Light and space artist Helen Pashgian's translucent columns seem like swollen sea creatures of the deep, ghostly structures that glow in darkened spaces. For about two years, Pashgian has been building new pieces for her first exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), titled "Helen Pashgian: Light Invisible." The show debuts on March 30 and runs until June 29, 2014. Besides being her first show in such a major venue, this will be the first time Pashgian sees the completed work. No one, except for the curators, have viewed her new work in its completed state.
Pashgian took up sculpture in the '60s after working as a painter and became one of the only female artists in a Los Angeles-based movement that uses fiberglass, resin, coated glass, and plastic, new materials at the time. "Light Invisible" will showcase an installation of 12 columns filled with light and mysterious images that shift and bend depending on where the viewer stands. We spoke to Pashgian about her new show, her process, and the power of light and space. Check out our Interview: Helen Pashgian Describes the Power of Her New, Glowing Sculptures for "Light Invisible" at LACMA.
They are all mysterious, and the images inside the pieces appear to be floating.
Do you prefer to embed artificial light within your pieces, or do you prefer natural lighting
Most of my work needs to be lit artificially. The materials that I use are industrial epoxies, clear materials to which I add color dye when I am forming a sculpture. I am also using, in the show that is coming up, a formed acrylic sheet, which is a material I get from Europe. Those pieces, which are the columns, are lit from above with lights that I designed. They are 8-foot tall columns that are translucent, and the interior light looks like they are lit from within, but they aren’t. They are lit from above. The lights are unobtrusive. They have to be lit extremely carefully because, inside each piece, there is an image that is different from the other images. The way the light falls on them defines the piece itself. They need to be specially lit, and they cannot be outside in sunlight because the materials are too fragile.
Yes, the answer is the lighting needs to be controlled. They are very complex. It takes months to make these pieces, and we may spend 100 hours or more just discussing the placement of the interior parts of the piece. But when they are all finished, they are extremely subtle. You don’t see where there is anything attached. They are all mysterious, and the images inside the pieces appear to be floating.
What is the process for creating your work (columns, lighting, molded acrylic, etc.)? Do you use assistants?
I work with a number of assistants but not in my studio. In my own studio, the work is sufficiently difficult that it is important for me to focus and not be distracted, and I tend to be distracted by other people moving around and working.
Each piece is 8 feet tall, roughly 20 inches wide, and it is a double elliptical shape that forms the column. Some of the images are very simple, geometric, and small, and others are larger. As you move slowly around them, some of the images change, so it causes the viewer to question what he or she is seeing. In other words, if you walk slowly back and forth, some of them change, and they become these mysterious light pieces inside other pieces.
How long does it take to sculpt a column?
I’ve done 12 of them for the show (it is actually one piece in 12 sections) and it’s taken a year and a half of working almost everyday. It takes a lot of time. Some of them take more than others, and they are extremely difficult to make. It takes a lot of work with a lot of people.
You’ve been prepping for your exhibition at LACMA for a year and a half?
Actually for two years including all of the preliminary work and the planning. The ordering of materials and the preparation took about six months.
If a viewer is slowly moving around one of these elliptical columns, they will see something different from every vantage point.
What do you want your audience to think or feel when viewing your pieces?
For all light and space artists, our eyes and our brains observe certain things, and we see certain things. How deeply we see depends on what is presented to us. What I am trying to present is a very simple format—extremely abstract—and create attention in the viewer between their eye and their brain. In other words, if a viewer is slowly moving around one of these elliptical columns, they will see something different from every vantage point, and what is inside is mysterious and makes you want to look more closely. I hope it makes you look carefully and think about what you observe and how you observe it, and your observation in general will be more keen after viewing these pieces.
Everyone will bring their own personal interest and bias to the looking. Some people won’t feel anything at all and walk right by them, and others will spend a great deal of time looking at them because it will remind them of something that they have seen or thought about or a portion of something that they remember far in their past.
How have you tried to separate your work from other light and space artists? Is your work in conversation with them?
There are two women in the group, Mary Corse and myself. The rest are all men. I know two or three of them quite well. We see each other from time to time, socially. Sometimes we talk about our work. Sometimes we don’t. But I think that unlike some artists in New York, particularly earlier in the '60s and the '70s, they hung out together a lot. This group in California is more solitary. We are spread out. It is a very horizontal city as opposed to New York, which is a more of vertical city, and people are close to each other.
Artists are loners. Sometimes they aren’t, but they are very competitive, and also they are very collaborative with each other. I think they are different from people in any field. When I am working very hard, I tend not to spend much time with other artists just because I am focusing on my work, and I don’t try to be like any of the other artists. I think all of us have been working for many years, and we have found our own niche. We do have a profound respect for each other, and we see echoes of our own work sometimes in other work, but we are all quite distinctly different.
It takes a long time to develop your voice apart from your formal education.
What advice do you have for up-and-coming artists experimenting with light?
The one thing that I tell them is not about light particularly, but I always tell them not to be in too much of a hurry about getting rich and famous—to look as much as they can at art and to study as much art history as they can and to have as many experiences in life as they possibly can, so they can develop their own voices. It’s my personal feeling that it takes a long time to develop your voice apart from your formal education. This may take years and years. For some artists it may come early in life; for others it may come late.
It took me 10 years to really figure out how to do these columns. I didn’t know who could help me with them. I knew it may be difficult. I didn’t know what materials to use, but I eventually made my way, and it eventually happened and worked. Young artists, and I was certainly one of them, are very impatient. They want it all to have happened yesterday. All artists want to work and get their own look really fast, make a big splash and make a lot of dough and all of that, and the media supports that. I think that is the wrong approach. The approach that is important for the long run is to slowly take it if it comes, spend a lot of time thinking about the work, be focused on it, just let it evolve the way it naturally will, and not try to imitate other people's work. This is a difficult job, but it is possible to do.
Do you have any favorite pieces in the exhibition?
I think they are all of my favorites. I am just excited about seeing this install because I haven’t seen it installed. What is interesting is it's not a retrospective. It is not early work or middle work or late work of mine. It is a new piece that has never been seen, and it’s a major piece, 120 feet long. This is unusual for a big museum to do a piece like this. It’s completely new. No one has ever seen it, not even the artist. The first time that even I will see it is when it is installed. If you pace off 120 feet you’ll find out how big it is.
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