LOS ANGELES — As a primary member of the Light and Space movement of the 1960s, Helen Pashgian played a pivotal role in establishing the legitimacy of California art in the second half of the 20th century. However, being one of the only women in LA’s macho art scene of the era, her work was often overshadowed. An exhibition of new sculptures at Ace Gallery Beverly Hills, as well as her inclusion in a recent encyclopaedic Pacific Standard Time show, aims to set the record straight.
The exhibition consists fittingly of two bodies of work, multiple eight-foot tall columns and smaller wall works. Pashgian is still working with the cast resin she pioneered the use of over forty years ago, however with a decidedly different aesthetic effect. Unlike her early resin works, which were highly polished, translucent and played with optics as viewers moved around them, these new sculptures have frosted, matte surfaces, making them semi-opaque and obscuring their murky depths. At first this treatment struck me as cheap looking, reminding me of plastic Ikea furniture. However the more time I spent with the work, the more I came to appreciate the unique experience she has created here.
These works resist a singular perception, demanding the interaction of the viewer for complete realization. Unlike most gallery exhibitions, where bright lights serve to illuminate artworks as best possible, Pashgian’s works are presented in dim rooms, with only a few strategically placed lights. This gives the impression that these forms are glowing from within, animated by an inner radiance.
The columns, double elipses in cross section, range from cool white, to bright orange and rich green. As one moves around the works, their luminosity intensifies and recedes, transferring focus from interior to surface and back. Colors change in saturation, reds and blues emerge from white. Pashgian has placed what she refers to as “images” — tubes, cones and bars — within the works, further drawing us into their hazy interiors and heightening the play of light. The alchemical mystery of how these effects have been created is part of their wonder and charm. The press materials for the exhibition (indeed any photographs) fail to accurately portray these works, presenting a well-lit and static viewpoint, unable to convey their inner light and ephemeral nature.
The wall works lack some of the dynamism of the columns, though they capture and cast back light in similarly captivating ways. Ovoid in form when viewed from above, they appear rectilinear when seen head-on. They convey a sense of the tension of two-dimensional works struggling to achieve three-dimensionality, with light as the element giving them form. As with the columns, the cones and tubes placed within focus our attention on these mysterious interior volumes. In one brilliant blue work, a tube is circular in cross-section on one side of the piece, only to emerge as a square on the opposite side, playfully challenging us to speculate on the transformation that has taken place in the middle.
As with her icily cool works from the 1960s, Pashgian’s new pieces are fabricated from industrial materials with no mark of the artist’s hand. However whereas her earlier works engaged viewers with their slick optical enticements, these new sculptures have a warmth and approachability not normally associated with the Light and Space movement. Instead of the brightly-lit clarity of a laboratory, we are presented with a dark and atmospheric, almost reverential space, similar to a house of worship. Like Byzantine mosaics, or gold leaf icons that were meant to come alive with flickering candlelight as the faithful passed before them, Pashgian’s columns and wall sculptures are activated by our engagement with them, providing a glimpse of the ineffable.
Helen Pashgian: Column and Wall Sculptures continues at Ace Gallery Beverly Hills (9430 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, California) until the end of March.