See The Light

A mind-altering museum experience: James Turrell's lights play with your psyche at MFAH

A mind-altering museum experience: Turrell's lights play with psyches

MFAH James Turrell The Light Inside June 2013 Aurora B, Tall Glass
Aurora B, Tall Glass, 2010, LED Photo courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
MFAH James Turrell The Light Inside June 2013 End Around
End Around, 2006, neon and fluorescent light Photo courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
MFAH James Turrell The Light Inside June 2013 Rondo Blue
Rondo Blue, 1969, neon light Photo courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
MFAH James Turrell The Light Inside June 2013 The Light Inside
The Light Inside, 1999, neon and ambient light Photo by © Linda Nelson Wells
MFAH James Turrell The Light Inside June 2013 Site Plan Roden Crater
Site Plan Roden Crater, 1990, photo-emulsion, wax acrylic and tushe on Mylar Photo by © Thomas R. DuBrock
MFAH James Turrell The Light Inside June 2013 Aurora B, Tall Glass
Aurora B, Tall Glass, 2010, LED Photo courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
MFAH James Turrell The Light Inside June 2013 Acro, Green
Acro, Green, 1968, projected light Photo by © Thomas R. DuBrock
MFAH James Turrell The Light Inside June 2013 Aurora B, Tall Glass
MFAH James Turrell The Light Inside June 2013 End Around
MFAH James Turrell The Light Inside June 2013 Rondo Blue
MFAH James Turrell The Light Inside June 2013 The Light Inside
MFAH James Turrell The Light Inside June 2013 Site Plan Roden Crater
MFAH James Turrell The Light Inside June 2013 Aurora B, Tall Glass
MFAH James Turrell The Light Inside June 2013 Acro, Green

James Turrell is taking the nation by storm this summer with not one, but three major museum exhibitions delving into the light artist's four-and-a-half decade career.

With a show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art underway and a Guggenheim exhibit set to open in New York later this month, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston has unveiled its portion of the nationwide retrospective with seven installation pieces from its own collection, with many of them on view for the first time.

Also featured are 10 rare portfolios of prints, several of which shed some light on the artist's long-awaited Roden Crater sky observatory project in Arizona.

Titled The Light Inside after the MFAH's in-house Turrell tunnel beneath Main Street, the exhibit offers a careful cross-section of the artist's primary working modes — from simple wall projections from the late 1960s to the fully-immersive light installations that have made him one of the biggest names in art today.

The massive, all-encompassing End Around employs just about every trick from Turrell' s playbook.

Those familiar with Turrell's work know that each piece demands some time to get the full experience. While the MFAH installations won't require the full 40 minutes needed to see Twilight Epiphany at Rice University (a must-see for Houston art fans), visitors should allocate plenty of time for each work.

Taking in the show chronologically, early projections like the Barnett Newman-esque Tycho, White (1967) and shallow wall constructs such as Rondo Blue (1969) come across as small-scale experiments in light, glimpses of which viewers will spot instantly in the artist's more recent output.

Anchoring the show both physically and thematically is 2006's massive End Around, a room-sized installation that employs just about every trick from Turrell's playbook. Based on his longstanding interests in the Ganzfeld effect — a loss of directional perception, like a whiteout during a snowstorm — the piece uses neon and fluorescent lights to give viewers an experience the artist compared to “stepping into paint.”

Similar to Doug Wheeler's 2011 installation work for the Menil Collection's Upside Down: Arctic Realities, white walls curve smoothly to the white floor without creating a corner. The floor slopes ever so slightly towards the front wall, which features a large shallow opening with its interior also painted white. Lights inside the opening and at the back of the room change color at a rate almost undetectable to someone staying only a few minutes.

The ultimate effect? Some viewers said the the room took on a sort of fogginess, while others like myself appeared to loose their balance and wander cautiously around the installation. Like most Turrell pieces, though, you'll have to experience it for yourself.

James Turrell: The Light Inside is on view at the MFAH's Caroline Weiss Law building through Sept. 22. The exhibition is free with general admission, although timed tickets are required to ensure that guests have ample time to experience the immersive installations.

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