The notion that the world outside has become so distasteful that people are now, en masse, turning inward for solace is probably too obvious to restate. But I did it anyway. And while art often serves to take us to that inward place where we experience something out of the ordinary, if only for a moment, we don’t often get to step into art—to become a part of it. That domain of respite is usually reserved for spirituality—meditation, prayer, silent contemplation—which can be done in the wondrous surroundings of an old church, a temple, or by merely lying in your hammock on a star-filled night. Artist James Turrell—born in Los Angeles in 1943 and educated at both Pomona College and Claremont Graduate University—has found a unique way of blending spirituality with art, and allowing you to physically walk right into it.
Raised a Quaker (the splendid religious group who penned those now famous blue and white “War is Not the Answer” lawn signs), Turrell’s art is focused on light and space and the manipulation of both to achieve ethereal visualizations that are, quite frankly, out of this world. In fact, they fairly defy description, so—just like an afterlife experience—I can really only tell you what I did and what it felt like. You’ll have to go there yourself to “see it”—but at least you don’t have to actually die to do so.
Being unfamiliar with Turrell’s work (though he’s world renowned and featured in the PBS doc Art 21: Art in the 21st Century), I entered the wee Pomona Art Museum to find my path lined with pedestals holding white, 3-D architectural models of what can only be described as flying saucers and orbs settled into ancient pyramids and temples. Or something like that. They were buildings, yes, yet I was bewildered. While they were things kids would like to play with, and certainly buildings I’d like to visit if they existed in Chichen Itza or on Mars, they didn’t necessarily evoke my passion.
Then I entered two dimly lit exhibit rooms. Empty except for a bench, each space had a large mounted piece of etched glass in a shallow recess behind which soft LED lights shone through. The colors, on a three-hour cycle, were blue when I saw them—baby blue in the center, blushing outward into darker cerulean and navy. Pretty. Maybe something that would work well in the living room of a mid-century modern or Zen home, or even a bathroom or bedroom. Perhaps I wasn’t in a meditative mindset, so I chocked up the Gathered Light display to interesting.
As I left the rooms, I saw a few people sitting on benches, slipping on what looked like surgical footies—yes, the kind ER docs wear—then being allowed entrance to a long, dimly lit, and very fuzzy, dream-like hallway. I put on the booties and began my walk as well, thinking that I’d probably been down many of these during my nightly REMs. As I turned the corner into the main room, I was hit in the face with pure astonishment and awe. In fact, I could only muster the words, “This . . . is . . . fucking. . . rad.” Juvenile and not very eloquent, and my mouth was no doubt agape as well. Everyone who entered the room probably had a different expletive running across their tongues, and certainly different points of reference, if one can have such a thing while in one of Turrell’s pieces. For me, I had walked into a room inside of my own head. Perhaps what a room like that might look like, before any tangible things were placed into it. There was no ceiling, no walls; I could make out no boundaries of any kind. It was a big, pinkish purple cloud—yet there were no wafts, no scent, nothing settling onto my skin.
I walked toward a gargantuan purplish screen in front of me. This must have been what Richard Dreyfus would really have seen, if Close Encounters had happened. Turrell had apparently taken quite literally the words said to him by his Quaker mother when he was a boy—“Go inside and greet the light”—and I needed no divine visitation or herbal enhancement to enter. As I stood staring at, quite literally, nothing, I secretly cursed the other patrons who came into my eye line, fiercely wishing them away into the cornfields. I wanted to be there by myself. And I didn’t want to leave. The outside world and its troubles really had disappeared.
I did go eventually, and as I passed those 3-D models once again—vessels that encase what I’d just experienced—they no longer felt cold, but more like a promise of good things to come, and good things that are already here. A few of the structures, called Skyspaces, have indeed been built in simpler forms in England, Japan, and here at home, including a new unveiling in October in Pomona College’s Draper Courtyard. There’s also Turrell’s 30-years-in-the-making “celestial observatory” in Arizona’s Roden Crater, and while I’m not currently obsessed with making mountainous sculptures of UFO landing sites out of mashed potatoes, I am certain that I’ll find myself at the crater one day. And that time, I may not leave.
James Turrell at Pomona College Museum of Art, College & Bonita Aves., Claremont; www.pomona.edu/museum. Hours: Tues.-Fri., 12-5 p.m.; Sat. & Sun., 1-5 p.m. Closed Mondays. Free. Thru May 2008.