In an art gallery or museum, the lighting is typically designed to reduce shadows and illuminate work using a spectrum that approximates, but rarely achieves, that of natural daylight. But daylight at its brightest mutes the colors the human eye can see. It may seem unlikely, but there’s a short duration of time, just after sunset or just before dawn, when a fuller range of color is visible, when the rods and cones of the eye that enable people to see color and light are activated at the same time, enriching the world with an almost hallucinatory vibrancy. That time is twilight, and it has been a favored time for landscape and plein-air painters for centuries. But particularly since the advent of electric light, people seldom view a painting under such conditions.
Over the past few years, Santa Fe-based painter Stephen Auger has been working with Harvard University neurobiologist Margaret Livingstone on an art project, grounded in science, called Twilight Array, a series of compositions meant to engage as large a range of vision as possible. “Her work is really with the function of color perception: how rods and cones work, how different chemical messengers within those translate to experience of the visual world,” Auger told Pasatiempo. “The body of work I’m doing now came out of this commission, which I got from a curator I work with in New York, Gary Snyder. We decided on a topic I’ve been fascinated with for 20 years, which is peripheral perception and twilight, particularly late-twilight perception. Margaret’s interest in twilight is because, in the world of neurobiology and visual science, twilight is the least understood of all states of perception.”
Auger is showing a number of paintings in Peters Projects’ Inventory of Light, an exhibition of works by artists who incorporate science into their artistic practice. The show is in conjunction with the Art of Systems Biology and Nanoscience, an annual conference sponsored by the New Mexico Center for the Spatiotemporal Modeling of Cell Signaling and Los Alamos National Laboratories. The conference is on Friday and Saturday, March 27 and 28, at the gallery and includes lectures on biological science and related activities — a good fit for Auger, whose practice deals directly with phenomena experienced by the human eye. “I’m a painter, but my background is in neuroscience, and I’ve long been interested in color perception,” he said. “All of the art that I’ve done since 1978 has been limited to the use of frequencies in the red, blue, and green range. I’m working with the physical, biological ability of the eye to take those color groups and create all the colors in the spectrum.”
His paintings are made using a variety of uncommon mediums, including refractive pigments and epoxies, optical glass, and highly polished chrome steel ball bearings in varying diameters. Auger affixes thousands of such chrome bearings and small, round beads of colored glass to his compositions and coats them with thin layers of clear refractive pigment; the glass and metal surfaces bend and refract light and bounce it back in different hues. The colors seen are not inherent to the paintings, as they are with typical oil-based pigments. They are an effect that occurs in the space between the painting and the viewer, making Auger’s work experiential. The available light in the room makes all the difference, and the quality of that light determines how his compositions are perceived.
“Margaret and I realized after we got a couple of months into the project that, within the exhibition context, we needed very special light,” he said. “Ninety-five percent of the lights you’ll see in museums and galleries are halogens or MR16s. Those halogen bulbs are rated to be somewhat like daylight spectral curves. The sun is producing the brightest, whitest light when it’s at the highest point in the sky. At dawn and dusk, the nature of the color curve — the color temperature of light — utterly changes. It’s much more rich in violet and blue tones. You’ll rarely find an artist that’s out painting when the sun is at its highest point. Painters through time have worked with twilight because of the relationships of the shadows, because of their abilities to nuance those qualities of color and light. All kinds of expanded states of perception — which include being able to see unique colors, being able to have unique experiences, particularly in the peripheral aspect of perception in the ultraviolet range — are possible. It’s pretty problematic that a gallery would have daylight when a large percentage of art is about looking at nuance of color dynamics.”
A second project developed out of Auger and Livingstone’s collaboration is the creation of a new kind of lighting system for which they assembled a development team that includes Benjamin Smarr, a cognitive scientist at the University of California at Berkeley. He’s also an expert on the circadian response — the biological reaction of all organisms on earth to natural rhythms and cycles, such as the sun’s elliptical trajectory over the course of a day. The team received support from the Carnegie Institution for Science. The tool, still under development, replicates the dynamic light conditions of nature for gallery settings. “The series of paintings at Peters Projects are related to this,” Auger said. “Like any artwork, they can be seen under any light, but if you were to take one home and have [it] in natural illumination and watched the colors ... move, there would be a whole series of phenomena that you would perceive.”
Light is also the medium for the three-dimensional holograms of local artist August Muth, whose practice involves coating glass with a light-sensitive emulsion and then placing it over an object he illuminates using a laser aimed into a concave mirror. Light reflecting off the object comes through the emulsion and, like a photograph, is fixed. But his technique is exacting: The emulsion used to create the holograms, on view at Inventory of Light, is easily affected by temperature, humidity, vibrations, and timing. If any of these and numerous other variables are off, the hologram simply vanishes.
Boston-based artist Brian Knep has a background in mathematics and computer science. The former engineer at motion picture visual-effects company Industrial Light & Magic presents his project Drift, a series of five side-by-side video projections of organic shapes that slowly move across the panels from left to right in accordance with parameters the artist derived from chemical models. As the images move, their behavior and appearance change.
Lita Albuquerque’s video projection Beekeeper, also on view, presents the image of a beekeeper wearing a protective suit. The image slowly dissipates, broken up into a series of individual pixels, and then re-forms into a cohesive image. The video is controlled through generative computer software programmed to allow each pixel to follow a unique path every time the image of the beekeeper dissolves. “In conjuring up the initial ideas for Beekeeper, I contemplated the visual likeness between a beekeeper and an astronaut,” Albuquerque wrote in a statement. “The outfits are similar, but the connection is much more cosmic than a simple visual relationship. In considering that relationship, I summoned up a narrative in which an astronaut is a starkeeper maintaining life in the cosmos, much in the same manner that a beekeeper helps to maintain biological life on the planet.” When disintegrated, the pixels form a sort of constellation in constant flux. The ebb and flow of the video represents a cycle of order and chaos.
Ryan Wolfe’s installation Branching Systems is an interactive work based on the concept of cause and effect, particularly the “butterfly effect” of chaos theory — the notion that a small change in a natural system (such as the flapping of a butterfly’s wings) can influence a seemingly unrelated system at a later moment (such as weather patterns). Wolfe uses robotics designed to look like flowers and leaves that flutter and move when triggered by the movements of the spectator.
Robert Buelteman shows Aspen Turning, a vibrant chromogenic print that’s part of his series Sangre de Cristo, which is based on regional flora. The image is a photogram, a grid of aspen leaves made using high- voltage electricity and fiber-optic light rather than a camera or computer. Like Auger’s work, the resulting image captures a range of vibrant colors in the natural spectrum, each leaf glowing as if lit from within.
Other artists in the exhibit include Kelsey Brookes, Thomas Ashcraft, Will Clift, Victoria Vesna, and Jonathon Wells. ◀