New ways of seeing

Hidden away at the north end of Piccadilly’s Burlington Arcade – that bland corridor of shops that continues to let down its Regency surroundings – you’ll find the Pace Gallery. Unassuming, discreet and insouciant with none of its neighbour’s (the Royal Academy) flag waving, it often contains treasures. Right now, it is displaying three works by the 73-year-old, American artist James Turrell.

Turrell’s work includes the levelling of entire mountains in the Nevada Desert. He bought a volcano in 1979 and created an artwork out of it. He is also known for his ‘skylight’ series of artworks. Rooms open to the elements where you can gaze upwards into the blue – and every other hue of – atmosphere for a truly ethereal experience. There’s one at Houghton Hall in Norfolk.

Turrell’s art at the Pace Gallery conjured a few thoughts on what the act of seeing really is. I mean we don’t think about seeing do we? We certainly take sight for granted. We are stopped in our tracks by beauty – in all its forms – every day but our thoughts are transferred to the object or landscape or person we are looking at. We don’t really think about looking. It made me think that seeing really is an art and looking at art is very rewarding.

These three pieces by Turrell are installations of light. What you see when you look at them, even for a short period of time is astounding. Actually, what you think you see is very tricky to describe. There are colours of course, but they are colours that change and defy definition. Then you start to perceive depth and things that cannot really be logical, such as objects (ovals), made of light and hanging in mid-air. Once you stop your brain from questioning how it is done and settle in, it is an immersive and quite wondrous thing. The humdrum noise of traffic in the street fades and you are lost in the blue – as scuba divers say – not knowing which way is up nor down. And not just blue but every other colour you could possibly imagine.

The Australian art critic Robert Hughes said: ‘The medium of Turrell’s work is perception itself; his art happens behind your eyes, not in front of them.’ So-o-o-o true.

When we think about the ‘art’ of attraction or more to the point how we begin to interact with audiences to bring them to the point of sale, we often use beautiful imagery. As observers (and potential buyers) we learn to not let our eyes linger. We know that a second glance means a commitment of some kind, an indebtedness that the seller – albeit represented by a dumb advertisement – can latch onto. But here is art so ephemeral that you could never really own it like you could own a painting. It’s not trying to sell you anything, it is not boastful, it is not designed to induce longing but merely wonder. And that makes for quite odd feelings.

The ever inventive and changeable artist David Hockney once said that the thing he was most interested in was finding different ways of seeing. And for all his years he’s been trying to capture that notion mostly by showing us flat canvasses of paint. But here you can see something where the question: ‘What is art?’ does not arise. It just exists, it simply is, and you can see it with your own eyes.

James Turrell: The Materiality of Light – Pace Gallery, London runs until 27 March 2020.

Nicholas Ricketts is a Director at brand consultancy 1stObjective

Featured Image: © James Turrell, courtesy Pace Gallery Photo: Damian Griffiths, courtesy Pace Gallery