Using the Sky as the Canvas : Art: James Turrell has created a free-standing 'celestial observatory' in Claremont that evolves with the night.


Step inside the windowless building. Gaze up at the 28-foot-high walls, the pale glow of recessed halogen lighting, the twilight sky that pours in from a hole in the ceiling. The James Turrell show is about to begin.

Turrell, an artist acclaimed around the world for his work with light and perception, has collaborated with students at Pitzer College in Claremont to create a free-standing "celestial observatory" that evolves with the night.

But don't look for Star Wars pyrotechnics: The effects are subtle, they occur over time and vary, depending on the viewer's perception.

The installation--Turrell's first West Coast work in three years--opens today at the Claremont Graduate School. For two hours before sunrise and two hours after sunset, visitors may enter a 28-by-19-by-25-foot wood and drywall structure and kick back to contemplate the heavens from the aperture in the ceiling.

Turrell's design not only frames the sky but also manipulates the interplay between the artificial and natural light so that as the shadows around the edges deepen, the viewer slips into what Turrell once called "the edge between a dream state and consciousness."

"Part of what happens here happens inside your head," says Patty Greenwald of Claremont, lying flat on her back and staring dreamily up at the darkening night sky, which resembles crushed blue velvet.

Critics have praised Turrell for altering the way we look at things. They have cited the spiritual nature and purity of his light installations, calling him a visionary thinker and one of the five most important artists working in the United States or Europe. His most recent work continues the themes that have long obsessed him.

Turrell, 49, was born in Pasadena; his father was an aeronautical engineer. Turrell was influenced by the writings of St. Exupery and became a pilot to enhance his sense of perception. He is considered a pioneer of California light and space art and made a name for himself in the late 1960s with installations that manipulated light and perception.

Thirteen students visited the artist at his home outside Flagstaff, Ariz., last winter. There, they toured the Roden Crater, a half-million-year-old extinct volcano on the edge of Arizona's Painted Desert that Turrell is fashioning into a massive environmental artwork. When completed later this decade, the crater will function as a natural observatory. It is his Mona Lisa, having been compared to a modern-day Chartres Cathedral and funded by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the MacArthur Foundation "genius" fellowship.

Already, one can lie down in the bowl of Roden Crater, as the Pitzer students did, gaze at the sky and see nothing except the celestial vault and the crater's rim on the periphery. Inside, workers burrow out underground rooms whose hewn windows will align with the stars at equinoxes, solstices and eclipses, much like the pyramids of the Maya and the Aztecs.

On their trip, the students kept journals and recorded their images in sketches. They hiked, camped, cooked, and met with Turrell, his engineers and astronomers and Hopi wise men. They came away inspired to make changes in their own lives. Turrell, says student Leigh O'Malley, "uses the Earth's landscape to make us assess our internal landscape."

In March, Turrell--who received his bachelor's degree in perceptual psychology from Pomona College and his master's in art from Claremont Graduate School--returned the visit. At his alma mater, Turrell met with students and Pitzer art professor Michael Woodcock to sketch out the aperture installation. (Woodcock hopes to persuade the artist to return to the campus later this month to view the completed project. Turrell is in Europe and couldn't be reached for this article.)

The project cost about $40,000 and took 12 weeks to design and build, Woodcock says. It works best with no more than 10 visitors at a time, and will remain up until at least Dec. 18, with viewings arranged by appointment.

Even before it was finished, the aperture began bewitching the students. Some made it an evening ritual to arrive at 8 and relax for awhile. One student called it addictive.

"His works teach us to see," New York Times art critic John Russell said of Turrell in 1987. In the Claremont aperture project, Turrell does this by refocusing the visitors' world view, much like a camera lens.

Inside the structure one recent night, time ticked by slowly. The sky seemed to pour in through the aperture, infusing the structure with ghostly light as it mingled with the halogen. At first one saw stars in the exposed evening sky. Then the eye focused on the clouds. Later came Mars, drifting lazily across the sky.

One felt disembodied and peaceful. Outside, the sky was muddy, but inside it stayed azure. The reverie was broken only by a rare airplane that tore across the sky, jolting one momentarily back to civilization.

"Turrell's work doesn't happen in front of your eye but behind it," says Woodcock, paraphrasing an oft-repeated quote by art critic Robert Hughes.

"My work is about looking at the world," Turrell told The Times in a 1989 interview. "I don't presume to tell you how to look at the world, but artists do offer tips and give you a vantage on the world."

Viewings of Turrell's Light/Sky installation are by appointment only, today through Dec. 18. For information, call (714) 621-8071, Mondays through Fridays from 10 a.m. to noon.

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