Light Is a Complex Medium
1. How It Opens Inside
I am especially magnetized to works that hold and reflect light emotionally. I’m particularly moved by Michele Kishita’s paintings, the way they gesture to landscapes and sky-fields as they open inside me.
Michele’s 2016 exhibition, Transient Season, referenced imaginations of winter landscapes through a monochrome palette, leaving the natural wood grain of her panels exposed. The blonde complexities of the wood grain emerged in contrast to the nexus of intersecting and overlapping painted bars and forms. These paintings create a sense of quietness in me that reminds me of the contemplativeness of winter—quiet walks among pale birches and the white gray sky overhead. Michele also made strong use of the physical environment of the exhibition; her paintings were in clear dialogue with the building materials and quality of light that poured down.
Though her paintings are quite abstracted, I continue to call Michele a landscape artist. She’s referencing the essence of an environmental space and translating it through her use of color, line, and wood panel. From another standpoint, I could call Michele a landscape literalist. She is tracing the elemental connectedness of life; how we are integral to the environment, how the environment itself writes into us in the ways that the various elements are at play in all aspects of life—if we were sensitive enough to notice them. The way she traces the wood grain in some of her paintings is her way of mapping the landscape’s signature in the materials she works with. What she gestures at, I feel, is the emotional light these spaces cast into us and call out from us. I communicate with the environments as they dwell within me when I view her work.
To me, the most stunning part of Transient Season was the pink auratic glow that emerged from the horizontal planes of the paintings. These auras were responsive to the quality of light in the room. They hovered with grace, bringing an ineffability to the work, a sense of breath and spiritual substantiality.
Do you feel an intense familiarity—of optimism or quiet joy—when you observe these auras? Do you feel a landscape of feeling open inside you?
I find her works on wood panel to be precise, tempered, with great intelligence. Her works on paper are much more loose and gestural. They breathe differently. The emotional qualities of the color and light are pronounced.
I’m a huge fan of this series on paper. There’s a sweet intimacy, a sense of transience and psychological saturation. The tones are lush and warm. Her use of gold and silver leaf astonishes the eye; they reflect and disappear depending on the angle of your view and the quality of light. I feel held in a reverie that’s on the verge of sinking back into the depths of my consciousness when I view them. They feel like they reflect a moment that I’ve captured deep inside my body. The mystery they point to is quiet, but alive and human in scale.
Springtime Pond Approaching Storm shares some qualities with Monet’s water lilies. There’s a sense of the light’s end at the close of day.
The ubiquity of reproductions of Monet’s water lilies in the cultural consciousness ill-prepared me for the experience of seeing them firsthand with Joshua Ware in Cleveland two years ago. I was taken aback by their size. The scale of Monet’s massive panels lend themselves to a sense of engulfment. I was reminded of my relative smallness in the world. They insisted on my contemplation, I was reverent.
I also felt a deep poignancy—like many people probably do—at these massive works by a painter who was losing his vision. Yet there is such a sensitivity on display; the resonances he created with the wash of colors capture the memory of a light as it fades. What an impressive illusion.
For all of my own thoughts about light’s persistence and endurance—its ability to retain its original message across vast spaces—our ability to apprehend it with our bodies is exceedingly frail. The wet orb of the eye is one of our most fragile body parts. It’s scarcely protected by the thin membrane we pull down over it periodically to keep it moist, and the human orbital bone isn’t so very strong or deeply ridged. And the complications that can arise within it, like what Monet experienced, are much more common than we think. Personally, I have deeply myopic vision and an irregular cornea that prevents me from having good clarity even with corrective lenses and glasses (my correction is around -12 power). I’m at high risk for degenerative blindness and can no longer drive much at night. My vision is quite different day to day, as it is for all of us. Maybe because I’m quite anxious about the state of my eyes, I constantly notice the ways I’m seeing.
All this is to say that maybe I find some pleasures in the work that opens a light inside me because I feel how frail sight is. There’s poignancy in my pleasure.
2. The Vibrating Field of the Sky
Michele first took me to go see The Skyspace at Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting about four years ago. I had seen some of James Turrell’s light sculptures at the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh, and enjoyed his neon studies, especially “Catso, Red.” I loved how the angles of the light softened against the walls of the museum, and how the warm pink tones of the light took on a substantial presence.
We arrived at the Chestnut Hill Friend Meeting hall an hour before sunset and were admitted into the meeting room, where pews were arranged in a square formation facing the center, over which was a large sky light. There weren’t many other folks joining us that day; I recall just six of us. Everyone quietly found a space of their own, and made themselves comfortable while waiting for the performance to begin. I use the word performance, because the light I witnessed truly felt embodied. The roof rolled back, opening the room to the naked sky above. After some time, the synced light show began. Brilliantly saturated colored lights played on the white square frame of the aperture, bringing forth different tonalities in the blueness of the sky. The lights shifted from pale pinks to deep violets and greens and yellows in various syncopations over the course of an hour as the sky deepened and darkened into night. I felt waves and swells build within my focus, at times with a percussive intensity. The sky seemed to vibrate and pulse in its glowing box; it flattened in texture like a felted wafer, it poured forth with depth, it moved. It was one of the most regenerative and wholesome arts experiences I’ve ever had. I was satisfied, silent, and full with the ineffable language of light.
You will notice during the change from day to night an intensity of color that you will find nowhere else. If you then go outside you will see a different colored sky. You color the sky. The work is about your seeing, not mine.
The experience made me think of Josef Albers’s Interaction of Color, which explores the relational and imagined aspects of color. The Skyspace’s performance spoke into me, and it helped magnify light’s message through the brilliant use of color. “Colors present themselves in continuous flux,” Albers writes, “constantly related to / changing neighbors and changing conditions.” In this way, colors can be said to behave with emotional resonances—for can one have a feeling in isolation? Isn’t the field of one’s psychological state and lived history the context against which a feeling rises? And doesn’t it, too, have its own energetic field—a light. I also find it particularly fascinating that Albers consistently defaults to musical metaphors when describing various interactions in color. He describes duration, before, now, later, tempo, etc. Isn’t this another way of saying that the light speaks?
The Skyspace performance was one of the most elemental, unadulterated experiences I have had that demonstrated the power of the interaction of color.
What I especially enjoyed about Skyspace was its durational quality—it felt thick with time, but I couldn’t hold the moment. Time as a medium was intensely present. The transformations in color tones and light intensities poured down through me even as they seemed to hold themselves aloft.
When many artists speak about light as a medium, it’s hard not to reference Turrell. He’s been investigating this for so long. His experience as a pilot give him the unique perspective, I think, of landscapes and light’s movements. I hope to one day visit his Roden Crater project.
The Roden Crater piece, like many massive land arts projects, isn’t without problems. It is predicated on a sense of license, of human domination over the landscape, that I find hard to stomach. But I also find something beautiful in his concept—the desire to connect our experience of light with an invitation to meditate on celestial and geologic times. I find it another way of referencing light’s—and life’s—enduring, fleet message: We are small. We transform. We endure.
Are such interventions into the environment necessary for us to attend to this message, though? Yes and no. I am frequently mesmerized by the play of light on my bedroom wall in the morning, the complexities of its living hues.
And also, I am grateful for the way various artists show me something otherwise. Light. Art. Life. There’s fluency in these streams. They knit more tightly together the more I observe them.
3. the incident
a narrow band
to which one is sensitive
beyond which lies the invisible
some is inevitably lost
to fall is a great incident
to fall slowly
is to become a magnitude
all things fall
are you grateful
for what has fallen
standard // average // common
all integrated in the single reading
to make a record
one must capture
what is reflected
evaluating what one wants
to be represented
in counterclockwise rotation, arms outstretched, feel the sun’s hard blue descent into the black coal of your breathing body. gather without reflection. gather infinitely, growing fine as a needle’s spray along the skin. surmise the quality of infinite duration, flexing intimate storms into apparel. all dark scintillation, honed.
I sought to uncover my primary mother’s body firstly by standing alone on the basalt coast. All gleamed with a crystalline equanimity. Stark blue light coursed upwards with suspension as a slow heat dissolved into my pores. Flexing the long stones inside my legs as mass, I moved with a deliberate, calculated pace towards the shore.
that which travels from one place to another
interacting with matter can be transformed
it would be incomplete
or the law would fail
if the transfers and transformations
were not accounted for
no exact correspondences
“to form a descriptive system appropriate, with minor modifications, to a wide range of observations in sound and light, as well as to waves
can a body be indifferent
to the incident, to
all common properties
“by its use certain important results are obtained in a simple way
I would like
to speak simply
Bleached convoy, my words flutter on no flag. Without fire, they relinquish their missives reflectively, casting in negative an old fury now quelled into a neutral desire to simply “see”: to recover what conjured forth a name.
some is inevitably lost
bow slowly and rise, transforming the crown of the head into a vertical suspiration. strive to announce a perfectly quiet reception in the limbs, now steadfastly affirmed by their polar coordination. find purchase in the dark curling swarm that were once toes.
if the disturbance has a scalar quantity
if the disturbance produces a similar disturbance at a neighboring point at a slightly later time
if the disturbance is continuously transformed from one place to another
what is neglected in the present discussion
strive to determine the initial conditions
flower into what must hold
Korean American poet Sueyeun Juliette Lee grew up in Virginia. She earned a BA from the University of Virginia and an MFA from the University of Massachusetts–Amherst and studied for a PhD at Temple University. Lee is the author of That Gorgeous Feeling (2008), Underground National (2010), Solar Maximum (2015),...