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Whoever said ‘Don’t play with your food’? Kim Koga’s One More Pickle

Brilliant in Bursts
By David Brickman

Presence of Light
Berkshire Museum, Pittsfield, Mass., through Oct. 31

In the same way that the debate of creationism v. evolution will likely never end, the broad gray area that divides art from science is too murky to be certain about. Both fields demand creative inspiration, leaps of faith, much more failure than success, boundless curiosity, even more boundless perseverance and the burden of being misunderstood (or simply ignored) by, well, just about everybody.

So it’s no wonder that the Berkshire Museum manages to mount a major exhibition every summer that appears to be about art but ends up having a whole lot to do with science; that these shows invariably rate among the best our region has to offer—especially in the way they appeal to kids and adults equally strongly—is compelling evidence of the irresistible force that brings so many artists into this tricky realm.

This year’s installment truly begins at the beginning—I believe the oft-quoted phrase goes like this: “And God said, ‘Let there be light.’ ” The rest, it seems to me, is either art or science, but in this case it’s an exhibition titled Presence of Light. Curated for the museum by Kathleen Gilrain, an artist, curator, professor and director of a nonprofit gallery and studio program in Brooklyn called Smack Mellon Studios, Presence of Light combines work in many different media by 20 artists from a broad geography.

It is perhaps a too-ambitious effort, as the styles and methods included are so diverse as to muddy the theme and make for a show that doesn’t really hold together. A show on this theme could—no, should—have been a revelation. Instead, it is a compendium of mostly very interesting pieces that fall under the definition of being somehow about light; but, as an exhibition, it sheds no light of its own.

Media represented include neon, stained glass, projection, painting, several types of photography, kinetic and interactive pieces, conceptual installations, sculpture—even an outdoor piece on the museum lawn. A spacious installation through three galleries allows each piece plenty of breathing room, and clear, concise wall labels provide plenty of information to understand each artist and put the works in context.

Some of those texts, however, commit the sin of self-inflated babbling. For example, suburban Albany native Kirsten Hassenfeld—who presents a trio of gaudy, oversized baubles made of paper and displayed on a big floor-mounted light box—writes, “My work speaks to notions of privilege, family pedigree, and the infusion of what we have with who we are through an embarrassment of riches.” On the contrary, the work sits there mute, looking more like an incomplete department store display than a form of cogent social commentary.

Fortunately, this is the exception, as there are far more eloquent, engaging pieces in the show than duds. And they fall into all categories—the subtle and contemplative, the almost purely decorative, the bizarre, the elegant and so on.

The first piece in the show to draw my attention, and still one of my favorites by the end, was a 1998 construction by Los Angeles neon artist Kim Koga. Furusato incorporates a junk suitcase, several mold-blown glass bottles, neon and more to create an understated, almost dreamlike experience for the viewer.

The title in Japanese means “returning to one’s place of origin.” Its meaning is connected to the haiku stamped on the inside
of the open top of the suitcase, which
says “unearthing bottles/evidence of existence/travelling backwards.” Below these words is a glowing array of small, roughly shaped and textured bottles, each a different luminous color.

Furusato is as ethereal and magical as Koga’s other piece, One More Pickle, is irreverent, with its Mason jar full of malevolently glowing, green glass pickles. Clearly, Koga has understood the lessons of the smiling Buddha: to seriously pursue enlightenment but without forgetting lightness.

A number of the best pieces in the show occupy a space of their own, or seem to. Mary Temple’s site-specific wall painting Southwest Corner, North Light (skylight) is a remarkable feat of trompe l’oeil technique, in which she evokes the subtle effects of sunlight and shadows as they might come in through the room’s blind skylight and fall on a corner of the room. The viewer is at first unlikely even to realize this is a painting—and then likely to move in close and marvel at the skill and subtlety of the work.

Gregory Barsamian’s No Never Alone is another jaw dropper, this one employing a highly complex arrangement of spinning armature and strobe lighting to create the convincing surrealistic illusion of disembodied hands rhythmically opening and closing a book, the pages of which feature a moving image, while other hands scroll and unscroll a paper eye chart and still others casually dangle waving carrots. At the center of this whirl sits a life-size, cloaked figure, impassively unaware of the madness that surrounds it.

Two other darkened rooms contain a dreamy undersea world of phosphorescence, created out of countless Q-tips by Sheila Moss, and a quiet, innovative projected-light drawing by Liza McConnell that uses the translucency of vellum and the camera obscura effect to advantage.

And, speaking of cameras, no exhibition on light would be complete without photography; this one includes four photographers, all quite different in their approaches. One, a French immigrant named Claire Lesteven, makes unusual pinhole pictures, employing four holes to simultaneously capture all views from a single location that are then presented as ghostly, overlapping panoramas in black-and-white. Unfortunately, her technique is more interesting than the resulting images.

My favorite among the photographers is Maria Levitsky, whose large, square, color prints project a degree of theatricality surprising in scenes without people. All the elements of her photographs—light, texture, composition—combine to create fascination and beauty and mystery from the wreckage and glorious details of a grand old house slated for renovation. It’s clear that Levitsky’s artistic eye has a great friend in her commercial career as an architectural and forensic photographer. The results are seductively powerful.

Perhaps most seductive of all, however, are this show’s neon artists, including Mary Sullivan Voytek and Brookline, Mass.-based Alejandro and Moira Siña. Voytek is essentially a sculptor who creates detailed, eccentric house forms in plastic or metal, then activates them with a rainbow of neon colors. Her Crystal Hearth is one of those pieces you can’t resist looking at from all angles and distances, as the linear cutouts in the shiny aluminum planes reveal endlessly different color combinations and patterns.

The Siñas are a collaborating couple whose two pieces in this show span 17 years (1988 to 2004) and utilize electrodeless neon technology to create enchanting, glowing lines of color. The earlier piece, titled Touch Plane, is interactive, and quite addictive, as the touch of one or more fingers instigates bursts of light in a multicolored series of glass rods, including variations in intensity and direction based on angle and pressure. Their 2004 piece Airlines, while too high up to be touched, can be moved with a breath of air. Its ethereal kinetic presence and the deep orange color of its spiky glass rods make it one of the most memorable works in this exhibition.

The bottom line with Presence of Light is that it fails as an exhibition to become greater than the sum of its parts—though it does have some very terrific parts—and in this it also falls short of fulfilling the promise that the theme suggests: of giving the viewer an experience of fulfilling epiphany through transcendent art, brilliantly presented.


About Painting

Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery, through Sept. 26

With 67 artists in one exhibition, there are so many permutations as to defy drawing any real conclusions. Perhaps that’s the point of Tang curator Ian Berry’s overwhelming cornucopia of styles and personalities presented under the vaguely bombastic title About Painting (a smaller selection also on view in the museum titled About Sculpture is far more comprehensible, even if by design less comprehensive).

Two things, however, are abundantly clear: Berry loves paintings; and there is no shortage of artists out there who love to make them. What struck me as particularly odd is that, apparently, more than half of those painters worthy of consideration just happen to live in Brooklyn. An absurd instance of an all-too-prevailing attitude in the art world.

In fact, great paintings are probably made every day in just about every country and state. Here, there are 71 pieces, of which only a few could accurately be called great. I’ll leave it up to you (as does Berry) to contemplate the show and then decide which ones those might be. It’s a good bet you’ll enjoy the process.

—David Brickman

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