Contemporary artist channels light and space

Modern art has always been a topic of controversy. Though many appreciate the subjectivity of modern art because of the creative process in deciphering an artist’s intentions, others deem it “too abstract” and refuse to believe such simplicity should be recognized as art. Helen Pashgian’s new exhibition, “Light Invisible,” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art falls somewhere on this unclear spectrum of appreciation versus rejection.

Light ’em up · Contemporary artist Helen Pashgian’s exhibit is on display now at LACMA. The show, titled “Light Invisible,” is Pashgian’s first large-scale sculptural show. It runs now through June 29.  - Photo courtesy of Paris Photo

Light ’em up · Contemporary artist Helen Pashgian’s exhibit is on display now at LACMA. The show, titled “Light Invisible,” is Pashgian’s first large-scale sculptural show. It runs now through June 29. – Photo courtesy of Paris Photo

At first sight, the exhibition seems unusual. Visitors are guided into a pitch-black room in the Art of the Americas building, where molded acrylic columns stand in a line. The vision is confusing yet magical. But what really makes Pashgian’s installation stand out is not the uniqueness of the work, but, the story behind the project. “Light Invisible” is the artist’s first large-scale sculptural installation and was a difficult one to create. Due to the technical aspect of the work, Pashgian was unable to complete it in her studio and had to wait with everyone else to see the finished product on the day it was set up at LACMA.

Pashgian emerged in the art scene in the ’60s as a member of the Light and Space movement that originated in Southern California. Born in Pasadena, Calif., Pashgian studied art history before realizing she would rather take on the role of creator than student. This urged her to try a variety of media, such as oil paint, before she, along with several other SoCal artists, recognized that new industrial materials could also be used as a medium. Since then, the artist has worked with all kinds of materials, from fiberglass to polyester resins. Pashgian, fascinated by optical art, minimalism and geometric abstraction, emphasizes light play, perception and materials in her work. Though most artists understand the significance of lighting, only a few choose to manipulate light in their work the way Pashgian does in her LACMA exhibition. The artist creates a significant role for lighting — where the source of the light is what color the lights are. This can be seen in the 12 acrylic, translucent columns that stand 8 feet high.

“They’re elegant and austere, dramatic and sensual — and oddly nuanced, morphing as viewers move around them,” Deborah Vankin from the Los Angeles Times wrote of the columns.

Though these columns look incredibly simple from the outside, they are deceptively complex. They are filled with invisible clamps and glue to keep the structures in place so that they cast the light and shadows that Pashgian envisioned.

When you enter the room, however, it’s not the columns that you notice first, but the darkness. Everything is black, creating the illusion that these 12 acrylic pillars are hovering in zero gravity. The milky, diaphanous texture of the columns illuminates the varied shapes and colors inside and the visual experience is beautifully perplexing. Though it takes less than a minute to circle the installation, the quietness and  darkness force people to take time off to be mesmerized by Pashgian’s latest project.

According to the exhibit, Pashgian was unable to put her work together in the studio because so much of “Light Invisible” depended on the lighting and setting. This proved to be tough both for the artist and LACMA’s public relations team.

“One question, for example, is what photo or image we should use to represent the work of art in our advance publicity materials (such as our website, press release, and exhibition announcement), considering that it can’t be photographed until it is on view,” LACMA posted on its WordPress website.

“Light Invisible” is definitely an exhibition that speaks only to a certain group of people. It’s one of those moments that can make the viewer wonder: What is art? The concept behind “Light Invisible” is incredibly thoughtful and deep, but the display might be disappointing for those who expected more from Pashgian than a room full of columns.

Helen Pashgian’s “Light Invisible” exhibition opened on March 30 and will run until June 29 at LACMA. Admission to “Light Invisible” is included in the general admission ticket ($10 for students).


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