Crossing light and space

Phenomenal: adjective related to or being a phenomenon; as

  1. known through the senses rather than through thought or intuition
  2. concerned with phenomena rather than with hypotheses: extraordinary, exceptional.

(Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary)

In the late Sixties of last century the research of a group of artists working in “Greater Los Angeles” had been oriented towards the phenomena of sensorial perception and the investigation of basic theoretic principles as the very function of existing in the world, to the point of making Robert Irwin assert that being an artist meant to be, in some way, a philosopher at the same time.

It is therefore necessary to go back to the philosophical concept of phenomenology as conceived by Edmund Husserl to explain what has happened in American, and especially in Californian, art from the middle to the late Sixties.

As a science, phenomenology is contemplative, rigorous and intuitive (because it captures the essence of things through sensible perception), non-objective (it disregards every fact or reality to focus on the essentials), subjective (because the analysis of consciousness makes the I the unifying subject of all constitutive intentions), science of origins and first principles, impersonal (because only theoretical abilities are required from the researchers).

These artists actually – consciously or otherwise – applied some of the theoretical canons of phenomenology in their research: certainly a sensorial or intuitive element as they, using very disparate media, experimented with creating situations capable of stimulating a sensorial knowledge in the public, and a subjective one as analysis of knowledge involving the I. This kind of experimentation may be defined as “Phenomenal”. Their research on the sensorial perception of light, colour and space on the part of the spectator gave rise to an artistic movement (even if many of them refused to consider it as one) defined “Light and Space”.

“This movement centred on perceptive phenomena as light, volume and proportion and on the use of materials as glass (Mary Corse, Laddie John Dill and Larry Bell), resins and cast acrylics (De Wain Valentine, Peter Alexander). These artists, interested in phenomena of refraction and projection of light on and from the piece, availed themselves of the contribution of the new technologies developed from the discoveries of the aerospace engineering industries in Southern California, in order to create sensual works of art that were imbued with light, and experimented with materials that were completely new at the time, as acrylics, Perspex and resins”. (*)

The movement developed above all in Southern California, an area deeply influenced by two natural elements, namely the infinite desert spaces and the light, that have wielded a profound influence on the aesthetic vision and artistic production of those years.

As of the mid-Sixties, Californian artists also conducted research analogous to the Minimalist movement, giving it a clearly distinctive characteristic; unlike their colleagues on the East Coast of the United State who considered the object as such inseparably linked to the form and the material, the Californian artists aimed at experimenting with the perception of light and colour of the human eye, rather than on the object as such as a work of art.” (*) The experimentation centred on the theme of “illusion” or “the illusoriness of perception”, analogously to what happened in the Italian Renaissance with perspective effects, and their research aimed to create the amazement experienced before a “state” of sensorial perception in which the spectator is immersed. The fundamental canons of their art may therefore be summarized in three terms: the presence of light, the sensation of the colour, and the sentiment created by the surrounding space. It is interesting to observe that at the same the “Kinetic” movement was being developed in Europe. It had been initiated about ten years earlier, within a milieu formed by a group of South American artists who had emigrated to France and who founded the GRAV (Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel), and its research focused on the same themes of sensorial perception of space and above all of light, which was projected inside metal boxes containing objects in movement activated by electric current. Their experiments have many principles in common, as the optical perception of light and movement, and at the same time the rejection of pictorial two-dimensionality, heavy impasto of colour on canvas and artistic expression centred wholly on painting or sculpture; but the two movements differ radically as to the means used, the techniques and the materials.

Still, it was not just a matter of LIGHT; we have said that the American West is an immense and only relatively inhabited territory, but it is above all defined by its deserts; it is impossible not to be touched by the spatiality one feels and perceives in these deserts, and therefore ALL Americans artists who live or work in the West sooner or later come to deal with this spatiality, which is translated into SPACE in art. It is a matter of an inescapable “destiny”; they are all fated to measure swords with questions of space.

Peter Lodato was born in Los Angeles; he studied and received his training in Californian schools and universities in the mid-Sixties and began his career in California, more specifically in Southern California. This has meant a lot to his experience, in art and in life. It is also important to remember that it was in the mid-Sixties that all the political developments and student movements that centred on non-violence, opposition to the Vietnam War and the issues of segregation of American blacks began to gain momentum. This incredible mix of political and social ideas, along with the surrounding reality of space and light, has forged a personality capable of dealing with all these issues and to elaborate them in an artistic key in an excellent manner, to the point that Fidel Danieli, director of ArtForum, went so far in 1975 as to write that “he was tempted to suggest that (Lodato) is one of the greatest artists from Southern California to emerge in the Seventies”. (*)

Lodato elaborates the theme of spatiality in a psychological, and above all perceptive, key. His research centres on how space is perceived and inhabited by human beings (Environmental Art); on how they manage to separate their own compartment of personal vital space from that of others, both from a physiological viewpoint and from a psychological one.

Most importantly, Lodato analyzes the theme of vision in relation to space in the sense that “vision” contains within it a paradox: “it promises the world but remains frustratingly partial” (Merleau-Ponty in The Primacy of Perception) because it is hampered by the conditions of the physical reality. Vision is therefore illusion; it is very far from being perfect because, even if it offers the truth of the reality that is immediately brought to the level of consciousness, it at the same time also offers unreality and error. It is this ambiguity of vision that Lodato analyzes and explores. His art is also meditation on the geometric spaces in which we live and work, that is to say, on the geometric proportions of the spatiality surrounding us.

The ambiguity contained in vision itself and the possible readings of one and the same reality, the difference between “seeing” and “knowing” by seeing, the illusoriness of vision that does not concede itself the truth of reality, are the themes he has explored ever since his first works from the Seventies and Eighties, as “La Mer” (1985) installation for the San Diego Museum of Art, “Ruins”, “Red Room” and “Taukin”.

The light Surrealism, latent anxiety and subtle destabilization one experiences before the works of Lodato give meaning and substance to this illusoriness of vision.

Yet his “apparent” geometries have nothing to do with geometry, just as the “stripes” of colours that are alternated in his works have nothing to do with a structure of geometric verticalism. Lodato interprets space as a mutual relationship between interior and exterior. His canvases are “battlefields” seen from above, with a continuous alternation between closed and open spaces, blockades and escape routes, light and shade: crossings.

Some structures’ resemblance with “houses” that feature a kind of chimney must not lead one astray from what the artist really wants to represent: in plan and seen in perspective from above, a convergence of lines that close the external space but allow an escape route through an opening (the chimney) from which light enters. Everything centres on a play between space and light: light that penetrates where the space is not hermetically closed or blocked; light cast onto the imaginary walls of an “interior”, creating an illusory impression of openness by flooding this closed space.

Analogously, the apparently bicoloured vertical lines simply establish a relationship of opening and closing of the space; an alternation of space and light, of the interior and exterior of a body. But the most conclusive proof of the illusoriness of the apparent closures is the element of dark colour which is NEVER defined and completely “closed” in its perimeter since its is edged by a “spatiality” in a lighter colour on one side, which immediately makes it relate to the other “open” spatiality”. In short, no space in the art of Lodato is ever completely closed, because it is always possible to pass from one space to another; the light fields communicate with one another.

His works differ radically from those of Barnett Newman or Brice Marden, who work by sections of closed space with defined margins of saturated and clear-cut colour. Their chromatism makes no concessions to the element of light, which is irrelevant to the experiments of the group of artists working in New York and the East Coast of the USA, who were not influenced by elements as spatiality and light.

The work of Lodato may in some aspects be related to that of John McLaughlin, due to his experimentation with spatiality as “void”. Both artists have always been fascinated with a kind of exploration of “what’s beyond the corner”. To McLaughlin the void is essentially a “meditation space”; the field beyond the shape visible on the painted surface thus becomes the infinite that fascinates transcendental meditation.

In the work of Lodato there is light beyond the corner; essential space that is exterior and interior to human beings; a spatiality that is real, yet illusory and imaginary.

His work appears more closely related to the concept inspiring the linear verticalism of Daniel Buren, who developed analogous concepts in France already in the Sixties, seeking to identify the essence of painting through a minimalist strategy, in the basic concepts of support, sign, foreground and background, light and colour. But it may above all be linked to the concept of environmental art, in the sense of an architecture of space that inspires a sense of consciousness in the spectator. Attracting the gaze by means of the perspective, his works create a real change in the perception of the whole visual context. In actual fact, Buren’s purpose with his site specific work is to achieve an interaction between art and life, and Lodato’s approach is completely similar, especially in his paintings of “interior architectures”. We may, analogously, mention the play with perspective created in the environmental works of Terry Haggerty, where the spectator is immersed in an environment where the optical perception is highly distorted in sensorial terms, and where the lines traced on the surface of the painting invest the spectator rather than orienting him or her, affecting not only the visual and thus physical perception of the observer, but also his or her emotional sphere.

It does not appear hazardous to compare his work to that of the Italian Marco Tirelli who, even if within the context of his “geometric baroque” inherited tout court from his Roman origins, interprets geometry without making any concessions to constructive abstraction, preferring a geometry based on relations of space and light in a sense not unlike that of Lodato. Two realities, two periods and two worlds that are very distant from one another are thus intertwined on a level of visual experience of art, as something symbolic and emotional based on the use of geometry stripped of every rational accent. They seem to be united by an interpretation of all art: spaces that serve for meditation, a meditative state that is intensified by a pervasive and flooding light; a light that transfigures the whole geometric, mathematic and rational relationship of geometry itself. What emerges in the work of both is an element of “symmetry” that is different from pure “geometry”. The symmetry gives rise to a kind of mental order, of organization of the space which is the distinctive trait of both artists, but the symmetry is in this case used to make room for light and to lead to the transition from surface to pure space, from the two-dimensionality of the flat painting to the three-dimensionality of the hidden or visible depth.

This depth conceals; it hides and at the same time it uncovers, revealing the meaning of the mind’s infinite capacity to immerse itself, to prepare itself and capture the spiritual dimension.

One peculiarity that distinguishes Lodato from all the artists who have measured swords with the theme of sensorial perception consists precisely of the poetic and lyric quality of his work. This emerges forcefully, and stands out from the mere linearity of the signic trait to cross the border, no longer and not only in the universe of visual perception but rather in the intimate universe of the spectator, that is to say in his emotional sphere. In some works a kind of “eye” or round opening (declaredly as a homage to the artist who created the eye of the Pantheon in Rome) allows light to filter and immediately establishes a relationship between the exterior and the interior of a space, immersing the whole in an aura of transcendence. From the Californian desert to the closed space of the Pantheon in Rome, it is light that determines both the scene and the emotion of the observer.

The lyrical quality of Lodato’s works lies in the fact that they no longer, and not only, touch the perceptive sphere of the observer but also his or her personal and intimate sphere, projecting it on the world of the unconscious or dreams.

In the works where light and vertical stripes are alternated, the “fraying” and opaqueness of the margins, that are blurred or immersed in the lightness of the space behind, leaves room for imagination, emotions, dreams and desire.

The lyricism of his work and the peculiarity of its message lie precisely in the invitation to overcome the “threshold” or limit; a kind of move from one space or one kind of existence to another. The sense and meaning of a door that has been left open, of a glimmer of light that may be glimpsed, of a light beyond the border, of an “eye” through which the light penetrates, are sign of a “crossing”, or rather of an “overcoming” or going beyond, through and against prohibitions, denials and barriers that are also rooted in the political messages of the American youth of the Sixties.

Nothing is predefined and determined; everything may have different connotations, a vast range of possibilities represented by the wide chromatic range that, even if the tone is the same, vaunts an infinity of variations, just as there is an infinity of nuances in life.

Lodato is and remains a Californian “boy” of the generation of the mythical “Sixties”, whose longing for freedom can never be suffocated by anything or by anybody.


(*) Michael Zakian:  Selected wprks,1980-2000. Frederick Weisman  Museum of Art

Jan Butterfield: The art of Light and Space 1996, Abbeville Press

Robin Clark : Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface.  UC Press

Eva Keller: Brice Marden at Daros

Xavier Hufkens:  Voir Double, travail in situ.  Catalog Daniel Buren 2009

Klaus Wolbert:  L’universo geometric di Marco Tirelli. Ed. Charta

Robert Irwin : Interwiev to the artist