New York

Doug Wheeler, LC 71 NY DZ 13 DW, 2013, reinforced fiberglass, flat white titanium dioxide latex, LED light, DMX control, 64' 3“ x 67' 7 3/8” x 18' 3".

Doug Wheeler, LC 71 NY DZ 13 DW, 2013, reinforced fiberglass, flat white titanium dioxide latex, LED light, DMX control, 64' 3“ x 67' 7 3/8” x 18' 3".

Doug Wheeler

David Zwirner | 519 West 19th Street

Doug Wheeler, LC 71 NY DZ 13 DW, 2013, reinforced fiberglass, flat white titanium dioxide latex, LED light, DMX control, 64' 3“ x 67' 7 3/8” x 18' 3".

Fortunately, my early-morning reservation to see Doug Wheeler’s recent installation at David Zwirner—a welcome return for the exacting, reticent artist just two years after his solo debut at the gallery in 2012, and only his second-ever one-man show in New York during the five decades of his career—was scheduled at the height of one of the more aggressive of the blizzards that socked the city in a seemingly ceaseless parade this year. Fortunate, first and foremost, because I managed to snag an appointment at all: A strict limit placed on the number of viewers allowed at any one time into LC 71 NY DZ 13 DW, 2013, the newest immersive environment by the seventy-four-year-old pioneer of the West Coast Light and Space movement, meant that prebooking was all but mandatory; a previous impromptu attempt had been stymied by a politely firm gallery gatekeeper carrying an iPad calendar whose slots for that day were long since spoken for. But also fortuitous for the serendipitous phenomenal experience of my almost impassably snowy commute: an unexpectedly affecting passage through well-worn terrain, with Chelsea’s usually busy streets and sidewalks virtually depopulated, transmogrified by swirling flurries and blanketing drifts—a familiar environment that, like Zwirner’s West Twentieth Street galleries, had been erased and reinvented by a thoroughgoing spatio-perceptual whiteout.

Though the gallery gave the size of LC 71 NY DZ 13 DW as precisely 64' 3“ x 67' 7 3/8” x 18' 3", the way in which the work caused space to apparently expand and collapse made it hard to imagine a better candidate for the old checklist chestnut “dimensions variable.” (The initials refer to an earlier, unrealized version of the installation originally planned for Leo Castelli in 1971 and to the current work, dated to last year.) Wheeler’s piece, described as a “rotational horizon work,” was inspired by the artist’s experience as a longtime amateur aviator and consists of a convex circular platform set within a chamber of disorientingly indeterminate scale and ringed by hidden batteries of LED lights whose intensity oscillates, subtly across an interval of two minutes. Reached by viewers through a slot-like doorway after trading their street shoes (or snow boots) for suitably clinical, clean-room-style footies, the pristine environment seemed to both shoulder in on and run away from its viewer-inhabitants, acting as both swaddling cocoon and limitless absence.

Of course, the perceptual distortions engineered by Wheeler and his contemporaries—among them James Turrell and Robert Irwin—emerged from a peculiarly Californian mix of observational naturalism, psychedelic searching, and détourned military-industrial technology. And while the experience of LC 71 NY DZ 13 DW did undoubtedly evoke an aerospace vantage—the slow roll of the earth seen through the windshield of a high-altitude aircraft, the horizon always sliding just ahead of the viewer’s physical trajectory—its multiple destabilizations of visitors’ sensoria were hardly reducible to any single experiential analogue. The uncanny acoustics of Wheeler’s architectural cavity produced echoes of almost hallucinatory duration at every footfall and throat-clearing, and if the powdery periwinkle hue that hung in an unclassifiable zone of middle ground around the circumference of the floor did fundamentally transform the audience’s “perspective,” the work’s temperament could just as easily have been judged lysergic as aerological. In this, the essential character of Wheeler’s work—and that of the Light and Space project in general—was revealed to be as much about inward vision as outward percepta, proceeding from the eye, and the mind’s eye, in equal measure.

Jeffrey Kastner