Substantiality of the intangibile
“The purpose is to understand the beauty of the present day (…) for any ‘modernity’ to be worthy of one day taking its place as ‘antiquity’, it is necessary for the mysterious beauty which human life accidentally puts into it to be distilled from it.”
It is not possible to speak about the art of Laddie John Dill without touching on the dis-course of “Californian” art, and above all the Californian movement called “Light and Space”. An introduction of this movement, even if brief and concise, is therefore necessary. The history, nature and character of this art is unique – there is nothing similar anywhere in the world – because it is so profoundly influenced by a geophysical peculiarity: California is located between the desert and the sea, and this gives rise to aspects which are determinant in terms of visual perception and reflection of the light.
The conditions leading up to the birth of the “Light and Space” movement:
California in the early Sixties: everything begins in this sun-drenched land made of sea and desert, and of light. A very special light, reflected by the water surface, soaked by a natural fog that makes it even stronger: a whitish light that, encountering the immense stretches of desert in the inland, seems to materialize and become something that begins to tremble before your eyes, making the horizon hard to discern. A unique combination of sharp light and reflected light, which becomes irradiated and purified when it encounters dry air and winds. An air that is “solid”, that seems to become solid before the eyes; an air that seems to be visible, while the objects beyond appear hazy, trembling, fogged over, with blurred outlines.
Before the Spanish colonized this land, the natives had called it the “smoky valley” pre-cisely because of this natural phenomenon, caused by the meeting between the cold ocean air and the hot one of the desert: when blending, they produce a whitish fog that spreads in the atmosphere, enveloping landscape, people and objects.
This phenomenon is so intense that anyone involved in artistic expression would find it hard to resist a need to explore the potentials of spatiality and light.
Space and light have become essential elements in the artistic research of whole genera-tions of Californians, resulting in the quintessentially Californian movement called “Light and Space”.
In 2012 the Getty Research Center of Brentwood dedicated several initiatives to this movement, involving, in the course of a year, no less than 80 public and private Californian institutions which featured events focused on the movement.
To return to the magic created by the fascinating combination of natural elements, this land soon became a true Eden for artists in search of light, and for those working on the theme of spatiality.
Light and Space began to take form in the Sixties, when a group of artists pivoting on the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles began to experiment with new means of expression and materials.
What was foremost on these artists’ mind was, however, a desire to abandon the “regime” that dominated American art in those years, closely linked to the experiments of abstract ex-pressionism and action painting of artists located along the East Coast of the United States, and especially in New York.
There had already been an antecedent to this “revolution”. In the Twenties and Thirties a group of artists left the East Coast for Santa Fe in New Mexico, where they formed a community pivoting on the charismatic figure of Georgia O’Keefe, exploring the ways in which painting related to spatiality and light, aspects that were also peculiar to the plateaus of New Mexico. However, while these artists continued to work with two-dimensional painting, sculpture and photography, the Californian artists belonging to the next generation decided to turn their back to the “classical” materials. They instead began working with new materials such as for instance aluminum, used in the industry linked to the aerospace research conducted by NASA precisely in many of the deserts in the area. They also experimented with synthetic resins, methacrylate and above all neon tubes, turning everyday materials into works of art. Another source of inspiration was the Rod Cars, that is to say cars that we may define as “personalized”, decorated with synthetic spray paints in intense colors. These decorations, which would have been inconceivable in the car industry at the time, played an important role in the imagery and desires of the new generation of “rebels” of the Fifties and Sixties.
The car industry provided the artists with new materials as Murano paints and a range of reflecting, pearlescent and iridescent paints. Surfers also benefited from the introduction of new materials as glass fiber and resins, using them for new creations. Many artists were themselves surfers, and while they initially learned to use these materials for their sport, they soon began to use them also in their art. Inspired by these activities, artists began to experiment with the materials linked to the culture of cars and surfboards, creating art with glossy surfaces and reflecting, transparent and translucent effects.
A new language, which may be summed upin the idea of “finish fetish”,was born. It was a language centered on three-dimensionality, as in John Mc Cracken, and above all on the per-fection of the smoothness of surfaces, so to create effects of the visual perception of light, its reflection and the effect of the light transmitted to the human eye after having bounced back from surfaces.
What were the optical, and above all visual, effects of a light ray reflected by methacrylate or aluminum, and what changes did the object undergo as a result of these reflections, in terms of forms in space? And in what did the metamorphoses perceived by the human eye, in terms of coloring of the object, consist? Could the latter undergo perceptive transformations, also in terms of form and color, if penetrated by the light? In their experiments great masters as Robert Irwin and James Turrell encountered doubts and uncertain solutions more often than one might have imagined.
These themes have never ceased to fascinate the later generations of Californian artists who, inspired by the intense light and color, even today continue to experiment with new forms of art, which in any case feature the two basic elements of space and light.
Laddie John Dill belongs to the second generations of artists characterized by their re-search on light. He began his career in the late Sixties by experimenting with materials developed for other fields than the arts, as neon lights, that is to say luminescent tubes charged with argon or mercury, and aluminum of the 6061 type, which is among other things used in the airplane industry. One of the peculiarities of Dill’s art is precisely his research on these materials, which we may define as “extreme”, and the fact of his having introduced them in the art world.
“I am a painter who works with the typical materials of sculpture. I use rough and raw materials in a poetic sense”: this is something that comes so natural to Dill that he does not even reflect on it. He is unconsciously attracted by materials that do not belong either to the world of painting or to the arts in the traditional sense of the word. What fascinates him is the tactile qualities of these materials, as different types of aluminum, concrete, earth: always raw, always rough, always difficult and tough.
To Dill the true challenge consists precisely of manipulating them to such a point, and in such a manner, as to render them pliant; to subdue them and be subdued by the poetic charm he has been able to express through them.
The material does not lose its identity in this process. For instance, in the series of works named “Light Traps”, the aluminum has not undergone any alterations; the manipulation does not change the structure of the material. Indeed, it remains what it is, with its distinctive and original character; the great skill of the artist consists of transforming it and “putting in on stage” in a poetic way, lending a poetic quality to its substance. The artist gives the material another possible existence; and in this new role it appears before the onlooker, fascinating him or her and inspiring emotion.
The artistic path
As we pointed out, the community of Californian artists, many of them belonging to the milieu of Venice, has, around the late Fifties and early Sixties, begun to perceive a pressing need to make a break with the past, and above all with the two-dimensionality of painting, a medium limited to painting with acrylics or oils on canvas.
The group of ideologists gathered around the charismatic figure of Robert Irwin begins to pose the problem of how to overcome this dichotomy. Its members also begin to wrestle with the challenge of how to reconcile the “naturalistic” context in which Californian artists are, so to speak, immersed as a condition of life, and convey it in an artistic product that transcends the limits of painting and the classical schemes of visual representation of light and space.
As mentioned in the foregoing, the artistic research of those years focuses on the new ma-terials: different kinds of plastic, resin, neon, concrete, glass and aluminum become the means of expression of a whole generation of artists who use these materials, originally intended for industrial production, putting them to new uses and making them serve new purposes.
The humus of experience in which the young Dill develops, and the atmosphere in which he breathes, features great personalities: the first generation of “revolutionaries” is formed of artists as Frank Gehry, DeWain Valentine, Peter Alexander, Larry Bell and Ed Moses who attract a following of new recruits in the art world, forming a community of significance as well as of art. Artistic research pivots on experiments: making art comes to mean experimenting in the fields of chemistry, physics, gravity and electricity. In short, the young artist finds himself in a melting pot of ideas and manual skills, the likes of which has never been seen. Andall this has continued until today, with a generation of heirs to that intellectual humus, which has also inspired poets and writers, as for instance Bukowski: “You live in a town all your life … Since I was raised in L.A., I’ve always had the geographic and spiritual feeling of being from here. I have had time to get to know this city. I don’t see any other place than L.A.”(from an interview given by Charles Bukowski in1974).
And the feeling of belonging to this city permeates the works of all the artists. It is a city that pulsates, races, moves all the time; a city that has been defined “liquid” precisely because of this underlying tendency to continuous motion, its open attitude to anything new, to anything unknown, and its ability to change all the time, and very quickly. And the art that is produced in this city has wholly peculiar and unique characters: it is an art that changes constantly; in this sense it is “liquid”. Liquid, in the symbolic sense of an intangible object that escapes our grasp; an evasive object with blurred contours. A dematerialized object, that is permeable to the light, which transforms it to such a point as to give the spectator a feeling of visual instability, of uncertainly as to what he or she is actually looking at.
“My book is a painting” wrote Marcel Proust to Jean Cocteau, referring to the “Search” and its many relationships with color: an element that Proust included in almost every single image, in each of the many “sets” encountered in the novel. “I am a painter and my canvas is the room” declares Dill, referring to his installations made from neon tubes and sand and his “atmospheric works” which are, precisely, sets made of whole rooms, atmospheres of mean-ing in which the onlooker is completely absorbed, enveloped as if in a kind of sensorial pla-centa that makes him or her lose the feeling of time and, sometimes, of space.
A Proust who “paints” and envisages colored scenes in a world lived in black and white, or at most in shades of grey: there is something paradoxical and unsettling about this, not to mention the idea of a sculptor who “paints” rooms, whole environments; not with actual color but with “mental” color, a color created by visual sensorial perception, via a brain that re-elaborates it in terms of “environmental” perception. The environment is real, but at the same time it is a re-elaboration of thought and of senses, which is projected in a tout court metaphysical dimension.
This metaphysical dimension dissolves matter, transcending it through the light. Dill thus creates a poetic effect, which is the poetic of atmospheres: a light that is diffused in the space and if we look for a source of inspiration, we would find it in the warm and embracing, almost intangible light of Paolo Veronese, Vermeer or Piero della Francesca, rather than in the violent and sharp light of Caravaggio or Rembrandt.
The poetic quality of this light is transcendent, almost mystic, with a meditative mysticism. Its makes the three-dimensional work appear two-dimensional, as if painted, in an almost imperceptible transition. With works based on mercury and argon, as the “Light Sentences”, we return to painting, with a medium that has nothing to do with painting as such. Light, the sole essential and absolute protagonist of the work, dominates the scene, creating a tout court environmental situation. The light emitted by the colored glass tubes “liquefies” the surfaces, and the form seems to dissolve before our eyes. It seems to disperse in the environment, becoming a kind of container whose contours are blurred, confused in an apparently out-of-focus vision; they no longer exist in the sense of material object.
Sensorial perception becomes illusory and transitory; the object as such is replaced by a “perceptive event” which may change at any moment, depending on the angle from which we observe the light source and on where we stand. The object is no longer the end of the work; it becomes a mere accessory aesthetic element, while the true end, the accomplished work of art is identifiable as two elements: one is the way the light projects on the walls of the room hosting it, and the other is the onlooker’s sensorial perception. The work thus becomes a different entity from the object as such; it tends towards a sensorial happening that gives rise to a state of doubt as to what one perceives, a visual instability, but which at the same time creates an “atmosphere” in which the image becomes liquid, and the surroundings may even become unreal.
We may define the works of Dill as vibrations of light because they, in their ethereal na-ture, seem to vibrate with a “visual sonic quality” where the light is modulated, merged, trapped and directed as if it in a symphony.
The very poetic nature of his works is attributable to the aesthetic effect created by light which is trapped inside the space, and which is then “released” so that it can flow towards the gaze of the onlooker, flooding and embracing him; the gaze is lost, and the spectator abandons him or herself to a kind of “musical sonority”: the hypnotic effect of the vision is an accomplished fact.
Installations with sand and neonlights
The two installations made of sand, earth and neon lights which the artist has created especially for the Archaeological Museum of Naples are inspired by a clear intention: to render the feeling of unreality characterizing the atmosphere in the venue tangible. Those who visit the museum are impressed by the lavishness and opulence of both container and content, that is to say Greek and Roman masterpieces that reveal themselves to the gaze of the public: A typical museum designed for the presentation of antique art.
The shades of the marble – white, green and grey – dominate the interiors of the museum; the Greek and Roman portrait busts lining the entrance hall of the museum create a kind of corridor in which the visitors linger and get their bearings before they venture into the exhibition rooms. It is here, in this symmetric, orderly and calm space, that Dill has placed an installation intended to upset the expectations of the museumgoers: the access, the very fact of being able to proceed in the museum interior are thwarted by a composition that is concrete yet ethereal and unreal, made of earth, sand and above all light. It upsets the balance created by the alternation between white and grey marble of the environment and the exhibited works, disrupting the equilibrium of the whole interior.
Yet this strong visual impact immediately leads to the creation of a new dialogue, of a different visual perception of the interior; a dialogue based on the perception of light and color. Indeed, all the walls near the installation change color, taking on accents of drama and at the same time of total unreality.
Pinkish columns become confused with the black volcanic earth placed on the floor; this color, with the accents of pink, appears completely alien to the setting; indeed, it envelops the visitor in a metaphysical and unreal atmosphere that is quite unsettling.
The sculptures seem to levitate and float in the space; they appear to have lost their material substance, to the point of becoming weightless. The whole classic concept of the plasticity of traditional statues is challenged by the visual perception of the whole, while no longer seems either real or realistic. Everything is dematerialized, in a vision that no longer consists of seeing, but of perceiving. The onlooker is immersed, tout court, in a surreal atmosphere of transparency of rarefaction, eventually coming to doubt his or her own vision.
We are, paradoxically, witnessing an overturning of the spatial relationship between the works on display and the venue that hosts them. The Farnese Hercules is immersed in the unreal light emitted by the installation placed nearby; it seems to lose weight, matter and contours, being surrounded by an atmosphere that envelopes and absorbs it, making it dematerialize.
We may in this context speak of “perceptive art”: a kind of contemporary art, which develops and appeals to many of the “senses” of the onlooker: an art which, through a kind of visual decomposition of matter, constructs and recomposes a new work with a different material quality.
Moreover, the two installations featuring earth and neon lights follow a trajectory that is parallel and contrary with respect to what is usually the case with archaeological specimens.
In fact, we have to consider the process of burial and then discovery undergone by the antique piece. First it is buried by earth, remaining covered by matter and time; then – sometimes after many centuries – it is brought back into the “light”, to be exhibited and seen. Now Dill follows a trajectory that is similar, and at the same time opposed, in his creation of an “environmental” work. He uses local earth in order to create an intimate connection between his work and its place of installation; and with this same earth he covers and buries sections of his neon and mercury glass tubes suggesting the symbolic function of the earth as a means of preserving it. Light in itself is the artworks and needs to be preserved, but at the same time he makes features and fragments surface, highlighting elements that serve to transform the entire scenic context in “something else”, thus allowing for yet another possible way to perceive it and, in the final analysis, of seeing.
We may therefore define these works as “atmospheric” because a form or space made of re-flected light, which is perceptible and intangible at the same time, emerges from this series of works made from sand and earth.
The “compression” or concealment of the light of the glass tubes below a surface, and at the same time the fact that parts of them surface, creates reflections that are irradiated in the at-mosphere, resulting in a perception of the surroundings that is completely unsettling and de-stabilizing.
When creating these luminous installations Dill has performed a role we may define as “tonal landscapist”; the artist has succeeded in distributing and irradiating the light almost uniformly in the environment. In “tonal” painting, a genre in which Venetian Sixteenth-painters as Bellini and Giorgione have few rivals, the chromatic tone shade is achieved by superimposing alternating coats of paint and varnish with very slight differences in tone, which are dispersed in the landscape.
Dill proceeds in the same way: using the light with a “tonal” intervention in the context; the colors created by the argon and mercury injected in the monochromatic glass tubes are dif-fused in the room, almost uniformly but with light variations in tone. Even if the color gradually fades the further from the light source it reaches, it saturates the whole room as if it were a capsule full of luminous and chromatic contamination.
Analogous yet different from Dan Flavin’s rooms and environments featuring lights, where the illuminating element is much more striking and violent, also due to the fact that Flavin’s neon tubes are exhibited and thus directly visible to the onlooker as sculptures and works of art in their own right, while the neon tubes in Dill’s installations are partially covered and thus concealed, and interact with other materials as sand and earth in a dialogue aimed at creating a subtle and diffused atmosphere.
The result is an environment charged with mystery, poetry and magic; the very same feeling of mystery and magic that one perceives when entering James Turrell’s “sensorial rooms”. On entering such a room, the visitor’s vision and perception are destabilized by the environment that envelops him or her. It even becomes hard not to question one’s own position in the space, as the perception of space and of self are not only and not so much mere sensorial experience, but rather perception of “atmosphere”, perception as a whole, both of the external reality and the “internal” one of the self. Perception becomes a kind of “happening of the I”: an experience of a moment of interior life, mystery of the Universe in relation to the innermost self.
But it is with color that Dill, just like Turrell, eventually comes to wrestle.
Color is the source and goal of the artistic creation.
The color produced by the light becomes a beacon, and at the same time the ultimate goal of the work as such.
A similar discourse also applies to the “light sentences”, works made from neon tubes filled with argon and mercury, which are not monochromatic but multicolor and which have been “juxtaposed” to the Greek-Roman works in the museum.
Light sentences represent a “declaration of intents” made by Dill through and with light.
They represent a statement of a condition, a situation by means of which Dill wants to assert a reality made of light and color. Dill has chosen to use the word sentence, or in other words assertion or declaration, for these works: and the name of his declaration is “light”. Position in space means, tout court, “declaration”, word, verb.
But his works belong to a context characterized by the fragmentation of the word, which must be considered as a unique experiment in the genre of works featuring light. It is a matter of a discourse that is fragmented and rendered through pieces of colored glass, assembled to form a whole where the fragments nevertheless retain their own individuality and significance.
It may be more appropriately defined as the composition of a language made of fragments of color and light. These works are wholly unrelated to the neon lights used by Joseph Kosuth or Bruce Nauman, where the neon and the light are, as such, “words”, an accomplished dis-course, used to express an accomplished concept rendered through a known language. In the two aforementioned artists the word and the sentence are placed directly upon the “stage”, they are the artistic “scene”; they are communication and at the same time expression and form of art.
In the case of Dill the structure of the work moves along a very different route: the origins of Dill’s expressive language is to be found in the process of composition of the word or the sentence, that is to say the composition by “fragments”: those pieces of colored glass united in a whole in a sequence not unlike that of the consonants and vocals that form words. In other words, a research on the composition and decomposition of the word based on the single characters it is formed of. Also in this works it is a matter of a form of language that centers on communication, but in this case the meaning and content of the language are encompassed in a totalizing experience of light, and light alone. If the content of the “sentence” is not recognizable in his work, it is because this is not the aspect that interests Dill. What interests him is the underlying process of formation of the word, which is however rendered through an exclusively optical light experience.
The juxtaposition of the “Light Sentences” to the statues present in the MANN takes on a specific significance which, while remaining within the context of language and forms of communication, aims to communicate only by means of two elements: light and color.
With these works Dill asserts “his” perceptive reality: the context changes identity and is “reasserted” as reality that differs from the one perceived until that point. The initial reality is thus altered by means of light and color, and so the Farnese Bull, the Callipyge Venus, Pan and Daphne, Aphrodite and Flora are reread, revisited, in any case rethought.
It is a matter of a wholly new vision; while it may be anomalous, it poses a situation which is as such reality and which is indeed an assertion of a state, in which the observed object “may” also be something else: it may be perceived as something different from what it really is.
We must also consider that Dill was born and lives in a city that is home to the movie indus-try, something which has influenced Californian artists in general, and this artist in particular, in many ways.
Cinema moves by images, or rather by stills or fragments of images; while being part of a whole, these single fragments owe their significance to the whole, but at the same time even the single fragment has a sense and a meaning. It is precisely this operation that Dill repro-duces: with his “light sentences” he extrapolates the single fragments of images that become accomplished works, assertion and declaration of meaning, in their own right.
The vertical or horizontal arrangement of these works in the space and their spatial solitude accentuates the significant of position, not just physical but ideological, of the work itself.
The juxtaposition of works characterized by multicolor light and the Greek-Roman statues on display in the museum reflects a desire to accentuate the aspect which we may define filmic of the happenings represented by the sculptures, that is to say the “illusory” aspect of the scene. Artists as Irwin, Turrell and Dill, inspired by the movie industry that produces illusions, stage the illusory nature of vision. They are visual illusions.
Furthermore, the light allows our artist to accentuate the dramatic aspect of the represented happening: we are thinking of the drama of the “Farnese Bull” which, in the enormity of the gesture and the excess of plasticity, is the quintessence of drama, rendered in a single act. Dill, analogously, wants to carry the dramatic effects of the “Bull” to extremes, by accentuating the filmic aspect of the moment.
The Greek-Roman statues are “illuminated” by the color; they are transformed by the color in a process that becomes indispensable to highlight the scenic aspects of the representation. But the movies are also, and above all, illusion and therefore Dill’s works recreate, reproduce and reconstruct an illusion: the self-same “illusion” of reality, the very one that the ancients made people believe about their rulers: the illusion of power, of force, of omnipotence.
In these works Dill offers the spectator a visual illusion, a dream, an unreal reality: “(….) part of my brain is analytical: I look at the archaeological rests and I observe how they are positioned in space; or rather, I observe how they are divided into geometric spaces. Likewise, I first place my work on the wall and insert it in the space: and then I take another look at it, and discover a whole world of life within it” (Dill).
Aerial Perspective Grid
The installation placed in the so-called room with the starry sky in the Archaeological Museum of Naples is made of 100 works, all of them different and all featuring the same materials: concrete, tempered glass and aluminum.
In these works Dill plays with the illusory visual perception of a three-dimensionality that is only lightly structured, but perceived much more clearly by the eye.
The technical procedure necessary to make these works features no less than 16 stages or ac-tions, as the materials are crafted, heated until they become liquid, cooled; the glass is cut and frosted, the aluminum heated, colored and polished, and so on in many hours of work.
However, the effect is anything but “technical”. What we are observing is not, in this case, the technical complexity of a construction of objects made in a workshop; everything is based on a concept that I would define constructivist, a concept of division of the “painted” space. However, as opposed to the most rigorous constructivism, there are no mathematical relations in the basic structure of these works, even if there certainly is a space subdivided by geometric pictorial fields. The geometric lines are drawn freehand on the support by Dill; the whole work isconsequently organized in fields, which have subsequently been filled out, not by acrylic or oil paint, but by materials as concrete and glass, and in any case materials that are usually used for sculpture.
But to Dill the result must absolutely be painterly. Nothing is left to chance, but the painterly character of the final effect, the color, its light and its dramatic quality must be the ultimate goal of the work. After all, it is a matter of paintings, even if they are made from other materials than paint.
A painter who works with the materials of the sculptor: this is Dill as an artist. The modula-tions of the light, of the color, the brushstrokes that intercept one another in the global vision, are all illusory effects of a painting which is created with non-traditional elements, but which irremediably remains “painting”. The aim here is to achieve a perfect synthesis between a basic constructivism made by the geometry of the sections of the canvas and an expressionistic abstraction produced by the material and the color, which are merged, mixed and intertwined in more and more complex meanders.
The onlooker almost feels as if he or she is watching the crust of the earth from above, with its rivers, valleys and ocean; a very touching illusion.
“I respect painting but I work with the materials of sculpture, because even if they create a certain visual effect from afar, when seen from close up they reveal a fascinating world. There are moments in my work in which the material has a life of its own, developing itself autonomously” (DILL)
Arabesques of concrete that are interwoven with the aluminum and illuminated: geometric lines softened by the gentleness of the curved lines, through which the illusion of vision re-peats itself. Also in these works the visual perception if ambiguous, and this ambiguity or uncertainty contributes to create that fascinating world which Dill alludes to with “his” expressive materials.
All Dill’s work leads the observer towards a complex sensorial perception, which allows the artist to create an existential emotional condition that may be illusory and fleeting, but that is at the same time very intense.
Dill’s homage to the Archaeological Museum of Naples may, in a nutshell, be described as this dialogue between his contemporary art and the antique works present in the museum.
His works are visible and tangible testimonials of the art’s ability to render the history of peoples, continents and civilizations immortal regardless of differences, be they geographic or of any other kind.
The museum site therefore becomes not only and not so much, a place for the preservation of works of art, as a place where the history and civilization of a people is preserved. A place, therefore, which takes on a sacred character, a physical place in which to gather in a moment of mediation on the true sense of man’s existence; witness of humankind’s ability to generate culture and beauty, and as such absolute source of life.
Los Angeles, 1. February 2017
1): Jan Butterfield: The Art of Light and Space
2) : Dave Hickey: Primary Atmospheres
3) :Robin Clark: Phenomenal California Light, Space, Surface
4): Hunter Drohojowska-Philp:Rebels in Paradise