Eastbourne’s Towner Art Gallery is a jewel on the South Coast (and just a fiver on the train from London), associated with the artist and designer Ravilious who among others praised the town’s quality of light. Curator Brian Cass has brought together works from the Arts Council’s national collection for a dazzling new show A Certain Kind of Light – Light in Art Over Six Decades exploring this ubiquitous yet mysterious form of energy.
A paradox of light is that we can’t see what it is until we split it up into its constituent colours. Peter Lanyon’s Colour Construction (1960) shatters the spectrum through a pyramidical structure of stained glass. It sculpturally abstracts the naturalistic elements of his home Cornwall, itself beloved by painters for its light: deep blue sea shades and orange, green and red spangles of peninsular sun. The seven winged plates of Gary Hume’s Fragments of a Rainbow VI (2011), in his trademark high gloss paint on aluminium, radiate across the gallery wall. David Batchelor’s Festdella (2006) festoons a jamboree of plastic household bottles illuminated from within and cascading down the full height of the gallery: a bright afterlife for what we throw away.
A Certain Kind of Light is a show about light in which everyone wants to touch everything. I watch someone sit down on one of the six semi-translucent resin cuboids of Rachel Whiteread’s Untitled (6 Spaces) (1994) – ironic given they are casts of the negative space underneath chairs, literally making sculpturally visible what you can’t see. Noone can resist reaching their arm into the flawless silver cavity of Anish Kapoor’s Untitled (1995). It seems drag us through the gallery wall into infinity. A large room is devoted to Katie Paterson’s Totality (2016). A mirrorball spins, scattering light in every direction. It’s made up of 10,000 images of eclipses. It feels infinite; the human is eclipsed. Whether standing still or trying to chase the stars, some visitors have reported feeling disoriented.
It’s not just what light is, but what it does. Garry Fabian Miller’s Facing Enclosure Winter (2011) is a fiery death-star in a crimson void created by manually exposing a dye-destruction print. This laborious process requires Miller to secrete himself away for hours in a darkroom. The wooden flotsam of Roger Ackling’s Voewood (2008) are carefully burned by hand lenses.
It’s striking to see light listed as a material, as if it had physical properties. Shirazeh Houshiary’s Cube of Man (1992) employs a sort of ontological pun – light and dark, light and heavy. A stack of lead blocks with gold-painted undersides contradicts our visual sense: light usually falls on top of things with dark below. Houshiary’s blocks glow uncannily.
Naturalism dissolves into abstraction in Elizabeth Magill’s painting Without (2002). Layers of rubbed paint create a dark-hued, dusky, liminal feeling. The effect is crepuscular, of twilight: the state of chiaroscuro, of unresolved tensions between darkness and light. Mark Titchner’s six-part sculpture Something Plastic To Fright The Invisible (2001) invokes the English alphabet through 26 bulbs and spirographs to comment on the problem of being dependent on language to explain what we can see but never completely know.
A Certain Kind of Light tests our visual and spatial senses. Mark Garry’s An Afterwards Again (2017) works like a prism, reflecting colour as we pass underneath long harp-like strings stretching above across the ceiling one way then another. Without itself moving, it is activated by our movement. Peter Sedgley’s Corona (1970) is also physically static. Kinetic lights above make the painting’s concentric circles change radiate inwards and outwards concurrently. We and it are static, yet something is happening.
Runa Islam’s Stare Out (Blink) (1998) manipulates ‘persistence of vision’ – the fact that what what we see stays in our eyes slightly longer than it’s really there. We see the positive after-image of a face pop out of a negative. But it’s an illusion. In Ceal Floyer’s Light (1994) a light bulb seems lit from within but it’s actually lit by four projectors.
The effects and implications are profound. In a post-truth world, A Certain Kind of Light asks us: How do we see? What do we see? Is what we see really there? You won’t believe your eyes.
A Certain Kind of Light – Light in Art Over Six Decades – Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne
21 January – 7 May 2017, Free entry
IMAGE: Gary Fabian Miller – Exposure (five hours of light)