Evolution and importance of light in art

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By Kathleen Ramirez

Contributing Writer

 

 

 

Light is all around us. It is something we can take for granted on a day-to-day basis. Without light, we would not be able to recognize color, shape or space.

Light is one of those universal languages that appeals to both Eastern and Western cultures, and because of its universality, it is often accepted as “beautiful” in any culture, unlike color, where the meaning can change based on the country or region.

The famed Dutch Baroque painter Rembrandt is often recognized for his distinctive use of lighting. Whenever he painted a portrait with a deep light-and-shadow contrast, he would accentuate the area on the person’s cheek that would be most illuminated. This is often called the “Rembrandt triangle.” The triangle always existed, but it took an artist to recognize its purpose, perfect it and forge a path for its use in the artwork of future artists. The Rembrandt triangle has retained its name up to this day and is still used by artists, photographers and filmmakers everywhere.

The presentation of light has changed over many years, but it has kept its fundamental characteristics. Giacomo Balla’s “Street Light” (1909) is one such example. Balla is associated with the Futurist art movement, which concerns speed, chaos and even violence. “Street Light” embodies the aims in the Futurist manifesto but still manages to be beautiful and discernible to general viewers. The rhythmic paint strokes and the array of colors on the canvas capture the movement of light across the entire visible light spectrum, allowing it to take on a more physical nature. Even so, the light still possesses a soft, almost dandelion-like quality.

Fast-forward 100 years, and light becomes a main attraction of the Contemporary art period. James Turrell is an artist who focuses on light as a primary medium, creating environments of light in which the viewer is completely absorbed by it. “Skyspace” is one such piece. There are multiple installations of the work. Two of these “Skyspaces” are located right here in Texas, one at Rice University in Houston and another at the University of Texas in Austin. I had the privilege of visiting the “Skyspace” in Austin and experiencing the artwork firsthand.

It is an enclosed oval space with a single oculus on the ceiling through which the sky is visible. At sunset, for an entire hour, a light sequence occurs inside the space, splashing the walls with slowly oscillating colors created by LED lights. The viewer is able to experience the contrasts created between the colors inside the space and the color of the sky as it changes at sunset. Even the sky can appear to change into colors not characteristic of a usual sunset. At one point during the sequence, the color of the sky and the art space blend together so perfectly that they become one and the same, and viewers can only see one pure color before their eyes. It is really quite a surreal experience.

In the first chapter of the book of Genesis, God’s first spoken words are, “Let there be light.” There is something to be said about this. Light is the first thing to be created in the creation story and it informs everything that is created afterwards. We need light to survive. From art and science to spiritual matters and beyond, light plays an important role in our lives.

Skyspace by James Turrell, on display at UT Austin. -Photo courtesy of Florian Holzerr/utexas.edu
Skyspace by James Turrell, on display at UT Austin.
-Photo courtesy of Florian Holzerr/utexas.edu

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