Light art emerged during the sixties when artists like Dan Flavin experimented with arrangements of fluorescent tubes. Light provided a medium that seemed to enclose the viewer: seeing a Flavin for the first time is to be (literally) wrapped up in his playful artistic sensibility. Yet veteran viewers of Flavin’s work can tell you that after this effervescent first encounter, there’s not much left. When viewed for longer periods, his works can begin to feel a little obvious: their clunky power cords and the everything-all-at-once way in which they’re presented don’t allow for much further exploration.
However, not all light-based art feels quite this exhaustible. At Volume Gallery’s current show, you’ll find, in place of bare bulbs, a suggestive nod. Instead of flipping on the kitchen overheads, artistic duo Luftwerk (composed of SAIC alums Sean Gallero and Petra Bachmaier) has left the door ajar.
It seems accidental. You feel for a second that you’re the discoverer of this ethereal phenomenon. Forget everything you learned in college: what is this? The usually disparate crowd that ventures through art galleries is suddenly homogenized: before these works, all viewers are Field Aestheticians who’ve come upon something beautiful and seek to determine its origin. (In such a pragmatic mindset, it’s easy to forget about deconstructionism and poststructuralism and every other academic -ism and -ology whose aim seems to be a more verbose telling of art history. Art isn’t something to be figured out, it’s the chance meeting of a Self and a transcendently beautiful Other. But that’s all beside the point—or is it?)
Inquisitive viewers will take a look behind the sculptures. Their wall-facing side has been painted a corrosive shade of orange, which, when placed between the gallery’s blank white walls and blindingly white LEDs, is reflected onto the gallery’s walls as a faint glow. But taking this fateful look is to lose the magic. More likely than not, you’ll long for how new and unknown this phenomenon felt a few seconds ago. It’s all in vanity, the gig is up now. The glow is not a glow but a mere effect of the light. It’s a lie. Yet most viewers will find themselves suspending their disbelief and viewing the forms head-on once more. No question about it: with the painted surface out of sight, they’re once again glowing. Why choose to be fooled by an illusion when you know the source of its trickery? Who knows. Most illusions aren’t this beautiful.
High-minded critics will note a similarity between the viewing of this illusory glow and the pursuit of the Real which features heavily in continental philosophy: humans pursue some fundamental truth (the Real) yet, upon apprehending it, flee. The journey to the Real meant more to them than its end. But that’d be making a mountain out of a molehill. The glow is inexhaustible the way Christmas is when you’re a kid: that intense lead up of music, movies and mail can never quite come to a meaningful climax in just one day. So, you start over again the next year. You never quite get your Perfect Christmas, but hey, pursuing it was fun.
“Petra Bachmaier and Sean Gallero of Luftwerk: 1/24th, Light Over Light” is on view at Volume Gallery, 1709 West Chicago through December 16.