Los Angeles

Doug Wheeler

ACE Gallery

Five years ago, “light artist” connoted not only certain materials, but style as well, pigeonholing the artist as equal parts technical innovator and radical esthetician; now, the distinctions among artists such as Dan Flavin, Robert Irwin and Doug Wheeler are obvious and essential. (Irwin is more or less a painter, Wheeler a phenomenologist and Flavin is, well, Flavin.) Doug Wheeler’s single new work is “mature”; that, and the tenor of the times establish Wheeler as an individual(ist) sensibility, rather than a mere technological militant.

The new work is a lighted wall in a large room specially constructed to hold it. The wall, which one faces after entering the room at a corner and turning right, is 15 feet high by 30 feet wide. The three other walls differ in not being directly illuminated, and in being either plain or punctured by doorways, but the room is square and the walls are the same size. The light fixture is recessed neon tubing, covered with plexiglass slanting into the marginal groove at 45 degrees; confronting the wall from horizontal center, one cannot see the tubing, only the glare. The light source itself seems to be white, but the sheltering plexi renders it bluish with interruptions of pink. The room has been altered at the ceiling and floor; a few feet before the light wall, the floor rises, slightly but noticeably and the ceiling has been “lowered” by stretching fine, polyester gauze over the room several feet below the permanent ceiling. The room “is” white (“is” only because white material—flooring, paint, etc.—has been used; the color of the room during the Wheeler installation is something else, but “white” enough to acknowledge its starting point).

Wheeler’s concern seems to be with perception, in a laboratory sort of way (minus the blatant prettiness of the work, which exudes a designy elegance), but it is possible I am wrong. I suspect—from the cleanliness, singularity, precision and scale—that Wheeler “deals” with optical perception with a clipboard in hand. Merleau-Ponty maintains a thingness about perception per se, pointing out that a phenomenon, to be perceived, must be posed relative to something else, spatially or temporally; even a uniform field of spectral light (which Wheeler’s piece does not attempt) is “seen” relative to the viewer’s kinesthesis and memory. (A living-room-sized easel picture, then, is not “limited” relative to light art; it only acknowledges the inevitable—context—at a more convenient point.) Where Wheeler’s wall acknowledges its setting—the remembered frontiers of the gallery building—gives the work its investigative quality. This roomful of grainy blue-greyness verily echoes with “what if . . .” and “what if . . .” until I find myself recording, as below, my particular sensations.

1) The dimness and the blueness of the light (we can see cool colors better than warm in muted light) effects a feeling of substance in the air; one expects to feel mist or particles of dust. 2) The colors in the air of the room, not counting the white, pink and blue of the adumbrated wall, seem faintly polychrome, as if actual pink gas is present. 3) The edge light of the focal wall darkens the center of it, bends it, and more or less dislocates it in depth perception (in the earlier, 8-foot square light boxes the same effect was present). 4) The austerity of the work calls attention to the smell of new paint and the scuffs on the floor (a set designer’s impasse: if the floor were natural hardwood, the dirt wouldn’t be noticeable, but the room would no longer be “white”). 5) The coolness of the light is, in the long run, pleasant; it is no effort to remain in the room.

That these reactions so strongly occupied me during forty minutes in the room is indicative of a lack of being moved by the work, except for the awe inspired by the fact that this is all accomplished, after all, solely with “placed” lighting. Placed, however, after considerable hardware has gone into the receptacle, the room. All of which leads me into a moderately negative comparison of Wheeler to Flavin and Irwin. Irwin seems more profound because he underplays the exoticism of his device, and he isn’t panicked by the remaining traces of objecthood. Flavin manages, except for his ponderously sleazy room in last year’s Documenta, a beautiful reverse, concealing his machinery precisely by exposing it. Anything as inherently theatrical as Wheeler’s work, ought to take more into account the natural curiosity about what the hell is there in that framing trench? When we go to look, we find all this wonderful, fitted stuff, and it’s like being locked inside Broadway Century City after closing time. The newest work, then, is awfully attractive, highly intellectual, but very stagy.

Peter Plagens