Doug Wheeler, sa mi 75 dz ny 12

David Zwirner Gallery, January 17—February 25
One of the hottest shows in New York this month – if you judge “hotness” by the crowds of people waiting to get in – was the large-scale installation work of Doug Wheeler. Raised in the desert of Arizona, Wheeler began his career as painting student in Los Angeles, and soon became a pioneer of the “Light and Space” movement in California during the 1960s and 1970s. This is the first time one of his large scale “infinity environment” is being presented in New York, and its minimal calm was such a contrast to the dense urban fabric outside that people were willing to stand in line for hours on end to experience it. And the experience of this piece was the point: while exploring the materiality of light, SA MI 75 DZ NY 12 was first and foremost about the viewer’s physical and perceptual interaction with boundless space, marked only by changes in light that simulated dawn, day and dusk in a 32 minute cycle.


DOUG WHEELER “SA MI 75 DZ NY 12 » — 1975/2012 Reinforced fiberglass, LED lights, high intensity fluorescent lights, UV fluorescent lights, quartz halogen lights, DMX control Architecturally modified space, composed of two parts 564 x 702 inches (total space) 1432.6 x 1783.1 cm Photo by Jonathan Smith, courtesy of David Zwirner, New York © 2012 Doug Wheeler

The viewer walked into the brilliant white void of the installation unable to perceive its boundaries; dematerialized, the space of the gallery disappeared. (Those who are familiar with the Tibetan Book of the Dead will surely reference the Great White Light allegedly encountered by the newly deceased in this and other spiritual traditions.) Disoriented, most viewers spent the first few minutes lost, often trying to locate borders or limits before they finally gave in to the shining emptiness. The first thing I noticed was the texture of the bright light, which seemed almost palpable, like a cloud. Wheeler himself called it “a cloud of light in constant flux,…a molecular mist. It comes out of my way of seeing from living in Arizona, and the constant awareness of the landscape and the clouds.”

That heightened awareness made the experience extraordinary, and surprisingly complex. Other viewers wandering in this unmarked arena seemed like dark spots on eternity, existential symbols of themselves unmoored from physical space but beautiful and reassuring in their isolation. After a while most of us settled into a corner (so to speak, since there were none) and just stared into the void, surrendering to the warmth of the light’s embrace. Closing my eyes at a certain point, I panicked and almost lost my balance when I opened them onto the unremitting emptiness. I stayed for a long time, and felt (more than saw) the light fade, disappear and reappear. Both my body and my mind found the subtlety of the experience intense, a meditation accessing levels of consciousness not readily available in The Big Apple. Some art allows us to experience another culture; Doug Wheeler’s installation expedited an extraordinary journey through the porous boundaries between physical space and the landscape of perception.


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