James Turrell: a Retrospective

James Turrell uses light and colour as his art materials, and this survey exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra presents work from every decade of his 50-year career.

National Gallery of Australia Director, Dr Gerard Vaughan, declares “James Turrell is one of the most fascinating artists of our time and Australians have never before seen an exhibition like this.”

James Turrell: a retrospective brings together projection pieces, built spaces, holograms, drawings, prints and photographs. It celebrates Skyspaces, viewing chambers that affect our perception of the sky, and surveys Turrell’s major work, an ongoing project at Roden Crater, an extinct volcano on the edge of the Painted Desert in Arizona.

At Roden Crater, Turrel has created a “naked eye observatory” of multiple viewing chambers, fascinating interior spaces in themselves, from which visitors can observe not only the skies by day and night, but also the ever-changing effects of light itself.

Since the 1960s James Turrell has made art from light. He studied mathematics and perceptual psychology, and his background as a Quaker and training as a pilot also inform his practice. After his first sculptures using fire, Turrell began to construct projections that produce illusionistic geometric shapes. ‘Afrum (white)’, (1966), for example, appears as a hovering cube of light. ‘Raemar pink white’ (1969) plays with our perceptions, like a large, luminescent pink canvas levitating in front of a wall. Turrell uses a range of fluorescent, tungsten, fibre-optic and LED lights, as well as natural light. His art is now located across the globe in permanent installations in museums and private collections – including at the NGA: the Skyspace ‘Within without’ (2010) at the National Gallery of Australia is one of the most beautiful.

In the 1980s and ’90s Turrell developed works that expose visitors to total darkness or isolate an individual in a contained environment. ‘After green’ (1993) is an immersive installation: its intense red, with soft and hard edges, make it disorientating and exquisite.

One of the highlights of the exhibition is the Perceptual cell, ‘Bindu shards’ (2010). This immersive experience sees one viewer enter the installation every 15 minutes. This light cycle for one person is a bodily kaleidoscope with patterns of crystals, shards of light, stars, galaxies and nebulae.

Once inside, saturated in colour, with no edges or corners, we are uncertain of our surrounds – a feeling akin to walking on clouds. This is contemporary art as you  have never seen before, and promises an experience not to be missed. It is described by the artist as “behind the eyes” seeing. “The work of James Turrell challenges and confronts our perceptions of art, light and space. Everyone will have a very personal reaction to this exhibition,” says Lucina Ward, curator of the exhibition and International Painting and Sculpture at the National Gallery of Australia.

The exhibition is a unique experience that sees viewers engage with the artworks on display in a whole-of-body immersion. The overwhelming sense of light and colour heightens one’s visual and spatial senses, transporting you from the realities outside of the exhibition space.

James Turrell: a retrospective
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Until 8 June, 2015

Images courtesy the artist and the National Gallery of Australia

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