Mike Wilson took a break from the New York ice and snow to get lost in another disorientating environment: an exhibition by the “Light and Space” artist Doug Wheeler at David Zwirner’s Chelsea space.
While I was forced to break one of my cardinal exhibition-going rules in order to experience American artist Doug Wheeler’s untitled installation at David Zwirner’s newest Chelsea annexe – the snowy shoes came off and a pair of disposable white-paper booties went on – it was hard to bear a grudge once inside. Winter weather had kept the crowds away, so I was, initially at least, alone in the reimagined ground-floor space. And in this case solitude made a considerable difference, the lack of human points of reference particularly significant in an interior designed to throw one slightly off-balance from the get-go.
Accessed via a short corridor, Wheeler’s work takes the form of a circular, domed, planetarium-like room with a platform floor that slopes down almost imperceptibly toward its outer edges. Set just below those edges is a system of fluorescent lights that tints the room a pale violet, the colour shading slightly toward yellow as it approaches the interior’s apex. The extreme evenness of the light level and the lack of any edges, apart from those that delineate the entrance and the floor, induce a feeling of tranquil suspension disrupted only by the unsettling sense of instability induced by the curving floor; it is difficult not to list toward the perimeter as if searching drunkenly for a way out.
Wheeler himself dubs the environment a “rotational horizon work”, characterising it as derived from his ongoing interest in landscape as seen from the air. The roundedness of the floor mimics the curvature of the earth and the experience of flying over an endlessly unfolding terrain, while the subtle chromatic shift also reproduces a natural outdoor effect. Wheeler is, along with Robert Irwin and James Turrell, a paid-up member of the Light and Space artists who emerged from California in the 1960s and 70s, and this new work is consistent with that group’s longstanding commitment to engineering perceptual effects through natural and artificial illumination.
There’s no denying the impact of Wheeler’s work on the senses. With the exception of the light source, there is nothing even partly hidden here, and the room is entirely static, yet it sends viewers stumbling with arms outstretched in search of an elusive wall, and lying flat on the floor in a seemingly desperate attempt to regain their lost bearings. The room’s echo is also so extended that it’s hard too for most to resist a quick hoot or clap (a perhaps unforeseen temptation that clearly infuriates the gallery staff). Yet this radiant bubble is, after the initial adjustment, calm almost to the point of blankness, and shares with the recent Guggenheim Museum installation of James Turrell, a whiff of the New Age that may raise hackles among those who prefer their nature wild.
– Michael Wilson is a New York-based writer and editor. The author of How to Read Contemporary Art (Thames & Hudson, 2013), he is also editor of the Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
until March 29, 2014
David Zwirner Gallery
537 West 20th Street
New York, NY 10011