Helen Pashgian’s exhibit ‘Presences’ requires the viewer’s presence

In her lyric essay collection On Looking, Lia Purpura ponders—in the wake of witnessing an autopsy—the way in which the practice of looking might be the essence of prayer. I recalled Purpura’s words as I sat watching the glowing and foggy reflections cast by one of artist Helen Pashgian’s large scale sculptures—”the peach one”—at SITE Santa Fe. I also thought, fleetingly, of philosopher David Hume’s contention that all perceptions are either impressions or ideas. But mostly I recalled—less with thoughts and more with sensation—the beach.

Not just any beach. Last June, when COVID cases appeared to be declining, I undertook my first out-of-town foray and spent three days in Southern California, wanting nothing other than to walk the beach path from Santa Monica to Venice in the morning and at dusk to look at the ocean and experience the very specific hazy glow California delivers as daylight commences and fades.

Critic Lawrence Weschler investigated the quality of that light in his 1998 New Yorker story, “LA Glows,” quoting artist Robert Irwin, a progenitor of the 1960s Light and Space movement, who describes one of Los Angeles light’s defining characteristics as “the haze that fractures the light, scattering it in such a way that on many days the world almost has no shadows,” creating an almost dreamlike quality.

Pashgian, a Pasadena native, also is a pioneer of the Light and Space movement, which originated in California and brought forth work—generally speaking—focused on optical art, geometric abstractions and minimalism. In writing of the movement in 2014, Artspace magazine notes that Light and Space artists place an “emphasis on transcendentalist levity,” and “boundary-dissolving luminescence,” through the use of “cutting-edge space-age fabrication methods.” A new book on her work from Radius Books, Helen Pashgian: Spheres and Lenses, notes, in its chronology, one of Pashgian’s earliest influences: becoming “mesmerized by the movement of the water and the reflection of light” while playing in tide pools.

At SITE Santa Fe, Pashgian’s newly opened exhibit, Presences (through March 27, 2022), takes the measure of her six-decade career with both new and older pieces, some quite large, all untitled, all remarkable.

The works include spheres and lenses constructed varyingly with epoxies, plastics and resins; three wall-hangings; and a central large-scale sculptural installation of 12 columns that first premiered at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2014.

The seven smaller spheres, mounted on clear pedestals, brim with colors—reds, greens, blues—that catch the light and transform. “There’s a dance and a dialogue that happens between the viewer and the piece,” curator Brandee Caoba noted during the show’s press preview.

The three large lenses—the peach, lemon and blue—sit in rooms in which the light dims in five-and-a-half minute cycles, creating the sense one is viewing a projection versus an object. Indeed, in the Radius Books’ survey, John Yau writes that in her work, Pashgian “reinvents optical art by breaking its bond with the physical.” Instead, “light becomes an object we experience in myriad ways, all of which cause viewers to see themselves seeing, to become at once awed and introspective.”

The peach lens, in my view, particularly so. Visitors don foot coverings to enter the room, where the floor and walls have been painted in such a way to create, with the lights slowly fading, a fully atmospheric experience, best experienced while sitting in the darkening room, immersed. The LACMA columns, on the other hand, invite the viewer to walk around them, viewing their effects at different angles to discover their inner mysteries in a similarly mesmeric if more futuristic ambiance.

During his Nov. 20 public discussion with Pashgian at SITE about her work, Michael Govan, the CEO and Wallis Annenberg director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, referenced this phenomenon, describing it as a type of dematerialization.

While the experience may feel organic, the process by which Pashgian creates these works is highly technical. She attended a two-year residency in 1970 at Caltech that was part of the school’s engineering department, during which she began the work of heating resin and pouring it into a mold with solid acrylic pieces placed inside, described in the Radius Books’ chronology as a “sensitive process that requires specific temperature and environmental conditions because of the high sensitivity of the catalyzed resins.” During her talk with Govan, Pashgian relayed a funny story about explaining her process to a group of scientists, one of whom left the talk in a huff after it became clear her experiments had inadvertently demolished his doctoral thesis. “That was the difference between a theoretical scientist and an artist,” she noted.

If technical in nature, the pieces evoke any number of responses. During the press tour, Pashgian recalled one curator beginning to cry while watching a transformation. Weschler’s Nov. 20 talk referenced the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, whom Pashgian studied; French philosopher René Descartes; poet Rainer Maria Rilke and the Book of Genesis (“Let there be light”), among others.

As it happened, Pashgian’s Santa Fe exhibit (which coincides with other shows featuring her work at Copenhagen Contemporary and Lehmann Maupin in New York) opened shortly after the historic lunar eclipse and as a full luminescent moon hung over the city. I asked SITE Phillips Executive Director Louis Grachos if the timing had been intentional. It had not, he said, although he recognized its resonance with Pashgian’s work. Of course, as he noted, “light and space is something that’s always relevant in New Mexico.”

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