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Review: the Light Project illuminates sky, walls, minds

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 7, 2008 - In the years since its opening in 2001, the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts has been a solid, if somewhat introverted, presence in Grand Center. Don’t misunderstand — the Pulitzer has reached out beyond its velvety concrete walls in some visible ways, gamely co-hosting events with the Contemporary, opening itself up in the evenings for film showings and musical concerts, and promoting contemporary art in St. Louis in coordination with other museums in town.

But for the most part, it has seemed content to quietly occupy its narrow plot on Washington Boulevard, opening its elegant doors twice a week to dedicated devotees of art and students with assignments to complete, thrilling its visitors with its heady atmosphere of beauty, beneficence and intimidation. (Every time I go there, it takes my breath away — but I still can’t help feeling that I’m not dressed right, or that I’ll surely get busted for something.)

With The Light Project, the Pulitzer has added an entirely new dimension to its identity. Like any of the Pulitzer’s undertakings, this exhibit fulfills the institution’s mission of promoting contemporary art and aiding in the revitalization of Grand Center. But The Light Project represents a bold new level of public engagement for the Pulitzer. It has brought world-class contemporary artists to St. Louis to work with local curators, arts organizations and the wider community, resulting in some extraordinary artworks displayed on public sites in Grand Center, where they can be seen and enjoyed, anytime, for free.

It may have taken a while for the Pulitzer to truly burst forth from its rarefied compound and venture into the realm of public art, but it has done so with amazing effect and success.

“Chorus” by Rainer Kehres and Sebastian Hungerer has received a great deal of attention for The Light Project, and deservedly so. Working in the burned-out shell of the Spring Avenue Church around the corner from the Pulitzer, the artists collected dozens of donated lamps and lighting fixtures and strung them up in a light-based recreation of the church’s original beamed ceiling. In the evening, when the night sky is just right, the multicolored lights glow and glisten, creating a kind of perforated stained-glass ceiling. “Chorus” is aptly named, combining individual pieces of modest domestic furniture into a unified element of luminosity and strength. It’s become a metaphor for communal engagement and strength in numbers.

Across the street from the Pulitzer, Jason Peters’ untitled snaky bucket structure looks like a colossal strand of spirogyra. When it’s illuminated, it brings to mind the phosphorescent glow of the ocean at night. There’s something so unassuming and DIY about Peters’ work, and it will undoubtedly inspire people to make something out of that stuff they have been keeping in the garage, or the cupboard, or the trunk of the car.

Likewise, there’s something extremely endearing about constructing a massive, wonky solar energy machine just to power an ice cream maker, as Spencer Finch has done with “Sunset (St. Louis, July 31, 2008).”

For my money, the most visually arresting of all the works in The Light Project is Ann Lislegaard’s “Crystal World (after J.G. Ballard),” an animation projected onto the rear wall of the Pulitzer building. It combines imagery of a modernist Brazilian glass villa with tropical jungle vegetation, resulting in an array of hard lines, soft curves, transparency and opacity. All of this plays out on the mottled gray concrete of Tadao Ando’s Pulitzer building, with its subtle grid pattern of circular divots. The piece is mesmerizing and well worth multiple viewings, so bring a lawn chair and make an evening of it.

The works in The Light Project remain on view through Oct. 17. It will be sad to see them go, but there is value in their transience. The Light Project shows that something need not be permanent to have a lasting effect. Temporary transformations live on in memory, and they can inspire us to create our own transient engagements elsewhere in our world. In the meantime, here’s hoping the Pulitzer’s extraordinary foray into public art and community engagement becomes a permanent part of its programming.

Howard Jones at Bruno David

Visit the Bruno David Gallery and get (re)acquainted with Howard Jones, a member of the Art and Technology Movement in the 1960s and 1970s who was a pioneer, alongside the likes of Nam June Paik, in investigations into the art of light and sound. 


Memory and Refraction coincides with the Pulitzer Foundation's phenomenal Dan Flavin: Constructed Light exhibit, but Jones' work with light is entirely his own, owing very little to Flavin's staid Minimalist efforts.

Jones makes light constructions, often with tiny, programmed pin lights on brushed steel backgrounds that produce brilliant psychedelic effects (see "Skylight Twelve" (1970) and "Sixth Time" (1970s) and be dazzled). "E.V.A. #1" (1965), a wooden box with light bulbs, a mirror, a handle and a radio antenna, combines Op-Art color effects with a Cold War pseudo-seriousness; it might pass for a superhero's briefcase. "Solo" (1965) presents the outline of a man overlaid by a grid of light bulbs; it looks like a practice target for the CIA.

Jones' works have worn extremely well. They are self-conscious, knowing their technology will be outdated soon while remaining fundamentally relevant to an unknown future. Only "Recalling Edward Hopper" (1985-86) breaks this ironic stride, offering a "real" window frame and curtain blown by a tiny fan, generating a sense of nostalgia that seems almost out of place.

Also at Bruno David Gallery are brilliant color lithographs from the early 1970s by Peter Marcus; Ian Weaver's "Artifacts from the Black Bottom" in the Front Room; and "White Woman" (2006-07), a startling video by St. Louis' own Nanette Boileau.

Ivy Cooper is an artist and professor of art history at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. 

Ivy Cooper
Ivy Cooper is the Beacon visual arts reviewer and a professor of art at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

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