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Eric Orr’s ‘Electrum’: Call It Heavy Mettle

Kristine McKenna is a regular contributor to Calendar

‘I believe in sacred spaces, having been to several of them, and ‘Electrum’ is an environment designed to calm you the moment you enter it,” artist Eric Orr says of his newest work, which opens Thursday at Fred Hoffman Fine Art in Santa Monica.

“It’s a variation on a piece I’ve made before, so the probability of it working is good,” says Orr, who made a similar installation, “Silence and the Ion Wind,” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1980. A key player in the art movement known as Light and Space, which coalesced in Southern California in the ‘70s and included such artists as Robert Irwin, James Turrell and Doug Wheeler, Orr has used such varied materials as gold, dry ice, fire, lead, his own blood and dust from the king’s chamber of the Great Pyramid in previous works.

“It’s silent and cool inside, and you enter an antechamber leading to a hall pumped full of negative ions that give off the scent of ozone, which is what we smell in the air after a rain,” says the artist, whose ephemeral work is rarely seen locally these days.

“At the end of the hall is a panel of electrum--which is a combination of gold and silver that’s been used for centuries for things like ceremonial doors, obelisks and the tops of the pyramids--and this panel bathes you in gold light when you stand in front of it. It’s best to be alone in the chamber, and though the floor is the only place to sit, my hope is that people will want to spend some time inside.”

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If “Electrum” sounds like an austere experience, the 57-year-old artist who created it is not that way at all. A playful man who always seems to be on the verge of laughter, Orr is an agile conversationalist who is interested in just about everything. The writing he does for his exhibition catalogs, for instance, combines musings on various spiritual traditions, physics equations and philosophical inquiry, with snippets of earthy, back-porch wisdom and humor. He spent his 20s bouncing in and out of five universities without ever bothering to earn a degree and is essentially an autodidact.

Orr, an only child born and raised in a small town in northern Kentucky, recalls: “My father was a horse breeder and trainer, my mother was a former flapper, and I had a privileged upbringing that ended with the death of my father and the disappearance of the family fortune when I was 14. The following year, my mother decided I was hanging out with the wrong sorts, which I was, and she sent me to a military school, where I spent three years.

“My parents didn’t expose me to visual art, but I’ve always been intensely curious about everything, and I started seeking it out on my own at a young age,” says the artist, who maintains homes in San Anselmo and Venice with his wife of 12 years, Peggy, and their two children.

“My first conscious appreciation of art was seeing wind rustling through a long stand of trees when I was 7. Then when I was 16, I saw Jackson Pollock’s work at the Cincinnati Museum of Art. It was strange, because without any art education, I was absolutely transfixed by those paintings.”

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After graduating from military school in 1958, Orr spent the next year hitchhiking around the country.

“I wanted to find out if I could sustain myself and discovered it was easy. Picking up odd jobs, being light on your feet and integrating into whatever situation you find yourself in--I loved it,” says Orr, whose trip included a side visit to Cuba, then in the early days of revolution.

“After traveling I enrolled in the University of Cincinnati as a history major,” he says. “At school, some friends and I started a film society, and I did all our advertisements, which led to my being offered an exhibition in the student union.

“By that point, I’d read enough about Dada to know that artists get to make their own rules, and I made a sculpture of a gun, ‘Colt 45,’ that was highly unorthodox for that time and place in that it was a real gun, with its hammer in a cocked position, mounted on a stand.”

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Art went on the back burner for Orr a short time later, when a motorcycle accident in 1964 left him with a crushed back. After several months of recovery, he traveled to Mississippi, where he spent 1964-65 working for the civil rights movement.

“I was brought up around black women who I really looked up to, so I felt a horror at what was going on and was completely committed to the civil rights work,” he says.

Orr moved to L.A. in 1965 and worked on a project for sculptor Mark Di Suvero that, he says, “started the whole thing for me.”

“The piece was called ‘Peace Tower,’ and it was an outdoor sculpture he made at the intersection of La Cienega and Sunset,” Orr explains. “I was supporting myself then doing market research, which was a skill I picked up in college, but when I read about this piece in the paper, I drove by, asked if they needed a welder and wound up getting to know some of the local art community--Judy Gerowitz [later to become Judy Chicago], Lloyd Hamrol.

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“At that point, I was really into Piero Manzoni and Yves Klein, and I started doing spatial works almost right off the bat,” says Orr, whose earliest pieces were primarily concerned with sound and operated in the territory marked out by John Cage.

“The most widely held misconception about Light and Space art is that it involves things; in its purest form, it’s completely intangible and exists only in the sensate mind,” says the artist, whose first installation designed to manipulate light and space, “Animated Hog,” was mounted at the Pasadena Art Museum in 1966.

“If you can sit still long enough to really focus on something, suddenly the veil of memory that surrounds what you’re looking at lifts, and you start to really see--and the things I’m most interested in seeing are subtle. I love late-afternoon light filtered through trees and dancing on the wall--that’s just devastating. Or driving on the coast in the afternoon and seeing the blinding flash of light off the water. Or low light that relieves me of the color field and leaves me with the gray scale.

“Maybe an evolution of thought will lead us to recognize that a pattern of light flickering on a wall is as beautiful as any painting we can put there--in which case, art as a commodity would become obsolete.”

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Orr doesn’t seem remotely distressed by that idea, but then, as is true of most seasoned travelers, he has always made a habit of living as lightly as possible. As the ‘60s wound to a close, for instance, Orr sold everything he owned and spent a year traveling in countries with ancient spiritual traditions--Burma, Japan, Egypt, India--and visiting sacred sites.

“I grew up surrounded by Catholics who were always trying to convert me but instead drove me to atheism early in life,” says Orr, who began to introduce elements of magic and ritual into his work in the ‘70s. “I’m no longer an atheist, however, as I now believe in an all-encompassing void and that we exist in a sea of moving molecules that are essentially empty space. I also relate to early Buddhism in that I have no sense of the afterlife--I think we’re like television sets, and when we die, the off button is pushed and the show is over.

“Of course, I have no way of knowing whether that’s true or not, but I’m not interested in answers--it’s the questions that thrill me,” he says. “I used to believe in the concept of progress, but the older I get, the more conscious I am of how trapped in habit and memory we all are. I honestly don’t think any understanding of life is possible, and to believe otherwise is like a child believing in Santa Claus.”

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“ELECTRUM,” Fred Hoffman Fine Art, 1721 Stewart St., Santa Monica. Dates: Opens Thursday. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Ends Dec. 31. Phone: (310) 453-3330.


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