New York

James Turrell

Pace Wildenstein

While its coverage of last year’s presidential election was otherwise undistinguished, CNN scored over its rival networks in one memorable respect: Reporter Jessica Yellin claimed to be following in the tradition of Princess Leia as she was beamed into the studio from her real-world location at Barack Obama’s Chicago victory bash in the form of a life-size hologram. In its lavish pointlessness, the stunt was entirely consistent with the medium’s reputation as an invention in search of a use. While practical applications in fields including information storage and biomedical imaging have gradually emerged, holograms as a cultural phenomenon still bear the aura of gimmickry.

Perhaps immune to accusations of kitsch after a career that has seen him veer into New Age cliché with some regularity, James Turrell apparently sees no need to engage with holography’s reputation as a medium more beloved of sci-fi screenwriters than visual artists. His exhibition of “transmission light works”—also described as “dichromate reflection holograms”—engaged with its generative technology entirely as a means to characteristically pared-down, primarily formal ends. Eschewing the chance to model “real” objects from the non-stuff of light, this pioneer of the Los Angeles–based Light and Space movement turns that immateriality on itself by keeping his imagery elemental and abstract, making something out of nothing but also, in maintaining a sense of detachment, nothing out of something.

The fourteen large works—all are some five or six feet tall—in Turrell’s fourth solo show at PaceWildenstein are variations on a single simple theme. Each consists of what looks like a framed mirror with a slightly fogged or tinted surface and one or two lamps, housed in slim white boxes, suspended from the ceiling in front of it. The lamps cast colored light onto the reflective surface, which, when observed from the “correct” vantage point, elicits a geometric shape that appears to project outward into space and toward the viewer. Some works present a single shape—a triangle, rectangle, or ring—while others feature two in straightforward conjunction. Shift your angle of vision and the shape begins to fade or change hue; move beyond its range and the illusion melts away.

There’s no denying the magic of the holographic effect, but its unfortunate special-effects air proves stubborn. Turrell aims for and sometimes achieves genuine sublimity—his long-term installation Meeting, 1986, at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in New York is among several testaments to that—but his use of light seems to become less transcendent the farther it gets from the great outdoors. To go head-to-head with nature is to set oneself up for a fall. And to aim for purity while using such a loaded medium as the hologram is similarly unrealistic. The artist even comes off as seemingly unable to resist ramping up the spectacle.

Turrell’s reach and ambition are vast. In April, a museum devoted to his oeuvre opened in Argentina, and in 2012 a major touring retrospective will open in New York at (of course) the Guggenheim. The Roden Crater, an extraordinary labor of love begun in 1972, will also finally open to the public that year. (Fans with the stamina and resources to visit Turrell’s eighty-five public installations in twenty-three countries around the world can receive a stamp at each and will then be invited to the customized Arizonan volcano as his personal guests.) Turrell can seem both omnipresent and omniscient but, like CNN, he retains his blind spots.

Michael Wilson