Sept. 21 2011 04:58 PM

Shedding some light on an important piece of west coast art history

Craig Kauffman's "Untitled" is showing in the Phenomenal exhibition at MCASD's downtown gallery.
Curator Robin Clark holds her hand out and traces the wall as she makes her way through the pitch-black hallway leading to artist James Turrell's “Wedgework V” installation, on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego's Downtown gallery. It's one of the works made by significant southern California artists during the 1960s and '70s currently showing in Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface, the mega exhibition opening at both MCASD locations in full on Sept. 25.

“You see how it has that wedge shape like Robert Irwin's scrim piece upstairs,” Clark says, sitting on a bench facing the red and purple glow of Turrell's dramatic light installation. “But the difference here is that the wedge shape you see is created not with a solid material but by the way light is being cast through the architecture…. The longer I spend in here, the more I see. There's more subtlety.”

At the Jacobs Building across the street, Clark circles Larry Bell's engaging mirror installation before she heads into another darkened room featuring Turrell's “Stuck Red / Stuck Blue” piece, which is part of MCASD's collection. When museums or collectors purchase a light installation like Turrell's, Clark explains, they're really buying a set of explicit directions and the legal rights to rebuild it anytime.

“This looks solid,” Clark says, walking toward what appears to be a bright-red rectangle projected onto a wall.

“But it's not,” she continues, reaching her hand right through the plane of the wall, revealing the piece as a rectangular drywall cutout leading into a specially constructed octagonal chamber bathed in red light. “The cuts in the wall had to be perfect. Our preparators have been working hard, and they have a lot more to do.”

Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface is part of The Getty's Pacific Standard Time initiative, which aims to research, preserve and exhibit postwar art in Los Angeles. While some organizations are focusing on Chicano art, or the arts and crafts movement, MCASD, after taking a long look at its own history and collection, chose to focus on light and space artists.

Clark started with a small group but broadened the scope to include artists who not only embed light or channel natural light (think Irwin, Turrell and Doug Wheeler), but also artists who use translucent, transparent or reflective materials (like Bell and Mary Corse).

The museum gave guests a glance behind the curtain by rolling out the exhibition in stages. Those who wandered in on the right day were able to see artists like Bell or Irwin as they helped install their work. The museum also has robust programming that includes educational events held in the museum's new thoughtLAB in La Jolla.

“The lab is an organic space where we want people to sit and chill and reflect on their experience,” education curator Cris Scorza said.

Through roundtable discussions, exposure to films and excerpts from audio interviews or the upcoming talk with the museum's preparators on Oct. 20, Scorza says they want to encourage people not only to see the Phenomenal exhibition, but to really understand it.

“We want to offer public programming of a very small and intimate scale,” Scorza adds, “and really give visitors insight into areas they didn't have access to before.”

More art events

Mad for mid-century: A collaborator in The Getty's Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980 initiative, Balboa Park's Mingei international Museum opens San Diego's Craft Revolution—From Post-War modern to California Design on Oct. 16. Curated by Dave Hampton, a man who's studied and been immersed in the mid-century San Diego scene for years, the show will share a piece of this city's history that was at risk of being buried or even lost altogether. Get to know the work of more than 60 craftsmen and women like John Dirks, Margaret Price, Kay Whitcomb, James Hubbell and Lawrence Hunter.

Watch and learn: When you see Emilio Perez's chaotic canvases and wood panels filled with bright, explosive, mixed-media abstractions, you'll notice that the process isn't as straightforward as it is with other painters. Lux Art Institute (1550 S. Camino Real in Encinitas) will showcase Perez's unique method of adding layers of paint, then cutting into them with an X-Acto knife when it hosts Perez in-studio from Nov. 10 through Dec. 10. The artist's work will be on view through Dec. 31.

Keepin' up urban: Thumbprint Gallery recently moved from North Park to La Jolla (920 Kline St.), but that doesn't mean it's changing its mission. The gallery keeps up its tradition of showing urban contemporary art and some of the city's best emerging artists with an exhibition of Dion Terry and Richard Salcido's pop surrealism from Oct. 8 through Nov. 6 and graffiti-influenced pop-art painters Monstrinho and Gloria Muriel from Nov. 12 through Dec. 4.

On women: The upcoming exhibition Masked / Unmasked will feature Rebecca Webb's “Gentlemen's Painting” photographic series, which examines gracefully aging middle-age women, alongside Adriene Hughes' “Deer Woman” series picturing women in metaphorical animal masks. The show kicks off during Ray at Night on Oct. 8 at Zagrodnik + Thomas Architects (3956 30th St. in North Park), and the opening includes a literary performance by So Say We All.

Welcome home: Habitat House (21st and Broadway in Golden Hill) isn't a sleek, white-walled gallery, but the shows that get mounted there are typically pretty good. Keep the residence / venue on your radar and plan on stopping in to see the always-impeccable Joshua Krause on Oct. 19 and installation genius Wes Bruce on Nov. 30.

Get trashed: The New Children's Museum (200 West Island Ave., Downtown), has enlisted the help of big-name artists like Vik Muniz to help engage, educate and entertain the public with the upcoming Trash exhibition opening Oct. 15. As always, the exhibit will have enough hands-on activities and projects for the kids, but it promises to be edgy enough for adults, too.

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See all events on Friday, Oct 21