Sculptor and installation artist Heather Carson leads a parallel life as a theatrical lighting designer whose experimental use of industrial equipment led her to venture off the stage and into storefronts, airplane hangars, parking lots, and galleries, pursuing her affection for the abstract mathematical structure of lighting-grids and the optical character of indoor/outdoor light sources and spatial perception. Comparisons to Irwin, Flavin, Turrell, and Judd are inevitable; but as much as this C.O.L.A. work is both inherently and ironically about modernist painting and the Light & Space legacy, it is also about conditions unique to the use of electric light as a formal element in fine art -- but because it's Heather Carson, it's also about subverting expectations.
The C.O.L.A. pieces, light/LINES is the newest installment in the larger ongoing body of work, light/WHITE -- of which the light/ALBERS pieces first shown at Ace Gallery in 2009 were the earliest -- and comprises three large squares in varying shades of white light (Natural White, Cool White, Daylight) patterned in multiples of three. These bars of white light read as color -- pink, cream, blue, as the proximal relationship exaggerates the other color(s) to the naked eye. "These are the old-school tubes that we think of when we think of fluorescent light -- the kind Flavin used and Irwin is still using, despite the fact that the fixtures are no longer being mass produced. They're a specific, subtle choice referencing their use by other artists. The fixture is as important to me as the light -- it is not merely the carrier. These were custom-made to my specifications so that both the presence and absence of light would be equidistant," says Carson. The verso of these delicately luminous panels reveal the metal-clamp industrialism of lighting rigs, invisible to the audience who still intuit their heft and strength operating behind the scenes. From the front, these elements and the installation's architectural engagement are invisible to the audience. Viewed from the side, this aspect is prominent, providing a significant perspective on what motivates her both in terms of aesthetic experience and meaning. Carson's intention is neither seamlessness bordering on illusion, nor phenomenological depiction of the natural world, but rather expression of the "muscular, physical nature of light itself."
There is a certain Agnes Martin painting at MOCA in which Carson discerned a kinship, and which in many ways served to inspire these pieces. In Martin's Untitled #4, a central light source washes out pink, yellow, and blue stripes which take a moment to emerge from within a diffuse cloud of delicate pigment, and by the time you realize that you are seeing them, you are half-convinced you are hallucinating. Carson says, "This new work is a formal response to the Martin, but conceptually, a whole different thing." The light/LINES pieces are 6 x 6 feet -- a common size for fluorescent tubes, and also the classic Vitruvian-size canvas Martin preferred, until, according to a 2006 NY Times story, she got older and her canvases shrunk to 5 x 5 feet for ease of movement. "It could be that eventually I'll also do other sizes," says Carson, "but then they would be 18 x 18 inch, 2 x 2, 3 x 3, 4 x 4, or 8 x 8 feet -- the lengths the tubes come in." Carson is big on embracing external parameters, finding that mathematical or manufacturing limitations provide a fruitful ground of resistance, and she frequently composes riffs on these standards. "Any material may be used but the theme is the same and the response is the same for all artwork," Agnes Martin once remarked. "I'm not trying to describe anything. I'm looking for a perfect space." For Carson, it's not perfect space she's after, but wielding light in a muscular fashion to explore its attendant color temperatures and physical properties.
—Shana Nys Dambrot
Los Angeles, May 2011