“Seeing is a very sensuous act-there’s a sweet deliciousness in seeing yourself feel something”- James Turrell
I remember the first time I saw a work by the artist James Turrell. It was Spring break of my senior year in college. Home in Soho, I was flitting around the neighborhood on a bright sunny morning when I found myself in front of The Barbara Gladstone Gallery. With time aplenty (ah to be young again), I opened the door, gave a shy nod to the gallerina behind the desk, and entered the beckoning tunnel of darkness.
It was hard to say where the tunnel ended and the room began. All I knew was that a lilac apparition appeared before my eyes. The first tingle ran down my spine as this lilac rectangle of light seemed to reach out towards me and then recede into the distance all at once. I slowly stepped towards what I thought might be a glowing canvas. With every step I expected my eyes to clarify the numinous situation, but with every step understanding slipped farther and farther away. What the hell was I looking at? Was it material? Was it far from me? A few steps ahead? Did it lead somewhere? Am I dreaming? Nervous giggles started bubbling out of me as I nudged forward in a state of delighted awe and disbelief.
Not knowing can be a ticklish feeling. It is a sensation that I personally adore, but I know that many find it uncomfortable. As humans, we are wired to make sense of things- to process clues and arrive at an understanding. We crave comprehension, reward logic and believe measurement. This is how we anchor and orient ourselves in the world.
Art, however, invites us to hang out in the unknown. It allows for a different, more spiritual sort of mooring. The poet Wallace Steven’s words express this beautifully:
“Most people read poetry looking for echoes because the echoes are familiar to them. They wade through it the way a boy wades through water, feeling with his toes for the bottom: the echoes are the bottom.”
What is so genius about Turrell’s work is that it subverts our primary sense making system- our eyes- into functioning as a receiver for the liminal and mysterious. One cannot look at a Turrell work, one must be in a Turrell work, and being inside of the work means we are inside a state of wonder.
“The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible”- Oscar Wilde
Orchestrating these experiences require a technical wizardry that Turrell has been honing for years. He began his exploration in the sixties as part of the Light and Space movement in Southern California, which included other artists such as Robert Irwin, Doug Wheeler and Mary Corse. In his artistic practice he continued to research vision, the retinal structure and to experiment with perceptual and psychological phenomenons. While his work has been exhibited and lauded worldwide, Turrell’s most important work is out of the fray, in the middle of Northern Arizona’s Painted Desert. Roden Crater is a volcanic cinder cone which provides a “controlled environment for the contemplation of light.” The vision, ambition and sacrifice that this project embodies is unparalleled, and speaks volumes about Turrell’s depth as an artist who looks for light.
This exercise is about visual attunement, the goal here is to heighten your consciousness around color and light.
THE COLOR OF YOUR DAY, A EXERCISE IN PERCEPTION
- Pick a color
- Keep a look out for this color throughout your day
- Make a mental note everytime you notice that color
- Be aware the variations you find- for example: dark red, light red, orangy-red etc
- Be aware of how the color appears at different times of the day or in different contexts
- Take a picture or two that includes your chosen color and post it #TCHcolor or send it to firstname.lastname@example.org
Further reading and supplies:
James Turrell; A Retrospective Published in conjunction with a major retrospective, this comprehensive volume illuminates the origins and motivations of James Turrell’s incredibly diverse and exciting body of work—from his Mendota studio days to his monumental work-in-progress Roden Crater.
James Turrell; Geometry of Light The first significant Turrell survey in many years, an extraordinary body of work covering several decades is assessed. At the book’s center is the series of works known as Sky Spaces, a signature Turrell conception in which the sky is made to seem “on top of” the room’s ceiling, and which has become a mini-genre unto itself within light art.