Anthony McCall: Leaving (with Two-Minute Silence) at Sean Kelly Gallery
December 11 2009 – January 30, 2010
528 West 29th Street
New York City, 212-239-1181
Anthony McCall’s current exhibition at Sean Kelly presents two pieces in the British artist’s most well-known art form: his “solid light” works, installations of moving, projected light beams in darkened, haze-filled rooms. These filmic works grew out of McCall’s simpler light projections of almost forty years ago, making use in the last decade of digital files, computers, and video projectors. The resulting installations are both mathematical in their precision, tracing arcs and ellipses in contour-lines of light, and pregnant in their evocative reach, casting glowing cones and light funnels in the hazy rooms that enclose them.
In the show’s title piece, Leaving (with Two-Minute Silence) (2009), two light forms are projected onto the far wall of the room. Though not overlapping, they are intimately connected, the one appearing as a missing segment—a sort of wonky Trivial Pursuit tile—cut from the other. As the segment, at an almost imperceptible crawl, grows into a full oval, the original oval shrinks away into a sliver of light. The inching seesaw back and forth (a full cycle takes about half an hour), and the trading of absence and presence, negative and positive, is transfixing. What do negative and positive mean anyway, when line is pure light? One thinks of photograms, and negatives, and shadow plays, modes of image-making that invert or disrupt our sense of solidity and empty space, and how they ought to relate.
But McCall’s light works are not just geometries on a screen. What makes pieces like Leavingso transporting is the interplay between the flat screen forms and their solid counterparts, milky comets suspended like inverse light-shadows in the black of the room. That interplay is at once clear and elegant—grasping the formal logic is satisfying in the way of a well-designed graph or mathematical proof—and extremely slippery. In both works on display (the 2009 Meeting You Halfway II is in a second room), the inevitable impulse is to immerse parts of yourself in the light beams, to ‘touch’ them and make them stick. A hand, inserted into the center of a light cone, appears suddenly illuminated, surrounded by two panes of light. But move it a few centimeters to one side, and the overall brightness is suddenly lost for a thin, razor-sharp sliver that cuts like the ray of a Venetian blind across your skin. The boundaries between real shapes and evoked shapes are difficult to pin down. Your movements, and the movements of others in the room, are constantly causing surprising interruptions and additions in the light forms cast against the wall.
Where, in the end, does all this absorbed gazing, this visual and bodily raptness, get us? Does it ever move beyond slack-jawed engrossment? There’s a utopic element to these pieces, in the original sense of the word. They play (marvelously) with time and space, but they are outside of such concerns, too: they are no-places, isolated islands of shadow and light. Drawings by McCall in the gallery’s first room show plans for three site-specific installations, works that take up light and movement in particular social ecosystems. By contrast, Meetingand Leaving feel dream-like, amnesiac—a notion as thrilling as it is distressing. What keeps them tethered to reality, in the end (and what keeps them from veering completely into the cinematic or the spiritually transcendent), is the concreteness of bodily sensation that mediates the whole thing. In a McCall installation, your body is the measure, a seeing, feeling, spatial tool seeking transitions and boundaries in an ever-shifting field. Although verging at times on the solipsistic, McCall makes wonderful poetry of those slippages between the solid and the ephemeral, the sculptural and the evanescent.