Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, The University of Western Australia, Perth
8 February – 20 April 2013

LUMINOUSFLUX – Light is in the eye of the beholder

Amid the serene gardens of the University of Western Australia, the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery plays host to an exhibition of tension. A series of works by nine Australian and international artists—each drawing upon the various properties of artificial light—challenges visitors to contemplate the relationship between darkness and light, and in turn between art and science. As promised by its title, the LUMINOUSFLUX exhibition is at once a feast for the eyes and a tribute to the power of light, with each piece demonstrating how light can hypnotise, mesmerise and deceive through shadow, reflection and refraction. By deploying common technologies in a series of unconventional ways, the exhibition demands that we think about the transformation that occurs as light excites the eye and stimulates the imagination.

 The electrification of life—and the consequent defeat of the night—is the quintessential modern story recast by Brendan Van Hek’s Colour Composition #3 (2013). When, at the start of the twentieth century, Italian Futurists endeavoured to represent the dynamism of modern life—the speed of the automobile, the cacophony of the electrified urban environment—they often found themselves frustrated by an inability to communicate their excitement through traditional media. It is as if Van Hek’s piece has discovered the proper medium of the future in neon. In this piece, dynamic lines are transported from Futurist canvases and brought into life through the use of found and recycled neon fluorescents. Various pieces of erstwhile advertising slogans are reset in a work that at once evokes the mesmerising brilliance of the urban setting and the exciting sense of adventure promised by the sparkling lights of the city.

The bustle of the city is tempered in Paul Caporn’s Container 1 (2012), which focuses upon a different set of sensibilities. A series of three square lamps set in metallic grids form a piece evocative of night lamps left on for children. Contemplating the work, the viewer realises that fear of the dark—a vivid presence in the mind of every child—is never fully arrested in adulthood. Caporn’s piece is a quiet meditation on the fine line between light and dark—the moment when the waking state drifts into sleep; when the conscious ratio slips into the crevices of the subconscious.

Two illuminated photographs by Maslen & Mehra are exhibited: Salt Creek Death Valley (2005) and European Wolf Red Squirrel – Docklands – London (2007). Both pieces are set in recycled advertising light-boxes, and employ reflection and shadow to trick the eye (and mind). In the former, a mirror—cut in the shape of a woman caught mid-step—is positioned within the meadows of a mountainous landscape. As the mirror reflects the skies, the female figure takes on a translucent and immaterial presence. The effect is akin to that of Surrealist René Magritte: an unexpected juxtaposition of an urban dweller within a peaceful landscape, the featureless figure a visually confusing focal point. This logic is reversed within the second image, as mirror silhouettes of the endangered European wolf and red squirrel are placed within a deserted cityscape reminiscent of Giorgio De Chirico’s metaphysical piazzas. Instead of the sky, it is the surrounding architecture that is reflected in these animals, creating a powerful sense of uneasiness. Both works explore the deceptive quality of light, along with its profound ability to trigger an acute sense of disquiet. 

Bill Culbert’s piece Hayman (2009) is less successful in attempting to give fresh treatment to the tension between nature and artifice. A fluorescent tube is superimposed diagonally atop a deconstructed suitcase, ostensibly highlighting the conflict between the salubrious property of natural light and the coldness of artificial light that illuminates the urban workspace; between found versus made objects, and new versus old materials. Unfortunately this exploration is abandoned mid-sentence, and is surpassed by the remainder of the exhibition.

Motion and Rest #4 (2002) by Jim Campbell—who earlier trained as an electrical engineer and mathematician at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—is at once a study of locomotion and a reconsideration of the hypnotising effect of 1960’s Op art. A series of rapidly flickering white LEDs which, set upon a dark background, create the image of a walking shadow. This action gives rise to a curious sensation: as the image oscillates, the eye continually switches between blurred and sharp focus, and this instability serves to enhance Campbell’s exploration of impaired movement. Where the synthesis of light and motion underpins Campbell’s artwork, Tom Mùller’s Scintilla Lux (2013) is its analytical opposite, seeking to evoke a singular flicker of light captured in a frozen moment in time. Both pieces remind of the disconnection between sight and visual perception.

In a beautiful play-off in the key of traditional abstractionism, Rebecca Baumann’s Reflected Glory (2013) and Dan Flavin’s Untitled (for you, Leo, in long respect and affection) 2 (1977) share the final space in the exhibition. Baumann’s piece creates an impressionistic play of light on the walls, conjuring images of the night sky, or of fireworks so memorably inscribed in art history almost a century and a half ago by James McNeill Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold (1872-77). A fluorescent grid in blue, yellow, green and pink, Flavin’s work is at once an exceptional example of restrained geometric minimalist tradition, and a visually complex treat. In concert with Baumann’s piece, it forces the viewer to recognise the multiple points of tension—line versus colour, cerebral versus emotional, the constrained versus the explosive—that pulsates within all great art.

LUMINOUSFLUX offers an insight into the multifarious nature of light and its effect upon both the eye and the mind, while simultaneously exploring the treatment of light within the traditions of modern and contemporary art. There is, however, another—and perhaps more important—dimension: this exhibition was brought to life through a close collaboration between the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery and the University’s Faculty of Engineering, Computing and Mathematics. The intersection between arts and science is proving to be a source of significant creative energy at the University of Western Australia, as exemplified by the works of BioArt cohort SymbioticA (a group that operates within the School of Anatomy and Human Biology), and by the ambition of the Oceans Institute to establish a residency program for artists. LUMINOUSFLUX is an opening gambit of a larger conversation. A clear tension between art and science is foregrounded by this exhibition—the tension of a nascent love affair with immense potential. 

Rebecca Baumnann, Reflected Glory, 2013. ETC Source Fours, mirror, origami paper, perspex, wrapping paper, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist. 

Brendan Van Hek, Colour Composition #3, 2013. Found neon, metal hooks, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist.