I started working with light and reflective materials in 2003 to take the spatial and color concerns of my painting into a different realm. Light’s unique ability to touch both mind and feelings let me build emotional spaces that resonate with memory and experience.
Light both beams into you and envelops you. By amplifying and radiating color, line and form outward, into and around the viewer, I can build atmospheres in a way that goes beyond painting’s two-dimensional limitations.
I first became aware of what light could do from seeing it on the stage, at dance performances when minimalist choreography reigned. There were no sets and the dancers wore unitards, so the lighting served simultaneously as costume design and set. Jennifer Tipton’s lighting was breathtaking. I contacted her to ask where I could study it, and she generously invited me to sit in on technical rehearsals. To process what I had learned, I had to forbid myself to paint, only allowing myself to do something, anything, with light. During the ensuing paralysis, I took long walks throughout Brooklyn for a few months until ideas emerged.
My first show with light, in the PS122 Hallway, was in an old building with very little power available. Since I was already making the large leap from paint to light, I had been reluctant to learn the electronics required for energy-efficient LEDs–but now I had no choice. I am fortunate to count as a friend Larry Dunn, who is a theatrical lighting engineer. He swore he could teach me what I needed to know in an afternoon. I brought us lunch, and the lesson began.
I had first started working with under-the-cabinet fluorescents that I could get at Home Depot, but it didn’t take very long to realize that they were too heavy and bulky to do much with. I discovered the lightweight and slim electronic-ballast fluorescents around the same time that a shape of metal kept appearing in my mind’s eye. I walked into a lumberyard and drew it, and learned that it was a channel used to house wiring in walls and ceilings, called Chicago bar. I got some and then Larry taught me how to work with LEDs.
I started beaming LEDs into the bends in the Chicago bar and watched them multiply. I then placed a piece of hexagonal prism rod over them, and saw that it blended the lights. In this way, I could mix the six available colors of LEDs. I then wrapped gel filters over the electronic ballast fluorescents and placed them behind the Chicago bar. The end result was the vocabulary of electronics and optics that formed the series “Luminous Layers.”
Working with light doesn’t always require electricity. In 2007, I found prismatic hexagonal reflective sheeting, a recently-introduced material that picks up and intensifies ambient light for road signs. It comes in eight colors, and does amazing things. The surface seems to disappear endlessly into space, while at the same time reflections are visible on the surface. I’ve worked a lot with the sheeting, and combined it with LEDs and fluorescents both because of the color effects I can get, and also because it doesn’t require a dark environment to provide a rich experience. An example of this is “All That’s Left,” a series of boxes resembling brick fragments that I first showed in Berlin, which has patterns of colored LEDs embedded in the sheeting’s surface.
This past fall, I showed “Hercules Lite” in an exhibition of site-specific installations curated by Karin Bravin at Lehman College. It was based on the massive central column in the lobby of the Marcel Breuer-designed building. I replicated it in green fluorescent-edged plexiglass on the glass wall that separated the gallery from the lobby, using neodymium magnets to hold it in place. This transparent plexiglass sends ambient light to its edge, casting a glow onto the floor and ceiling, allowing me to use light and suspension to contrast with Breuer’s sense of weight. It was the first time I had used this material, but it will definitely not be the last.
For the first years, the industrial materials limited me to working with straight lines. I had been a gestural painter, and eventually I wanted to bring back in the evidence of my hand, and my calligraphic brush strokes. By accident, I had discovered that if LEDs were placed closely behind diffusion, their wiring cast beautiful shadows, almost like gray pencil lines. I embedded LEDs on both sides of diffused plexiglass, and the resulting wiring on both sides created drawings. I had already been collecting surplus LEDs because of the variety of shapes and sizes I was finding. As technology had been evolving, so had applications for these LEDs, most were now obsolete, and gorgeous.
I have more than forty-five different kinds of LEDs, some of them still made, but most not. The older ones are dimmer, so they all needed to be calibrated to a consistent brightness before I could use them for my “Gesture Drawings.” Some of the works use only one kind of LED, but others use almost all of them, and by looking closely you can see the great variety and beauty of things that were manufactured for industrial purposes. This work is, in a way an homage to the history of LED technology, a transformation of things high-tech that have outlived their use.
I feel very fortunate to be alive at this time in history, when technology goes into the development of the industrial materials I use. For me, the trick is to make sure that the technology doesn’t overwhelm the art, so that I can convey the magic that I find in light.
Click here to go to Carol Salmanson’s website
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