“Let there be light,” announced San Diego artist Roman de Salvo as he illuminated his custom chandelier at the opening of the Lux Art Institute back in November. The inaugural flipping of the switch marked the end of nearly a decade's worth of planning and building, and de Salvo's proclamation befitted this new venue and its enlightened approach to the visual arts.
Lux, which in Latin means “light,” is perched on an Encinitas hillside blanketed in hardy shrubs and overlooking a sliver of the ocean. Both the landscape and the building—a graceful structure of concrete, steel and glass designed by Santa Monica architectural firm Renzo Zecchetto—were created with the environment in mind. Lux is the first museum in California to be certified “green” by Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED).
“We're really thrilled to have an architecturally significant building,” says Reesey Shaw, Lux's director. “And to be surrounded by native landscape; to situate artists where they will be able to interact to this coastal desert climate landscape.”
Lux represents more than pieces hanging in a particularly cool building, though. The Institute is not a traditional museum; rather, it's an artist-in-residence program that offers visitors a fresh take on contemporary art. So contemporary, in fact, that it unfolds in real time.
The Lux tagline says it all: “Don't just see art. See art happen.”
Education is at Lux's core. For adults, even seasoned culturati, it's a way to gain insight into the artistic process.“If somebody's writing or creating music, there's nothing inspiring about it because you have no way into it,” Shaw explains. “With visual art, there's the element that it's a physical thing and you can watch over someone's shoulder while they're making something. That is stimulating and challenging.”
Children have an even greater opportunity to grow, Shaw says.
“Art is what makes life worth living. Creativity in and of itself is inspiring. And one of the big issues, I think, in front of educators and our whole educational system is how do you teach creativity? Being able to add and subtract isn't enough. How do you inspire people to think out of the box?”
Before Lux took up residence in its new digs, it operated out of a trailer, so it makes sense that the Institute's signature ongoing program is portable. Shaw modeled the Valise Project series, traveling cases that function as mini-museum exhibitions, on similar work by Marcel Duchamp, who trotted around with leather carrying cases containing miniature replicas of all his pieces to woo prospective collectors.
What worked as an effective marketing tool for Duchamp also lights up students' minds. The cases reveal new worlds without the faintest whiff of—gasp!—learning. Alison Moritsugu's “Field Box,” for example, introduces both dendrology—the study of trees—and landscape painting. In her valise, Moritsugu packs slices of tree trunks painted on one side with tiny vistas of their place of origin, as well as magnifying glasses and quotes by naturalists such as John Muir. More literally in the spirit of Duchamp, Todd Noe's “American Road Show” includes miniatures representing important moments in U.S. history.
Lux chose as its first artist-in-residence someone who had a lot to say about impermanence. Shaw says Lux selected Tomas Rivas, a 32-year-old talent from Santiago, Chile, because his work is an interesting reflection on architecture. Rivas, who spent a month at Lux ending on Nov. 29, carves sculptures out of drywall, using ornamental motifs of Greek and Roman origin—as well as 19th-century interpretations of that architectural ornamentation—as a starting point. Drywall is not as reliable a carving material as most choices, and far more mundane, but Rivas' remarkably detailed work feels organic, a beguiling juxtaposition of the historical and the modern.
His pieces have been shown around the world, and during his time at Lux, he and his assistants created three new carvings. On the last day of his residency, he stood in Lux's studio/gallery space, waiting for a final influx of visitors to meet and greet before packing up his tools and heading home.
“This is like a dream situation for an artist, to be in a studio like this, a residency downstairs,” Rivas said. “It was very productive—very interesting, also, just by hearing people coming in to ask about the process and comment on the process. I think it really engages a broader audience because people can relate, not just by the final result but with the process of doing this stuff.”
Lux showed those three pieces throughout December, after Rivas was long gone. The artist also left behind an outdoor piece that originally debuted in 2006 at ArtScope, one of the many satellite art fairs attached to Miami's massive Art Basel. Parthenon, a drywall construction of the famous Greek ruin, sits on a small hill behind Lux's main building. Rivas said its life expectancy is about six months. Like all matter, it will eventually crumble into the ground—ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Decay is built into his work.
What Rivas treasured most during his stay wasn't the chicly decorated artist's apartment downstairs nor the access to art-loving patrons. No, what he really appreciated was the studio's barn door that slides all the way open to let shadow-enhancing light flood the space.
“Light is very important to my work,” he explained. “I work with light. To have this light source from outside is quite unique. I think that's really the connection I have to the landscape.”
Lux Institute's next artist-in-residence, Stockholm painter Astrid Preston, will begin her two-month stint on Jan. 31. Preston is known for her exquisite images of plants, flowers and other foliage. Her commissioned work for Lux will be a 16-by-16-foot painting of the nature preserve visible from the artist's studio. Go to www.luxartinstitute.org or call 760-436-6611.