said ‘Don’t play with your food’? Kim Koga’s One
Berkshire Museum, Pittsfield, Mass., through
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
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
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.
Teaching Museum and Art Gallery, through Sept.
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.