Shows of Lights and Darks Elucidate at the Hirshhorn

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Museum exhibitions are not always user-friendly. There is an occasional air of intimidation or coldness about them, as if you need a cultural license in order to appreciate the exhibited work.

Even as a lifelong student of the arts, I sometimes feel like an embarrassed school kid who didn’t do his homework upon entering particularly esoteric exhibits. It’s frustrating. Sometimes, it's best just to let your mind go and consume art the way a dog eats a bone —ravenously, ecstatically, intuitively, palpably — without reading a dissertation on relational aesthetics or mid-century spatial polarity as interpreted by the German avant-garde. This is not to say we don’t appreciate the analytical endeavors of artistic traditions. Just as every meal should not be a course in molecular gastronomy, we sometimes simply want to eat some good lasagna, see some artwork that we feel with our hearts and walk away satisfied.

The current shows at the Hirshhorn work both ways. "Suprasensorial: Experiments in Light, Color, and Space" shines light (literally) on a rich and rarely displayed modern Latin American art movement, and it’s also the most fun you’ll have in a museum this season. Another featured exhibit, "Dark Matters," is equally satisfying, bringing together works from the museum’s collection that draw upon the associations and implications of darkness, physically, psychologically and otherwise.

"Suprasensorial" presents large-scale installations by five artists who abandoned traditional art in favor of ephemeral and subjective forms based on light, color, motion and space between the 1950s and early 1970s. Until recently, these artists have received little attention in the United States, where audiences are more familiar with light works by such American artists as Dan Flavin (also on display in the Hirshhorn) and Doug Wheeler. "Suprasensorial" shows us how these Latin American artists independently and contemporaneously devised comparable methods and effects.

What immediately jumps out is the difference of warmth between the Latin American and American intention of working with light. The "Suprasensorial" artists’ formal and social motives were nearly one in the same, working to involve the viewer in the experience of their work, whereas their American counterparts were chasing a more polarizing, post-modern agenda whose intentions seem far more erudite and conceptual. By choosing light, color and space as their materials and configuring them in ways that required participation from the viewer, these Latin American artists worked to engage the viewer completely, effecting a significant change in the customary dynamic of looking at art. And it’s awfully enjoyable.

The first major installation in the exhibit, Julio Le Parc’s “Light in Movement," sets the tone. Walking into an enclosed passageway, a dim spotlight about the strength of an old light bulb shines light against a wall of polished metal squares suspended on threads, flickering light about the room. There is a mirror behind the squares, and you see yourself between and amidst the rippling squares of light as if underwater, momentarily free of burdens and floating within these fabricated fissures of space.

In the next installation, Carlos Cruz-Diez brings you into a world defined by color relationships. Like stepping into a Joseph Albers or Mark Rothko painting, Cruz-Diez explores the ways in which color activates space, expands perception and elicits emotions. Upon entering his room, viewers move through spaces of vibrant blue, magenta and green light, whose hues appear almost tangible against the walls and floors, while the boundaries of their interactions remain tantalizingly elusive like a horizon.

Farther along the lines, you get to lie down and listen to Jimi Hendrix, run through a field of nylon string and gaze up at a white neon pattern that looks like the tread marks of a renegade shooting star. Throughout the exhibit, what is striking is how aware you are of fellow viewers. The experience is effected entirely by those that surround you. Following me was a young mother with her sandy-haired son, no older than three. Watching his eyes light up as he ran between the luminescent room of Cruz-Diez, laughing and jumping as his skin changed between hues of purple and blue, was the highlight of my experience. I left feeling light and inspired, wondering when I could return and whom I wanted to bring with me.

Meanwhile, the "Dark Matters" exhibit, while it may seem like an ominous and joyless endeavor, was a congenial and thought-provoking experience. It never asks us to embrace any great darkness within ourselves — it just shows us its potential. The darkness of a chalkboard, of the human psyche, of racial and social barriers, the depths of the sea, apocrypha, even the style and warmth of darkness, are all enveloped within this exhibit, among with much more. From Frank Stella’s stark geometric canvases, to Thomas Eakins’s photographic anatomy studies, to the bracingly lifelike sculptures of Ron Mueck and the trend-setting “surrogates” of Allan McCollum, there is much to take in, all of it engaging.

The curators at the Hirshhorn has put together a series of exhibits that could draw interest from an infinitely varied audience, an increasingly difficult thing to do in the visual arts these days. For that, if nothing else, we should thank them. They have drawn light from the darkness and brought forth an energy that is often alluded to but rarely displayed.

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