A pair of glittering, salt-crusted work gloves. A chunk of carbonized wood wrapped in shiny red wire. A hefty block of fragrant beeswax overrun with natural caverns and holes. These are some of the seemingly random items littering a dim gallery at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.
Down the corridor, workers noisily build the skeleton of a huge art installation. They've walled off half the FAC's main top-floor gallery and dropped the ceiling on their portion. It's hard to tell what the ultimate product will look like, amid the sheets of drywall and metal frames shocked by the hammers and drills that echo painfully through the rooms.
But it's for a good cause: to show the work of James Turrell, the American art legend known for his work with light. Whether artificial or natural, his manipulation of light into an art object turns ideas of sculpture, space and material on end.
As the 69-year-old artist told Interview magazine in June, "We use light to illuminate or to reveal, but light also obscures. I look at light as a material. It is physical. It is photons. Yes, it exhibits wave behavior, but it is a thing. And I've always wanted to accord to light its thing-ness."
His Trace Elements comes to the FAC on loan from the Denver Art Museum, but with careful oversight from Turrell's studio (which is currently involved in many projects, including preparation for a 2013 retrospective for the artist at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City). For this show, studio workers helped position the installation and will return when almost everything is finished to finally set up the lighting. In addition, the FAC will host two smaller works by Turrell, these on loan from a gallery in Aspen.
But how does all this have anything to do with dirty gloves and a disparate collection of found objects? Enter Scott Johnson.
Process over product
Where the Turrell operation spans many assistants and a hard-hat crew, Johnson is as low-key as they come. The 43-year-old Colorado College assistant professor of studio art was invited a couple years ago by the FAC to show alongside Turrell, and since has frequented the galleries he would inhabit — "listening" to the place, as he puts it.
And now, during a visit a few weeks before the opening, Johnson is still experimenting. Given free rein by museum director and show curator Blake Milteer, Johnson has brought new items in each day, to see what will work. He's tinkering with mirrors, wire coils, lighting schemes — the list goes on.
"Some of the pieces are fairly calculated," he says, "but I really do believe in maintaining a degree of openness."
Locals may remember Johnson from his 2009 solo show at the old Smokebrush Gallery. He exhibited one of his memorable "infinity boxes" there, and later at places like the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver. A quartet of those boxes will occupy the vacant half of the main FAC gallery.
Using two-way mirrors with all the windows facing outward, they hold an infinite plain inside. Here, he'll lay wet mud in the bottom of each box and allow it to harden and crack, creating what will look like a "dried lakebed or salt flat," one that runs on forever into the darkening distance.
Judging distance — theoretical or otherwise — gets to the heart of what Johnson's exploring: how we experience a landscape, from what our senses gather to how our systems of measurement attempt to map it. He takes this to a more abstract place in "Fata Morgana Number Five," a large, pristine white canvas carefully incised with a handful of slits. The slits jut outward like shelves, and are topped with a shiny material that casts spongy reflections. One wonders what's causing those reflections, but then clues into how they look like distant, waves of water, or, in a titular nod, roiling heat waves.
The way "Fata Morgana" engages on both a material and psychological level speaks to the dense layers of meaning in Johnson's work, and how they unfold over time. But that's easy. For all its subtlety, "Fata Morgana" is fun to inspect, from afar, from below, from the sides. And that's the idea.
"When you think of it as an activity, it becomes less product-oriented," says Johnson. "And even in encountering the art, can art be an activity.
"I'm more interested in what happens in your movement and the time you participate with this thing," he adds. "It becomes a passage, it becomes an experience, not an object."
The same can be said for Trace Elements: You give yourself over to it. Johnson, Milteer, Turrell and those in Turrell's studio are stingy on details relating to what certain aspects of the show will look like. In Johnson's case, much will be finished the day the show opens, and he may tinker even afterward. Yet both artists and curator are adamant that viewers should come with as few preconceptions as possible.
"A Turrell installation cannot be carried over in a photograph," Johnson says. "It cannot be carried over in my words, your words, [Milteer's] words, it cannot be carried over in a form of representation. But it can be shared as an experience, in the flesh, in front of the work, and that's where it affects you."
That also means less in the way of posted information in the galleries. For this case, Johnson likens lengthy descriptions and biographies to, say, regimented tourist stops at the Grand Canyon. And since the work is non-representational (read: no landscape or portrait paintings), the possibilities are truly open, there's no right answer.
'Encountering the invisible'
Walking into a Turrell installation often means traversing a dark corridor before happening upon a room filled with colored light. Or a lit space with an aperture in the roof, exposing nothing but sky, like what Turrell recently installed at Rice University in Houston. This "skyscape" (his 73rd) drew plenty of attention and love; according to an article from the Huffington Post, "The effect, many have commented, feels like experiencing infinity."
While that's similar to Johnson's work in ways, it also points to perhaps one of the largest differences between the two artists: the level of context in which they operate. Johnson grounds his work in the objects of daily life: the gloves, the beeswax, the wire. Turrell aims for total immersion in an environment where light is the sole object.
The feeling, though, is where they dovetail. Milteer sees the work of Turrell and Johnson akin to the singularity of a black hole. (A heady metaphor, yes, but stay with him.) Though we've never seen the event horizon where ultimate collapse occurs, we have measured and recorded what happens around it; tools and calculations aside, we have an unexplainable instinct that something big is going on.
"You'll see and feel the traces of things, that all together suggest something larger. I think that's what both [Johnson] and Turrell's work really lives by in a way, is that sense of something felt."
Though there are plenty of vagaries, the shows' titles for once offer many clues to their nature. Trace Elements and Places Apart both hint at the ways these artists work with foundational and ephemeral conceits: the ubiquity of light and space, of measurements and context, the driving forces largely unseen in daily life. As Johnson puts it, "Encountering the invisible through these visible things."