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Sunday, February 26th, 2012

See First, Think Later: The Art of Doug Wheeler and Mary Corse


Shifting Between Object and Environment: The Art of Doug Wheeler and Mary Corse
Douglas Wheeler  SA MI 75 DZ NY 12 (2012)
January 17 – February 25, 2012 at David Zwirner Gallery
519 West 19th Street, New York City, 212-727-2070

Mary Corse: New Work
February 2 – March 10, 2012, Lehmann Maupin Gallery
540 West. 26th Street, New York City, 212-255-2923

Installation Shot, Mary Corse: New Work, February 2 to March 10, 2012. Courtesy of Lehmann Maupin Gallery

Installation Shot, Mary Corse: New Work, February 2 to March 10, 2012. Courtesy of Lehmann Maupin Gallery

The concurrent exhibitions of Doug Wheeler’s environmental light installation at David Zwirner Gallery and Mary Corse’s light-infused paintings at Lehmann Maupin Gallery provide us with an exceptional opportunity to understand how L. A. Light and Space art can sensitize us to the subtleties of the world around us.  These two artists rely on fields of white, intense lighting and a mobile observer to provide some exhilarating surprises.  While both Wheeler and Corse privilege direct perception over thinking, there are also some significant differences in the ways in which their art creates heightened sensory awareness.

Over thirty years ago, the psychologist William Ittelson drew a critical distinction between environment and object perception.  In object perception, one surrounds the object; in environment perception, one is surrounded by it.  One observes an object; one explores an environment using many sensory modalities.  Ittelson noted that with environment perception “the very distinction between self and nonself breaks down: the environment surrounds, enfolds, engulfs….”  What makes the work of Wheeler and Corse so innovative is that it causes us to alternate between object and environment perception.   This is consistent with Venturi’s preference in Complexity and Contradiction for both-and over either-or.   As we will see, these two L.A. artists accomplish this balancing act in different ways.

Your adventure in Wheeler’s Infinity Environment begins in the antechamber where you appear to be facing a luminous translucent wall that makes you hesitant to move forward.  So you approach it very slowly.  Your initial surprise when you reach the “wall” is that it is not solid, but rather an opening into a space filled with what appears to be thick fog. The morphing of a diaphonous wall into a vaporous fog creates a shift from perceiving an object to perceiving an environment.  Once inside the space, you can’t see its perimeter, so you can’t figure out its shape without extended exploration.  As you reach out your hands in front of you, you can see your fingers clearly but your don’t know how much further the space extends.  So again you walk slowly.  The next surprise is that your feet provide you with some critical information.  Suddenly, the floor begins to curve upward and outward in front of you but your outstretched arms do not hit the wall.  Are you inside a giant egg?

Installation shot, Doug Wheeler: January 17 - February 25, 2012. Courtesy of David Zwirner Gallery

Installation shot, Doug Wheeler: January 17 - February 25, 2012. Courtesy of David Zwirner Gallery

The effects Wheeler creates are most dramatic and thrilling if you inhabit the space alone, but this has generally not been possible due to the popularity of this exhibition.  Indeed, your entire experience is radically altered by the presence of other people who appear to be crystal clear, almost hyper-real.  By observing the positions of the other people, you can see how far the floor extends in each direction. In this space, “you feel with your eyes” (Turrell) and see with your body.  The sensations created by this Infinity Space range from disorienting to frightening to exhilarating, often alternating within an individual.   And to heighten the experience, Wheeler gradually modifies the ambience by shifting the lighting from dawn to dusk and back again over some thirty minutes.  This extreme environment attunes our sensory-motor system to differentiate things it never noticed before, a major goal of the Light and Space artists.

Mary Corse’s wall paintings are essentially two-dimensional.  One would, therefore, expect them to function as objects and not environments.  But, almost magically, the tiny glass microspheres embedded in Corse’s five large white paintings invite you to treat them as environments to be explored.   You notice immediately that each painting changes dramatically as you cross in front of it so what you experience is not one painting, but multiple different paintings.  For example, the large work, Untitled 4 Inner Bands shifts from an absorbent matte cream-colored monochrome with barely perceptible vertical bands to a stark white mirror-like surface that glistens and reflects your head and body movements.  As you move back and forth in front of the painting, you see anywhere between two and five vertical bands which reverse their colors as you move, the darker ones becoming light and the lighter ones becoming dark.  From certain vantage points you can detect some horizontal brush strokes that first appear as ghostly vapors and then become eight defined horizontal bands that weave across the vertical ones to form a grid.   Careful looking and continual movement combine to provide an uncanny experience that simulates key aspects of environment perception.  The ambiguity of the overall encounter resembles a reversible-figure task used in Gestalt psychology research in which the  perceived image shifts dramatically from a vase to two figures or from a duck to a rabbit.  This effect results from the limitations of our perceptual apparatus that allow us to see only one of these images at a time.

Wheeler and Corse create different kinds of ambiguity to achieve their effects.  The ambiguity of Wheeler’s void is one of a homogeneous field in which you seek to discover its boundaries, so as to both find your place and try to locomote effectively.  With Corse, the problem is not lack of structure but competing structures.  Monochromatic surfaces, minimal geometric bars, and abstract expressionist brushstrokes inhabit the same canvas and alternate taking center stage.  However, in both Wheeler and Corse, what turns looking into seeing is the coordination between looking and doing.  What we do affects what we see; what we see affects what we do.

Finally, each artist takes you on a journey that explores the relationship between order and disorder in different ways.  In Corse, if conditions are right, one’s movements can control the fluctuation between order and disorder in a back and forth dance that can be highly pleasurable.  In Wheeler, there is a more entropic experience that, at least momentarily, is more frightening and disorienting.  Control is neither possible nor desirable for Wheeler.  In his “whiteout” environment a lack of control is central to the participant’s experience of boundlessness. Despite these differences, Wheeler and Corse provide something that is very atypical for the New York lifestyle: there is a slowing down of our internal clock.   We are able to surrender ourselves to a kind of stillness that sets the stage for retuning our sensory-motor system.  This sensory learning increases our ability to differentiate the essential from the unessential in the course of exploring realms where objects morph into environments and environments morph into objects.

Mary Corse, Untitled, 2011. Glass microspheres in acrylic on canvas, 114 x 90 inches.  Photo Courtesy of Ace Gallery

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One Response to See First, Think Later: The Art of Doug Wheeler and Mary Corse

  1. Christina Kee says:

    A wonderful article. While I still have some reservations about the current Corse show, I find that the clear differentiation made here between object and environment perception is a useful and insightful way of approaching the work. Many thanks!

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