Review: A Certain Kind of Light – Light in Art Over Six Decades

Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne
Exchange Gallery, Penzance

Like a vast shiny bleached Hollywood arsehole, Anish Kapoor’s steely installation ‘untitled’ is as compelling as it is shallow.

Kapoor’s luminescent confidence, so at odds with this run-down seaside town where glamour is as rare as bird’s nest soup, is alluring. I find I want more. It feels naughty here among the erstwhile painted seascapes. Like slipping off to the loo for a line at a dinner party.

So maybe that’s what links the paintings, sculptures, photographs and installations in A Certain Kind of Light. It’s a party. A light party in which a quixotic xylophone of dayglo flows through euphoric rays that flood the floor. Where David Batchelor’s plastic bottle work is a cluster-fuck of neon in a late- night fight against the wall.

Look up, and there’s a light-splitting prism, all sparkling phosphorescence arcing above our heads. Like dust in sunlight, Mark Garry’s delicate work pinpoints the sense that some of the most switched on work here is characterized by its sense of transience.

On one wall, Gary Hume’s ‘Fragment of a Rainbow’ emanates elegance through bold splashes of colour played out as high-gloss deconstructionism. Beneath it, Mark Titchner’s dalek-like structures, wearing bulbs and woven bonnets, present a muted marriage of craft and tech that forms a cat’s cradle of Futurist light iconography.

In contrast, Peter Lanyon’s ‘Colour Construction’, a stained glass angular edifice, looks awkward and old fashioned. A wallflower dressed like a lurid tart in the corner of the room, accessorized in black ribbon that only makes it seem more gauche. This curatorial nod to the heritage of artists drawn to the Cornish shores for the quality of the light is not quite enough to make sense of its place in the show.

Fellow local artist Peter Freeman’s ‘Lightwave’ connects better. Using colour changing LED technology, his large-scale interactive veil illuminates the length of the Exchange building. Like a good conversationalist, the work is responsive, surging from aqua blue hues to pink flushes, as the sea air wavers and figures flock and disperse.

Conversations, then, ghostly, projected and imagined, form a gleaming seam within A Certain Kind of Light. Cerith Wyn Evans’ crystal chandelier, ‘Diary: How to improve the world (you will only make matters worse)’ is all pulsing electronica. Flashing on and off to convey a Morse code translation of John Cage’s writings, this staccato semiotic trick trembles grandiloquently, like a misunderstood Monroe reading Ulysses.

In a call and response chorus, Katie Paterson’s vast visionary glitter-ball conjures spinning celestial constellations. Made up of 10,000 images, this poetic installation takes its inspiration from scientific data, in which the orb depicts the transformation of a solar eclipse from partial to total.

But the stars of the show don’t always tell the best stories. Brad Lochore’s exquisite interlaced grids swoop across a wall, reminding me of an interlocking flight-path of murmurations.

On the floor below, Rachel Whiteread’s six squat shadow-filled spaces take stock like languid lumpenproles, tolerating the weight of the odd jaded viewer who mistakes them for stools.

This preoccupation with light and shade, absence and presence, finds feminist form, too, in Runa Islam’ quick-fire film ‘Stare out’ (blink), in which a transient female gaze reconfigures the muse as viewer who out-stares the audience.

Architect Louis Kahn described light as the ‘giver of all presences’. Light work, or rather artwork that uses light, is often concerned with light and shadow, which play out through connected binaries such as sun and moon, work and play, loss and renewal. Without at least a nod to these latent tensions, light works can lack pathos or purpose.

At times, it is difficult to extrapolate the thinking behind A Certain Kind of Light. Is it about artists who use light as a medium or about artists who play with light? How does the future-forward work of Lochore and Kapoor speak to Lowry and Lanyon’s art here? Though thematically connected, this Arts Council funded set piece is, ultimately, narratively disjointed.

The interdisciplinary dance between poetry and science and light and music works well in this richly imagined show.  But, in the end, a finer thread could have been spun, so that the significance of light in these ever darker times was in sharper focus.

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