Museums

Sculpting the Thingness of Light

by Sarah Zabrodski on June 18, 2014

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Helen Pashgian, “Untitled” (2012–13) (© Helen Pashgian, © 2014 Museum Associates/LACMA) (all images courtesy Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

LOS ANGELES — For Helen Pashgian, art exists at the intersection of the material and immaterial. Her use of industrial materials, such as acrylic, epoxy, resin, and metal, combined with complex fabrication processes serve to make the presence of light a substance unto itself. Helen Pashgian: Light Invisible, the artist’s first large-scale sculptural installation, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, showcases the alchemy of this intersection that transforms both material and light into visibly evanescent forms.

Pashgian is considered a pioneer of the Light and Space artists, a group known for experimentations with — to use her own words from a talk at LACMA — the very “thingness of light.” Emerging in the 1960s in Southern California, the movement gave rise to the luminous sculptural surfaces of John McCracken and Craig Kauffman and the perception-altering installations of James Turrell and Doug Wheeler. Pashgian’s work tends to meld the distinctive aspects of these artists’ aesthetics, combining fixed sculpture and attention to finish with the impression of immersive, energetic light.

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Detail of Helen Pashgian “Untitled” (2012–13) (© Helen Pashgian, © 2014 Museum Associates/LACMA) (click to enlarge)

Contemporary writings about Pashgian tend to note her historically underrecognized role; indeed, at the Art + Feminism Wikipedia Edit-A-Thon this past February, I was surprised to discover that Pashgian did not yet have a Wikipedia entry (an oversight that was fixed at the event). The artist, however, is unequivocal about the role gender has played in her career. In an interview published in LACMA’s exhibition catalogue, curator Carol S. Eliel asks Pashgian, “Do you think being a woman has had an impact on the work you make or its reception?” Her response: “No.” Next topic. 

This attitude is in keeping with Pashgian’s conception of art and the artistic process — that everything occurs in due course. Light Invisible is itself a culmination of several decades of accumulated technical expertise and technological advances. Pashgian moved from painting to experimentations with clear polyester resins in small-scale sculptural forms in the late 1960s. She wanted to create freestanding pieces for years, but it took time for her ideas to evolve and for her to execute them.

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Detail of Helen Pashgian, “Untitled” (2012–13) (© Helen Pashgian, © 2014 Museum Associates/LACMA)

Light Invisible, which was created specifically for LACMA and recently purchased by the museum, features 12 elliptical columns arranged in a single line in a cavernous black room. A different mysterious object resides within each column; they appear to emanate light but in reality are reacting to light sources tucked away in unseen spaces. Moving around the columns activates the objects — they grow, recede, and shift in shape, color, and vibrancy with every variation in perspective. One column in particular captured my attention. Its inner copper sculpture (one can never truly know the precise form it takes) glowed increasingly bright and fiery orange as I walked around the perimeter, before disappearing into near nothingness. Other columns house crystallized lines and fossil-like forms, hinting at an organic, petrified past, yet still emanating light and energy in the present. The seemingly contradictory evocation of both the prehistoric and the futuristic is part of the allure of Light Invisible.

Helen Pashgian, "Untitled" (2012–13) (© Helen Pashgian, © 2014 Museum Associates / LACMA) (click to enlarge)

Helen Pashgian, “Untitled” (2012–13) (© Helen Pashgian, © 2014 Museum Associates/LACMA) (click to enlarge)

This conjuring of eras past is intentional. Pashgian welcomes nostalgia in her work, and Light Invisible harkens back to specific memories from her early childhood. She recalls playing in tide pools near Laguna, watching the sea anemones and other creatures. In another interview excerpt in the catalogue, she says, “I can remember looking into the pools and seeing things; and then either the tide or the wind or my submerged finger would ripple the surface, and then all the light on the bottom would start to play. That was the very first time I sensed that light was an alive thing.” This aliveness permeates the installation, projecting a palpable presence into the surrounding space. Taken together, the hidden objects, enigmatic light sources, and sense of animation revive our own dormant feelings of childlike wonder and curiosity. Light Invisible stretches our awareness of time in all directions and distills the past, present, and future into 12 columns of zoetic light.

Helen Pashgian: Light Invisible continues at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (5905 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles) through June 29.

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