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Cool Confusion

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To see James Turrell's installation Rayna, I headed from the outdoors down a dark corridor. Inside the room, at first I could see nothing but the faint glow of incandescent bulbs and the silhouettes of two other visitors. Unable to determine the contours of the space, I was uncertain where the "art" was. And as curator Daniel Birnbaum has written in a piece on Turrell, "When your eyes get lost, your body falls."

After about ten minutes your eyes adjust and you see a huge dark rectangle on one of the walls. This "painting" appears almost monochromatic, though gradually it reveals some light within it that seems bluer and even more immaterial than the light in the room. I drew closer, even tried to touch the work with my finger--and "fell" into space: the rectangle is an opening into another room. The experience was profoundly destabilizing: what appeared to be a picture turned into what seemed almost limitless space; step back and it's a picture again, but a picture of nothingness.

Turrell is an internationally known artist who's been making light installations since 1966; Rayna is owned by the Art Institute, which exhibited it once in 1982, then put it in storage for more than two decades. Gallery 400 has installed it--as well as ten stunning, supple prints showing Turrell's characteristic mysterious rectangles of light--in conjunction with the November debut of a Turrell piece commissioned by the University of Illinois, UIC Skyspace. What the Art Institute owns are the artist's instructions for Rayna and the right to exhibit it, and the only physical element it provides is the thin strip that frames the opening. Installations vary--and two writers who saw the original have complained that this version is inferior. I didn't see the first installation, but I had a problem only on visits when I waited a few minutes before entering: the piece is best when you come in directly from daylight, because the initial disorientation is mirrored by the dematerialization of the "painting" into a mass of light.

In one of the best shows I've seen this year, Turrell carries to an extreme a tendency in the last century to make the viewer the subject. There is no object here; instead one is alone with one's shifting perceptions. You "see yourself see," Turrell has said. But for this you have to turn inward, and I suspected the two other viewers on my first visit weren't getting it: one stopped chatting with the other to call a friend on her cell phone to ask what it was they were supposed to be seeing.

John Neff denies the rational roles of solid objects in his sculpture show at Western Exhibitions by combining and presenting them in a disorienting, almost demented way. Eighteen of the 26 pieces here are called "decorative panels"--suggesting an ironic comment on the bourgeois complacency of interior decorating. Decorative Panel #19: Cracked Skull: Wall Sconce is a grid of white tiles, some cracked, hung in a diamond shape not quite flush against the wall. A sconce holding a candle-shaped lightbulb sticks out from its center, while on the back of it is a big stone (Neff calls it the "brain") with part of a spine beneath it. The rock-brain is juxtaposed with three gears also attached to the back of the panel--and as animate mixes with inanimate, Neff's world becomes less and less rational.

Decorative Panel #14: The Tumor seems more sedate but is also a bit unhinged. A ceramic soccer ball articulated in black and white tiles--a found object--juts out from a panel mostly covered with similar hexagonal black and white tiles, which Neff purchased. By repeating the ball's tiles in the panel, Neff confuses representational and abstract functions. And a chain between the ball and the tiled surface seems to have "squeezed" the ball from the panel; Neff says the effect is like "tying a string around a bedsheet to make a ghost."

Neff, who has a 2001 MFA from the University of Illinois at Chicago, counts Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and John Cage as important early influences. He says his art has always had a social dimension; he often uses found materials, for instance, from the salvage yard in Oakland, California, where he works. Some pieces comment on our culture even more explicitly. Two brass "wedding" rings are mounted below a ceramic vase shaped like a brownstone in Decorative Panel #18: Fault Line, San Francisco, California: Flower Vase, which Neff intends as "a souvenir of a time just passed in San Francisco when the mayor allowed gay marriage." Chunks of concrete surrounding the vase reflect "the materiality of the city," he says, while two cut roses in it are "symbols of love and life." What's startling, however, is the effect of mixing fresh flowers with ruins: the fragile roses etherealize, even spiritualize, the metal and stone.

James Turrell

Gallery 400 at the University of Illinois

1240 W. Harrison

through October 30

312-996-6114

John Neff

Western Exhibitions

1648 W. Kinzie, second floor

through October 30

312-307-4685

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Fred Camper.

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