New York

Charles Ross

Dwan Gallery

Something was still missing from Charles Ross’ “Sunlight Dispersions” at Dwan that might have made them major art; still, they were the most purposeful and interesting of Ross’s works that I’ve seen. The formal interest of his prisms has always been slight, and the use of them to connect optical and sculptural space seemingly as a foil for Constructivism has always struck me as a one-shot idea. But the dispersion events finally began to put the prisms to work.

Ross arranged a battery of horizontal prisms to fill the frame of a window in his studio and then filmed the spectra produced by incident sunlight as they glided across wall and floor or over a sort of still-life arrangement of table and chair, potted plant, and coffee cup. Different passages were filmed at various times during the day and year and were assembled into three film loops which comprised most of this show.

It seems that the position of the viewer and that of the light source have equally been determinants of the total form of Ross’s arrangements of prisms, and continued to be so in the two prism pieces present in addition to the films in this show. The dispersion events, at their best, seemed to be getting at a sense of ultimate position, not simply a matter of position on the earth moving with respect to the sun—that is somehow too easily pictured for it to have any crunch—but, one would like to say, the position of the viewer in respect to light itself. In watching the spectral bands drift upward across the coffee cup in tight close up, for instance, one felt a strange sense of the arbitrariness of the sun—what is it doing there after all? Somehow, Ross’s films got across the reminder that the sun is definitive of light, not just another available source of it. Artificial light will always be artificial as long as the sun is there, and it makes no sense to wonder about what things would be like without it. As far as the human world is concerned, the sun is an absolute; Ross’s dispersion events seemed to be concerned in a not very thorough way with what is implied by mediation of this absoluteness.

Much depended upon the fact that the dispersion events were on film. There was a certain compression of time which made it possible to see all the light movements without spending a day at the gallery. While this sounds like a tampering with the real stuff of the events, it actually made for a stronger suggestion of the sun as a source of time; the passing of the spectral bands across the surfaces of the studio in the film seemed to establish a palpable meter which almost became a pulsation of the things themselves. Again, the use of film allowing for a close focus on a detail like the plant leaves or the top of a knurled table leg occasionally made for a curious interplay between illumination and sense of scale; at certain moments the table corner could look like column and architrave and suddenly become doll-house furniture under a lens. I take it that the choice of objects and the placement of the light events may also have had some reference to painting, the classic subject of the artist’s studio, and the reconciliation of real light with that detachment of color from figure accomplished by Matisse.

But then perhaps I’m making too much of the fact that the dispersions were filmed; perhaps Ross was simply unwilling to trust to the visitor’s patience. After all the sun might not shine into Dwan for days at a time. It’s that ambiguity that troubles me; the “Sunlight Dispersions” are Ross’s most suggestive work to date, but they are perhaps not as aggressive as one has a right to expect them to be. And in their ambiguity the mere physical properties of the prisms begin to dominate again. Still, the films contained some passages very beautiful in themselves.

Kenneth Baker