Retracing the Path Into the Turrellian Realm

For starters, let me clarify one thing. I’m not an art historian, I don’t play one on TV — I don’t even play one on YouTube.

Simon Schama spoof

Simon Schama the Big Budget Flop:

I sometimes harbor disdain for them too — well, the arrogant ones anyway. I find nothing as offensive as the art snob who responds to a curious inquiry about an artist with attempts to instill shame for not knowing the artist’s work. Of course this isn’t unique to the art world; many a music major has attempted to wield intellectual superiority in a similar fashion. A recent visit to a literary benefit sent me scuttling out the door with my tail between my legs. Yes, it’s true; I don’t know the majority of the writers on the shelves these days, and they let me know it.

In the realm of modern music, the problem is compounded by the fact that many modern composer’s works can only be found on compilations, so it’s quite a feat to compile a discography of their works. But in any of these realms, it’s a wonderful encounter with another person who simply loves to share their creative discoveries.

My musical and artistic quests, then, are simply an obsessive labor of passionate curiousity. My parents claim I’ve had this tendency since childhood. Apparently there’s no cure.

When the Metropolitan Museum of Art had its NYC O’Keefe exhibition, although I had ignored her works as cliched tourist illustrations while living in New Mexico, I was soon to be found trying to locate Steiglitz’s old studio to see what had become of it (a rug shop), trying to locate the buildings O’Keefe lived in and painted while in NYC, and eventually even visiting Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu. What I discovered when I arrived at her NM ranch was that the Mars-like landscape had been realistically painted by her, a discovery that shocked me.

Host Ranch Fence

And I got a few nice pictures of my own.

Small surprise, then, to find me sitting silently for an hour in a Quaker Meeting House in Pasadena.

Synchronicity has led me here, and ironically, as Quakers are notorious pacifists, later in the day the death of Bin Laden would be announced nation-wide.

This was the space where I found peace during grad school when I felt my world was un-ravelling, and the threads gradually wove themselves back together. What drew me back again was the discovery that this must’ve been the room where, 70+ years earlier, the child James Turrell was encouraged by his grandmother to “go inside and greet the light.” Today the light outside is spectacular, heralding Spring’s arrival with trees in full bloom, and there is light within those around me as well.

An octagenarian woman who bears an astonishing resemblence to an Edward Gorey illustration is celebrating her birthday today. Despite her somewhat severe posture, I know that she’s one of the sweeter members of the meeting. Over coffee and birthday cake, I’m tempted to ask if she knew the Turrells, but decide against it. Or rather, the choice was made for me by the visitor zealously informing me of the Quaker history of feminist and homosexual tolerance. Some day I may bring the subject up with the birthday girl. Time will tell.

Light is a familiar metaphor for spiritual realization in many religions, of course. We discuss enlightenment without giving this much thought. For the Quakers, there is a long-held understanding that every person has a divine personal intimate connection to this “light,” and sitting quietly becomes the first step in becoming aware of this presence. Then it becomes possible to let it illuminate the actions taken throughout the day. Early on, Quakers thought of this as the light of Jesus, but over time, the broader inter-denominational influences have included the teachings of many other faiths.

Turrell understood early on that going into the light was both a literal and metaphorical inspiration for his work. As his work has evolved, I believe it becomes less possible to just “look” at one of his works; you experience it. You become engulfed by it. You are changed by it. He has confessed a fondness for the liminal light of dawn and dusk. He told the New York Times, “My spaces are dim because low light opens the pupil and then feeling comes out of the eye as touch, a sensuous act. Sure, you surrender. You surrender when you go to the doctor. A doctor’s office is a body shop. We’re talking about healing the soul.” This points to a deeper aspiration within his art, and might give a clue as to the direction his life’s work has taken.

Turrell went to Pomona College, not far from Pasadena. Although the school’s alumni included many famous artists, including John Cage, Turrell enrolled in the perceptual psychology program, and that choice has unmistakably shaped his work. Optical illusions, implied planes and geometric shapes are often a major component of his installations. He was the subject of a lawsuit when a visitor fell and injured himself trying to lean against a wall “that wasn’t there,” leading to the first time that the “effect of a piece of art” had been the subject of a courtroom case. Time and time again, he has tried – and often, in my opinion, succeeded, in creating works that bring the sky into a room, transporting you into it.

After he graduated from Pomona, as the Woodstock Festival was happening on the other side of the country, as man was landing on the moon for the first time, he moved into a building known as the Mendota Hotel, at the corner of Hill and Main Streets in Santa Monica.

The building still stands and it’s my next destination.

I park a few blocks from Hill and Main, and make my way down the hill.

As I pass the church a block away, a film crew runs after me, begging me to play the part of “Doc” in their music video adaptation of “Back to the Future.” The irony of my historical search isn’t lost on me, so I don a lab coat and run down the street after a Bricklin as the camera begins rolling.

I’m in the very last scene.

When my 30 seconds of fame have elapsed, I proceed back to the future myself, snapping a few “Hill Street Views” exterior shots of the Mendota Hotel building.

The tree has gotten a little bigger!

This is where the foundation of much of his work first began to be realized.

Turrell painted over the windows in his studio here, and experimented with techniques to create apertures for light to enter his studio.

During this time, he became intimately familiar with the tungsten street lamps, the stop lights on the corner, the passing bus lights, and of course, the sun and moonlight. He also collaborated with a film lighting designer, experimenting with projected light.

He often had showings of his aperture experiments, and attracted quite a bit of attention.

Mere blocks from here, above the Santa Monica Pier, is the Camera Obscura, a landmark that has been bringing the light inside for over a hundred years.

One can’t help but wonder if it helped inspire Turrell to try turning his own studio into a camera obscura as well, as that was one of his many projects.

I stay for a couple of hours until they close at 8PM.

The buses still run down Hill Street, the tree has gotten enormous, many more lights surround the building.

I become enamoured by the play of the light around the room as sunset approaches.

Light reflects off the walls of the room, and I see the figures of cars reflected across the room by their windshields. As the sun sets, the street lights come on, and the character of the light changes completely.

As last caffeine call is announced, I show a barista a 1969 image of the building. Fascinated, he informs me that the building is now owned by Bill Cosby. Then he kicks me out.