PRINT September 1968

Douglas Wheeler: Light Paintings

DOUG WHEELER WAS BORN IN Globe, Arizona in 1939. He currently resides in Venice, California. The two Doug Wheeler light paintings illustrated here measure 88 by 84 inches and are thus slightly larger than a standing man with his arms outstretched. Their scale is kinesthetic. They approximate the size that can most appropriately encompass all the movements of a human body within a limited space. If the paintings were considerably smaller they would be more related to the act of seeing or, by implication, of reading. If they were any larger there would be a loss of tension. Moreover, the size and type of space in which the painting is displayed is also a factor. If the space is too large or too tall, or if it has distracting features, it can destroy or distort the viewing of the work. This approach to the manner in which the works should be displayed has nothing to do with preciousness on the part of the artist. The point is that in Wheeler’s work the one-to-one relationship between each component, including the viewer as well as the context, is an integral part of the work.

In principle, each of these paintings consists of a light box made of sheet plastic, the outer edge of which is 2 1/2 inches deep. The whole box is mounted 2 1/2 inches forward of the wall surface. The rectilinear sheet of quarter inch transparent plastic which forms the frontal plane is laminated onto the sides of the box which is made from half inch translucent white plastic. The half inch border line formed at the edge by the bonding of the clear plastic to the translucent white plastic is painted black (to occlude the transmission of light) and afterwards with several coats of white paint. This forms a continuous ribbon of white paint approximately a half inch wide around all the frontal edges. The entire back plane of the frontal sheet of transparent plastic is also sprayed white to occlude light. Mounted behind is a grid of interconnected neon lights which, when switched on, bounces light, blue in one painting and white in the other, against the painted undersurface and the closed back of the light box. The light is thence conducted up the white translucent plastic, underneath the painted edge and into the frontal sheet of transparent plastic.

The effect is as follows: First, light is radiated from the white translucent top, bottom and sides of the box, forming a soft-edge band onto the adjoining wall surface and gradually decreasing in intensity as it moves away from the painting. Second, the light which is transmitted up the translucent white plastic top, bottom and sides also enters the frontal sheet of plastic. It is conducted and transmitted across and above the opaque white field (formed by the sprayed white underpainting). It must be emphasized that the light is steady and without any flicker or kinetic impulses; the underpainted white field is impeccably flat and without texture. The light that enters the frontal field creates a radiant glow at the edges and, as it begins to travel across the field towards the center, it rapidly fades. In addition to the subtle quality of the fade another sensation is induced: The surface qualities seem to change in direct response to the degree of movement, however minute, of the observer’s position. The changes that take place in the modulation of the surface are very subtle and quite unmechanical in appearance. The surface, in fact, seems to be very alive and gives an impression that it is some kind of organic substance. It would be wrong, however, to suggest that the surface mirrors the movement of the viewer. It does not in any way replicate movement, nor is there a coherent pattern observable in the changes that take place. The effect is much more intangible and quite unpredictable.

The quality of the projected light attaches the painting to the wall and at the same time melds it into the surrounding space; then the field of circulating light takes over and seems to simultaneously assert and deny its own tangibility. Moreover the painting is seen one moment as an object, but the quality of the light emanating frontally and laterally from it denies the objectness. Thus the viewer is constantly bombarded with the requirement to make simultaneous decisions as to what is going on.

In effect, what Wheeler has done is to bring the crude, raw energy of light under control. He also uses it very successfully to express mood. But a kind of psychological inversion has taken place in his handling of the expressiveness of the material. We are used to thinking of light as something clean, bright and revealing, the very opposite of black which seems somehow to negate. Wheeler transforms light and whiteness until it loses its innate hardness of effect and in his hands it becomes intangible, yet mysteriously evocative of the human presence.

John Coplans