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‘Phenomenal’ Captures The Senses At MCASD

Robert Irwin, Untitled, 1970 cast acrylic column 144 x 8 1/2 x 3 1/2 in. Collection Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, Museum purchase in honor of Jackie and Rea Axline. © Robert Irwin/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo by Philipp Scholz Rittermann.

Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface” is the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego’s (MCASD) largest exhibition to date. “Phenomenal” is part of the Getty Museum’s larger Pacific Standard Time arts initiative, which started this October and features more than 60 Southern Californian cultural institutions showcasing the birth of the L.A. art scene. Though San Diego’s contemporary art scene is often overlooked, “Phenomenal” has caused quite a buzz—both locally and nationally. Not only is the exhibition the largest in the history of the MCASD, with works featured in both the Downtown and La Jolla locations, but it also features some of the most ambitious works by a variety of light and space artists.

From James Turrell to Robert Irwin to Douglas Wheeler, the work of each “Phenomenal” artist operates differently. Some are interested in directing the natural flow of light, while others opt for playing with artificial light. While some works are about creating a new environment, others are about the transparency of the works themselves. It then becomes difficult to encapsulate what it is to see “Phenomenal,” because the exhibition is a sensory experience in itself. For example, De Wain Valentine’s Diamond Column of 1978 engages with both the museum-goer and the observer. The large-scale (91 ½ x 44 x 12 inch) polyester resin sculpture stands in the middle of the back gallery at MCASD La Jolla. As viewers pass behind it, their bodies appear distorted and small to viewers standing in front of the sculpture. Regular objects and shapes shift and the experience of the work is otherworldly. The viewer becomes both a part of the work and a stranger to it.

Douglas Wheeler, Untitled, 1969 acrylic on canvas with neon tubing Gift of the artist and partial Museum purchase with International and Contemporary Collectors Funds and proceeds from Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego Art Auction 2010

Spencer Finch, Rome (Pantheon, Noon, June 14, 2011), 2011 scrim, aluminum, color effect filter Courtesy of the artist. Photo by: Pablo Mason

Helen Pashgian, Untitled, 1968 cast polyester resin, overall dimensions: 8 in. diameter 8 in. diameter Museum purchase, International Contemporary Collectors Fund. © Helen Pashgian. Photo by Philipp Scholz Rittermann.

In stark comparison, Helen Pashgian’s Untitled of 1968 engages with light and space in a varied manner. The cast polyester resin piece appears as a mystical crystal ball of sorts. The work constantly changes color with the movement of the viewer. Though the piece appears in the context of MCASD La Jolla’s museum gallery, with artificial lights shining above, there is still a sense that natural light would alter its appearance in another way completely. The distorted and shifting states of both works are part of the larger sensory experience of the entire exhibition, which invites viewers to explore light and space works specific to Southern Californian artists.

“Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface” is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego Downtown and in La Jolla through January 22, 2012.