By Michael Webb
You are lying on your back, gazing at an intensely blue sky. Any Angeleno can do that, but a lucky few will start the experience in James Turrell’s Perceptual Cell at LACMA. There, in your own private spaceship, the sky will darken and explode, in vibrating patterns of color and light that fill your field of vision. You are absorbed into this magical illusion and you lose all sense of time. And then, all too soon, the expanse of blue returns and you slide out of the capsule and are back in the everyday world.
This transformative experience is the highlight of LACMA’s Turrell retrospective. The artist got his start in an abandoned hotel in Ocean Park, creating openings in the walls to admit light in precisely controlled ways. Robert Irwin was a near neighbor, conducting similar experiments with scrim, but he has since moved on to undertake a diversity of sculptural projects that include the Getty’s sunken garden and plantings at LACMA. Turrell has remained true to light, treating it as a physical substance and exploring the mysteries of visual perception. Major exhibitions at LACMA, the New York Guggenheim and the Houston Museum of Fine Arts celebrate the genius of this American artist, and provide a unique opportunity to explore the full range of his work.
The LACMA show, impeccably installed in BCAM and the Resnick Gallery, is grand and intimate by turns. The illusions of perspective are astounding and one of the great artistic experiences is to stand in the Ganzfeld, a white room that seems infinite and shimmers in a haze of softly colored light. Here, too, are models of Roden Crater, the volcanic crater in Arizona that Turrell has been transforming over the past 30 years and has still not completed. A few invited guests (donors are especially welcome) have been driven across the ranch that isolates the crater from outside development, and have progressed from a huge chamber that’s linked to the caldera (and the sky) by an inclined tunnel. It’s easy to imagine you’ve chanced on a Mayan observatory, abandoned in a remote desert, gazing unblinkingly at the stars, and capturing images of the sun and the moon in the rare moments they align with the tunnel.
The Turrell retrospective runs through April 6. Timed tickets should be booked in advance at lacma.org. Tickets for the Perceptual Cell are heavily booked through January, but you may call for cancellations.