Art review: ‘Suprasensorial: Experiments in Light, Color and Space’ at MOCA

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A new exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Little Tokyo warehouse might be characterized as a gigantic thumbnail survey.

Gigantic because it covers three generations of artists and features room-size installations, one of which includes an actual swimming pool. (Disposable bathing suits are available in the museum shop -- and life guards are on duty -- should you spontaneously wish to jump in.) And thumbnail because, in all, just five works are on view.


Organized by MOCA curator Alma Ruiz, ‘Suprasensorial: Experiments in Light, Color and Space’ presents four artists and one artist-team from South America -- two each from Buenos Aires, Caracas and Rio de Janeiro. The earliest work dates from 1951, most of the rest from before 1974. The period was as artistically rambunctious below the equator as it was in North America, but only slowly is South American postwar art becoming more widely shown and understood.

Add in the fact that many artists, given the region’s political turbulence, spent considerable time working in Europe. (The U.S., responsible for stirring up a good bit of that turbulence, wasn’t exactly an alluring place for them to go.) ‘Suprasensorial’ draws very broad but still provocative contours.

The oldest artist, Lucio Fontana, was born in the last year of the 19th century. He died in Italy, where he lived roughly half his life, in 1968.

Carlos Cruz-Diez, Julio Le Parc and Jesús Rafael Soto were all working with formally stripped-down, usually geometric kinetic sculpture, environments and colored light by 1960, when they were in their late 30s. Finally, the occasional team of Hélio Oiticica (who died of a stroke in 1980 at 42) and Neville D’Almeida (primarily a filmmaker) represents a younger generation central to developing a post-minimal art -- participatory, playful and committed to a pleasure principle.

That’s a lot of ground to cover. But the show at the Geffen Contemporary does distill an important connection. For all of them, art was less an object out in the world than an experience located in the viewer. Whatever materials an artist might work with were primarily a catalyst; the goal was to lodge an expansion of perceptual consciousness within those who encountered it.

The show begins with Fontana’s big, dramatic scribble of white-neon tubing suspended high overhead. It looks something like a scrawled signature in three dimensions. Drawing in space had become a principle language for postwar art, pushed into the cultural foreground by Jackson Pollock’s drip-paintings -- and Fontana ran with it. When Pollock hovered over an unstretched canvas laid out on the floor, moving his paint-loaded brush or stick through the air above it, the pigment fell to Earth and made a painting. Thanks to modern technology, Fontana’s 1951 neon maintains that looping drawing up in space, levitated and luminous.

Adjacent is the show’s other knockout -- a sizable 1965 room by Cruz-Diez, subdivided into three not-quite separate spaces. Fluorescent tubes in each chamber are wrapped in red, blue or green plastic sheaths, and three windows are cut into the rear wall.

As the rods and cones in your eyes adjust, the saturation of atmospheric color intensifies and fuses. Spatial zones of violet, orange and other rainbow hues complicate perceptions and surprise expectations.

The three windows go flat, appearing like inky black mirrors. Walk outside and around to the back, though, and now those windows appear to be rectangular planes of pure red, blue or green color -- nominal paintings in which people still inside the chambers, who see only their own reflections in the blackened glass, seem to be embedded.

In a 1962 installation, Le Parc makes curved space by reflecting a half-circle wall in a flat row of tall mirrors. Suspended squares of silvery metal are sharply illuminated by a pair of spotlights. Scattered reflections turn the darkened interior into an aqueous circular pool of rippling light.

More recent is Soto’s big, rectangular block of skinny blue-plastic tubing, which cascades like rain from a tall, white-steel superstructure. It dates from 1999, but it derives from a motif the artist began to explore 30 years before. The tall block of blue tubes is six paces wide and 20 paces long, and it invites you to walk deep into it.

When you do, movement through the hanging plastic tubes is like passing through synthetic jungle-vines. Entanglement alternates with disentanglement, easy-going play with mild panic. As a metaphor for navigating an industrially manufactured world, it’s apt if a bit thin.

Like the watery Le Parc, the big blue Soto rectangle seems to have been selected as a formal setup for the swimming pool by Oiticica and D’Almeida in a nearby room. Ringed with blue light and illuminated at the center by green spots hanging overhead, the pool is flanked by slide projectors. Pictures of composer John Cage’s 1969 book of musical notations, salted with lines of cocaine and drug paraphernalia, are projected on opposing walls.

Doing laps, you swim back and forth between elusive images of altered consciousness. The gimmick is arch, and I did not take the plunge. But the show’s invented name, ‘suprasensorial,’ can be loosely translated as ‘above or beyond the limits of the senses.’ Oiticica and D’Almeida are plainly pushing at those boundaries.

Light and space art is the sculptural manipulation of actual light in real space. A perceptual aesthetic that flourished amid the wide-ranging artistic experiments in the 1960s, it is sometimes regarded as a phenomenon distinctive to L.A. ‘Suprasensorial’ amply demonstrates how that’s not exactly true.

And the connections with -- and differences from -- West Coast art certainly illuminate (you should pardon the expression) how a blinkered focus on the New York School in the 1950s and 1960s has obscured a lot of terrific art. ‘Suprasensorial,’ if only for the first-rate Fontana and Cruz-Diez, is well worth indulging.

-- Christopher Knight

Suprasensorial: Experiments in Light, Color and Space, MOCA at the Geffen Contemporary, 152 N. Central Ave., Little Tokyo, (213) 626-6222, through Feb. 27.

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