Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 22, 2015
Carol S. Eliel Helen Pashgian: Light Invisible Exh. cat. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art in association with Prestel, 2014. 64 pp.; 65 color ills. Cloth $39.95 (9783791353852)
Exhibition schedule: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, March 30–June 29, 2014; Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Nashville, September 26, 2014–January 4, 2015
Helen Pashgian. Untitled (2012–13). © Helen Pashgian. Photo © 2014 Museum Associates/LACMA.

Helen Pashgian’s environmental installation Untitled (2012–13), recently displayed in the Art of the Americas Building at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), consists of a row of twelve, eight-foot-high double columns at roughly ten-foot intervals. Fabricated from thin sheets of molded colorless acrylic with a uniform matte finish, the columns glow peacefully in the dark, black-walled gallery. Upon entering, the visitor needs a moment of adjustment, both for the eyes and the mind. The first impression is one of gentle perplexity: why are these columns arranged in a row and what are the glimmering and gleaming light phenomena dimly perceptible within their hollow depths? Each double column is illuminated by two hooded overhead spotlights, which are pointed directly downward in order to shine brightly into the hollow volumes below. This focused light brings the columns to life, as it were, while being reflected or refracted by the mysterious objects lodged within the slightly flattened, elliptical tubes of the columns. The auroras, halos, and other inscrutable projections created on the walls of the columns by these objects, rather than the objects themselves, are the focus of the visitor’s attention. The overall pattern created by these light phenomena appears to bounce along an implied parabola from one column to the next. Examining each column individually, moving around one side and then the next, the visitor becomes acutely aware that the effects unfolding before her or him are tightly calibrated to her or his own spatial displacements.

Pashgian first made a name for herself in the 1960s as a pioneer of cast acrylic and resin sculpture, a title she shares with fellow Southern California artists such as De Wain Valentine and Peter Alexander. But Pashgian differs from her peers in her unique aesthetic concerns. Valentine and Alexander were generally interested in how tinted resin could be cast in sculptural forms that unite color and form in slabs or other elementary configurations (one thinks, for example, of Valentine’s concave discs and Alexander’s elongated wedges). For her part, Pashgian was mostly concerned with pulling the viewer’s gaze between the interior core of her sculptures and their exterior forms, producing, in the process, a volatile interplay between static shapes—spheres and ovoid forms in cast resin—and the mutable light phenomena generated by the acrylic shapes and the diffused colors embedded within them. Rosalind Krauss memorably claimed that modern sculpture first emerged with the elimination of implied interior space (Rosalind E. Krauss, Passages in Modern Sculpture, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1977, 262ff). Pashgian’s sculptural investigations, like those of other local artists such as Kenneth Price and Larry Bell, indicate that this ambition was by no means universal. For Pashgian, it was the tension between inside and outside, not the negation of this distinction, which provided the focus of her most consistent and original aesthetic investigations.

During the following decades, Pashgian pushed her explorations of the divergence between surface and core in the direction of increasingly planar shapes, beginning with acrylic disc sculptures in which she embedded ghostly square-shaped forms that appear suspended in their shallow depths. Next, she produced canvases layered with several inches of resin, acrylic, or epoxy, which invite the viewer to peer into the picture plane where flame or band-like shapes in green, red, blue, and yellow carve out space. Pashgian’s shift from three-dimensional solid sculpture to flat surfaces hung on walls was not an abandonment of sculpture. She was, instead, rethinking sculpture by flattening the sculptural surface step-by-step until it became a thin sheet. To wit: in the 2000s, Pashgian began to experiment with large sheets of translucent acrylic, which she molded into elliptical barrel-like shapes. Pashgian first hung these objects semi-detached from the wall. More recently, she moved them off of the wall and onto the floor to produce a new kind of freestanding sculpture based on the form of a double column.

Untitled is the direct result of Pashgian’s recent sculptural explorations with translucent acrylic skins and muffled visibility. In fact, one of the key developments of this new body of work is the replacement of transparency with translucence. The dynamic of inside and outside, which occupied Pashgian’s attention in her earlier work, is here reconfigured into a dynamic of visibility and invisibility; interior phenomena are now just vaguely discernible through an exterior surface. Untitled is not, it should be noted, the first time Pashgian has exhibited a group of these new columns. For an exhibition in 2010 at Ace Gallery in Beverly Hills, she installed ten such columns in a variety of colors—green, white, red, and grey-blue—in an evenly distributed pattern throughout a large rectangular room. The illumination was brighter at Ace Gallery, producing a clear sense of the clunky physicality of the columns as well as some of their rather off-putting tomato and pea soup hues. With Untitled, Pashgian increased the number of columns from ten to twelve and restricted color to only white, allowing her to maximize effects of translucency without chromatic admixtures. She also created a much darker environment for viewing these pieces. In the blackened gallery at LACMA, the light phenomena in Pashgian’s columns appear both more striking and mysterious than they did at Ace Gallery: bluish points of light are stacked upon one another, the topmost flaring like a headlight in the fog; a copper-hued, cone-like form looks like a granular specter through the acrylic skin; a brilliant disk-shaped form with odd capillary-like patterns seems to flare up as the viewer moves toward it; some kind of cylindrical object inside a column creates a pale blue point where it touches the outer wall; and so on. Whether or not a darker space is preferable for Pashgian’s new columns is dependent upon how much one appreciates the resulting aura of mystery. But one thing is for sure: the lock-step sequence of columns in Untitled is less successful than the more evenly spread out installation at Ace Gallery. The earlier exhibition encouraged visitors to move between the columns in no preconceived order, stringing together the various light phenomena in whatever sequence they wished based on their wandering. This underscored the viewers’ role in generating the light phenomena themselves, as well as the relationships between these phenomena. Untitled, conversely, implies a sequence with a first and a last column, and the result is a subtle loss of the sense of freedom to wander at will and to make connections by oneself.

The exhibition is accompanied by a modest catalogue that includes an enlightening interview with the artist, who is a sharp and thoughtful commenter on her own work but, at times, exhibits too great a willingness to nail down the sources of her art to childhood memories. These memories are certainly an important part of the artist’s experience, but they are not obviously relevant to the viewer’s encounter with her art. The catalogue also includes documentary photographs of Pashgian and her collaborators fabricating the columns, which required heating the sheets of acrylic in a large oven and then quickly transferring the hot sheets to wooden molds to bend them into the desired elliptical shapes. Pashgian does not include images of the next step of the process of fabrication, namely, the making and installation of cast or formed acrylic, metal, or possibly glass objects within the columns. This may come across as obfuscation, and in an important sense, it is. Pashgian wants the knowledge of the light phenomena we see in our encounter with her columns to be drawn from the encounter itself; she does not want it to be framed in advance by images or descriptions of the inserted objects. The light effects, not the objects generating them, are what Pashgian invites us to see. On the way out, I noticed that the overlapping pools of light and shadow at the foot of each column, generated by the spotlights, call to mind the overlapping shadow patterns of a Robert Irwin disc and, by association, the tradition of so-called Light and Space art to which they belong. Untitled is clearly in dialogue with this tradition, but it is also involved with a more essential question related to the medium of sculpture itself. The most compelling and significant aspect of Pashgian’s art is not the fact that she uses acrylic and resin. It is instead what these materials allow her to explore, namely, a fascinating aporia between skin and core, between form and content, and between seeing and knowing. It is precisely this productive tension that makes Untitled so delightfully perplexing, while also making it so very much worth seeing.

Matthew Simms
Professor, Department of Art, California State University, Long Beach

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