, narrative by narrative. Now, for the first time, the full story of the genesis of the Los Angeles art scene is finally available to the public at exhibitions throughout Southern California.”
I repeatedly heard that of the 185 exhibitions (and counting) in the region, Phenomenal was the one not to miss. The exhibition explored the preoccupation among a handful of Los Angeles artists the 1960’s – 70’s of light and sensory phenomena as artistic medium. These artists, sometimes described as the Light and Space movement, created paintings, installations, sculptures, and atmospheres to shift and exceed the viewer’s capacity to experience and perceive art through basic manipulations of light and space. As described by Christopher Knight for the Los Angeles Times “whether by directing the flow of natural light, embedding artificial light within objects or architecture, or by playing with light through the use of transparent, translucent or reflective materials, these artists each made the visitor’s experience of light and other sensory phenomena under specific conditions the focus of their work.”
Phenomenal featured 56 works by 13 artists: Peter Alexander, Larry Bell, Ron Cooper, Mary Corse, Robert Irwin, Craig Kauffman, John McCracken, Bruce Nauman, Eric Orr, Helen Pashgian, James Turrell, De Wain Valentine and Douglas Wheeler. The impact of the exhibition outstripped all of my expectations and reinforced my conviction that art can profoundly inform and expand the way we see and process the world.
One of the most important aspects of Phenomenal is the time it requires to literally see and then experience the impact of the works in the show. Upon first blush, many of these works appear to be an empty canvas, a room with nothing inside. In Irwin’s biography Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, Lawrence Wescheler describes witnessing a couple literally “not see” one of Irwin’s 7-foot dot paintings hanging in a museum. Standing with the work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Weschler describes that “a couple walked into the room. The young woman, gesturing with a sweep of her arm, sighed in mock exasperation ‘See, this is what I mean.’ Her friend smiled knowingly… and the two moved quickly on. They had literally not seen a thing – one does not, one cannot in that amount of time. She was just sick and tired of having museum walls cluttered with empty white canvases.”
Experiencing these works requires the patience of time and attention, the leap-of-faith conviction that experiencing an “empty white canvas” might actually be worthwhile. And the works do unfold. With time and patience entire rooms, materials, light, and color that were literally invisible upon first glimpse are revealed – visual assumptions are shattered. In the words of Christopher Knight for the Los Angeles Times, “the eye opens, the buzzing mind lets go. A spectator arrives at a perceptual base point. As your body begins to feel the space it occupies, the rational brain shuts off. The effect is sensuous and exciting.” Or perhaps more aptly, in Irwin’s words, “at the very best, a few people will walk in and it will change their lives.”
Dramatic though that statement may sound, Weschler describes that this level of visual engagement turns our perception inward and facilitates a heightened awareness or our own ability to perceive. “Engaging the picture, we in turn engage the wonder of our own perceptual facilities. As in so much of Irwin’s later work, for a few moments, we perceive ourselves perceiving.” It is within that fresh perceptual space that we are able to see nuances, ask new questions, and make room for new opportunities.
The impact of Pacific Standard Time upon Southern California has also created an opportunity for profound shifts in assumptions and perspectives. PST created a new paradigm in large-scale collaboration. The project successfully fostered a sense of place and time through community consensus and the shared direction of powerful non-profit leaders in the region. In a time when so many non-profits dread collaboration and are loathe to share resources, Pacific Standard Time serves as a wake up call that a broader impact can result from a unified long-term community vision and a thoughtful and strategic combination of forces. Janet Lamkin, California State President of Bank of America, described the long-term impact of this project is that it “will bring together people of every neighborhood and background, and involve virtually all of this region’s arts institutions….(and) contributes to a climate where innovation flourishes, economies grow, and people, business and communities thrive.”