“The Off Switch” – James Turrell at Pace Gallery, Palo Alto

Photograph: Flickr  Creative Commons .  This work was not part of the Pace Gallery James Turrell 2016 exhibition, however, due to image licensing we were unable to reproduce an image from the show on this blog. 

Photograph: Flickr Creative CommonsThis work was not part of the Pace Gallery James Turrell 2016 exhibition, however, due to image licensing we were unable to reproduce an image from the show on this blog. 

The inaugural show at the newest Pace Gallery in Palo Alto, California features work by James Turrell. His typically grand-scale, light works are on display in a smaller space (3,200 square feet), leading to a tight, controlled show worth seeing. This space, in this geographical location, has two clear and pronounced effects: to enrich the arts in Silicon Valley and to appeal to the deep pockets that frequent the area.

South of San Francisco, Silicon Valley is home to Google, Apple, Facebook, Adobe, Hewlett Packard, Intel, Yahoo, Netflix, and a laundry list of equally influential, if perhaps less sexy, tech companies[1] that earn massive profits and shell out some of the most substantial paychecks in the world. Often criticized as the catalyst for widespread gentrification across the Bay Area (with some of the most vocal critics being artists), the Silicon Valley tech industry has become an attractive audience for more acclaimed and opportunistic galleries (like Pace) to try and grab a piece of the pie.

Pace Palo Alto doesn’t hide their mission. They provide a platform for the Silicon Valley-viewer to collect cultural capital. Turrell is acclaimed, established, and alive – his work, from a collector’s standpoint, is safe and likely to appreciate. Investment portfolios aside, Turrell’s work is beautiful – and it rarely fits in a domestic space – which makes the show at Pace a treat for potential collectors.

The backroom of the gallery presents a selection of David Hockney’s iPad paintings – a digital and experimental en plein air exercise in landscape and foliage that were seen at his massive show at the De Young a few years back. These grand-scale paintings were created using a stylus and brought to life with a king-size inkjet printer. The combination of Turrell’s light works with Hockney’s iPad paintings, while at first glance seems like a nice match, is one-dimensional. IPad paintings make a more blatant and heavy-handed appeal to tech money by assuming a career involving screens and pads equates to an art sensibility reliant on screens and pads. The curatorial spoon-feeding left a sour taste in my mouth. The inaugural show from a globally recognized gallery in the richest/techiest part of America,[2] admittedly, sounds like the perfect place to show blue-chip iPad paintings, but that’s the problem: it is exactly what is expected – safe, predictable, conceptually clunky – even if the artist is celebrated and canonized. I hope that Pace will give their viewers more credit in the future and showcase work that both challenges and rewards in a more substantial way.

Turrell’s work is great as always, as he has spent a lifetime carving out[3] a territory for his work that encompasses art, science, architecture, and wonder. His work hypnotizes, loosening our perceptual grasps on form and heightening our focus on color. The aura projected into the gallery grows more and more palpable the longer you gaze into the floaty field of phosphorescence. Pelée is a curved, rectangular beam of light with soft borders that morphs between electric colors with slow subtlety and dramatic range. Totally balanced and all-around soothing, it is a perfect fit for the hot and sunny Palo Alto climate – a Day-Glo mood ring for summer barbecues, an all-flavor popsicle that never melts, a light show that needs no music. When the room becomes quiet and still, you can hear the Zen Hum of Pelée’s mechanism working behind the mysterious curve of wall – the audible and unseen life force of the piece. Pelée is a gaseous planet with its own gravitational field, a sublimated strip of magma that never cools, an architectural Cyclops blasting its sun-soaked confectionary spectrum of light with relentless sensitivity.

Like all pieces in Turrell’s Wide Glass Series, Pelée is built into the space and softens the architecture we’re accustomed to. Turrell allows us to reexamine how we interact with structure and space, manipulating how we decode the world. Scale loses significance, clocks become ambivalent, synesthesia begins to flirt. My eyes leave the gallery feeling healthier and stronger than when they entered.

The series of Reflective Holograms in the next room (7 in total) delights and confuses. Continued examination brings on new revelations about the work, keeping me focused and on my toes, sometimes literally – checking out each piece from every angle, buzzing around the room connecting shapes, colors, and experiences while still uncertain as to what was logistically going on. I’m not sure how these pieces were made or how they function. It’s impossible to take them in all at once – satisfaction is rewarded in doses, and those prescriptions are filled over and over as you wade around the room of evasive yellows, greens, blues and purples on slick black surfaces. The work is consistent in presentation, scale, and palette, but each piece brings its own special note to the symphony. Some fold in towards the wall, others project out into space, there are rigid shapes and those that dissipate – all activated depending on their relationship to the viewer. It makes sense that Turrell often talks about his work with respect to sound, and this room is a nice little album from the Maestro of Light.

On my way out, I asked the gallery assistant, “What happens when you guys close? – Do they turn the lights off?” She responded, “I’m pretty sure they turn everything off at night.”

Only once I left the gallery did I start to unpack the conflicts inherent in my question – I was asking if they turn off the art. Does this space live and breathe for the duration of the show? The idea that these enchanted rooms – the ones with so much lure and satisfaction during the day – are dark and dead at night didn’t sit right. This is the first project to exist in this space, giving it a special chance to really harness something, however intangible it may be. At the same time, if Pace does turn the work Off – it makes much more sense. A large part of me is relieved that they do. It would be irresponsible not to. Why would the work remain On when there are no viewers and no access? Why waste electricity? Why pay PG&E for art that no one sees?[4]

If a painting is in a room with no viewers, it’s still the same painting.[5] If a Turrell is Off, is it just a frame? A hole in the wall? Is it even a work of art? I can’t hear that tree falling in the woods but I still believe in its sound; if I know Turrell’s Pelée is turned Off, can I still believe in its power?

Some small part of the magic was evacuated from the experience after hearing the gallery assistant’s answer. I felt cheated – I couldn’t trust the work as much knowing that this hypnotic, transforming, holographic experience is born at 11 and dies at 7. A new friction developed in how I think about this work and how it folds into the context of the outside world: this lofty, free form, time machine of light was brought down to the daily grind we know all-too-well. The buzz I got from those tasty summer colors morphing and glowing was harshened by the realities of the structure they exist within. There was a newly formed rash from the rub of spiritual potential against the logistics of gallery operations. Is this space sacred or retail? Sanctuary or shopping boutique? Eternal flame or flickering television set?

If the light were to live On for the duration of the show, would you feel it? The works confidently occupy their space, but could they harness some version of wisdom? If given the chance at longevity, can light demand our respect? On some micro-level, would we intuitively know that this work has age behind it?

Most art has a life span. It is conceived, born, created, performed. Afterwards, art undergoes a process of entropy, however extended or fleeting – and eventually decays.[6] Turrell’s work doesn’t adhere to the same narrative, it doesn’t even really classify under a single state of matter. It is solid, liquid, and gas all at once – sturdy, fluid, and elusive – powerful, experiential, and fleeting. These works exist outside of time. Light just is – energy manifested – and with Turrell’s work at Pace, they decide when.

  1. Applied Materials, Cisco Systems, Electronic Arts, Lockheed Martin, Oracle Corporation, Salesforce, and Visa to name a few.  ↩

  2. Alexandra Mondalek, “This is the Richest City in America,” Time, last modified November 5, 2015, http://time.com/money/4101558/richest-cities-america-silicon-valley. ↩

  3. Sometimes literally carving, like with his wildly ambitious project at Roden Crater http://rodencrater.com/.  ↩

  4. I should acknowledge that it is common practice for galleries and museums to turn everything off at night – both to preserve work, to save money, and at the request of some artists.  ↩

  5. Although some may argue this as an ‘unfinished’ work with the viewer’s gaze ‘completing’ the piece.  ↩

  6. Even though one of the primary roles of an art museum or collection is to prolong the life span of canonized work.  ↩

Matt Goldberg is an artist living and working in San Francisco. His work is primarily sculptural and stems from a background in ceramics as well as reclaimed objects and materials. Often exploring themes of transformation and multiplicity, the resulting work has strong emphasis on color, form, and texture. Matt received his MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute and holds undergraduate degrees from the University of Colorado. His work has been shown around the Bay Area and he has participated in residencies at Recology and the Palo Alto Art Center. Matt currently works as a ceramics instructor at SOMArts and an art teacher at Town School.