New York

Charles Ross

John Weber Gallery

Light is an archetypical symbol with similar meanings in many cultures; it is used as a metaphor for visibility and warmth, understanding and knowledge. In painting, beyond any metaphorical content, light is an essential aspect of color and shape—the tonalities capable of conveying incandescence ranging from tenebroso and chiaroscuro to plein air painting and the abstract luminousness of Rothko and Reinhardt. However, at the source of light as a pictorial means is light as pure energy and information. Light as an aspect of the energy field, while not always consciously used within the art context, is at the root of much abstract art. For example, the recognition of mass as energy in relation to its dynamic effects was reflected in the work of Kandinsky, who attributed his development as an abstract painter after 1911 to his shock at learning that the atom had been split, writing that everything seemed “uncertain, wavering, soft.” While the implications of such discoveries are seldom so directly experienced, they can be seen in various attitudes toward Process, ranging from Pollock to Serra.

These ideas in art are generally expressed through the metaphor of materials and procedures. Charles Ross, however, in his show of Solar Burns 1971–72 at Weber, works with the source itself, light as pure information. He regards the energy field as the medium through which he is able to resolve data yielded by a natural system, the visual results recording an aspect of a complex enduring pattern. The Solar Burns are an extension of Ross’ earlier work with prisms. Some early pieces involved prisms containing mineral oil, more refractive than water or air, which intensified the separation of hues as light passed through the pieces. These works, as well as later prisms placed by windows, focused on color as the manifestation of energy. However, the prisms were still primarily seen in sculptural modes of arrangement and the color as pictorial.

The Solar Burns convey the power of light more directly. Ross has acted as an agent or instrument for the expression of this information, and the arrangement is dictated by the premises of the experiment. Ross’ abstract of the piece reads as follows:

Each day for one year a wooden plank was placed at the focus of a large stationary lens. As the sun passed across the sky the concentrated power of the sunlight burned a projection of the sun’s path along the plank.

The burn is punctuated by varying sky conditions. Passing clouds produce blank boards. The width and length of the burn varies with atmospheric conditions such as haze and smog.

The curvature of the burns changes with the seasons; reversing from summer to winter, and straightening near the fall and spring equinoxes. It is not drawn by the daily rotation of the earth, but by the apparent yearly journey of the sun through the fixed stars of the Zodiac caused by the motion of the earth along its orbit together with the earth’s axial tilt.

The wooden boards around the rooms of the gallery are graphic proofs of the sun’s power. While the piece has been organized within the context of a scientific system, ideation in art and science cannot be sharply differentiated, and Ross’ piece shares the esthetic of both disciplines. The material is visually and conceptually interesting, yielding information about the physical world which may be of use in further experiment:

The change in curvature of the burns is not identical with the ecliptic. The burns straighten out about twelve days before the fall equinox. At first I attributed these irregularities to a lack of precision in the lens set-up, but decided to Place the burns end to end in chronological order following their actual curvature to determine the form they generated over the year period. The resulting year shape was much more complicated than the ecliptic and a complete surprise.

It is a double spiral which rapidly closes down to circle Winter Solstice, spirals open straightening into spring, then curves in the opposite direction, slowly curling around summer and spiraling open again to straighten into fall. It reflects both the seasonal drift of the sun (two cycles per year), and the elliptical shape of the earth’s orbit. The ellipse is manifest as a change of speed of the earth in its orbit which causes a change in the apparent speed of the sun across the sky (a one year cycle.)

The consequences of the piece have yet to be discovered, although Ross does not seem interested in pursuing this particular experiment. He is more involved in exploring other phenomena—unlike the scientist, he is not involved with applications but with revealing aspects of reality which may augment one’s self-awareness.

––Lizzie Borden