Renewals/Returns: New Life of an Old Building – Part 1

Developing a Mutable Horizon by Chris Fraser, 2011. Courtesy of the artist.

Developing a Mutable Horizon by Chris Fraser, 2011. Courtesy of the artist.

Inviting Chris Fraser to participate in the Artists Drawing Club was an exciting prospect, introducing a new challenge to the series. I never know how to describe his work, besides saying that he manipulates and crafts environments, creating the right situation to make light bend to his will. So the question for me, with all the constraints of producing an event in the museum, is how would this work? I was worried about the challenge and the potential frustration Chris might experience working on a project featured as part of the Artists Drawing Club series. Those worries quickly dissolved as Chris started to work with a keen sensitivity to the museum and the building’s history. While I am uncertain about what the final experience entails, the process of developing this project has been so rich and compelling that there is some excitement in not knowing what exactly to expect on April 24.

I spoke to Chris about his project and art practice. I wanted to gain some insight into how Renewals/Returns may or may not resonate with his other artworks and processes.

—Marc Mayer, Educator for Public Programs

 

MM: You are an artist whose work makes me really consider “artistic disciplines,” categories like photography, sculpture, installation because I do not know how to categorize your work, which is something I really appreciate. I know you work with light, but I am curious about how you would discuss your relationships to different disciplines.

CF: I enjoy being introduced to new people in social situations. It’s an opportunity to hear other people contextualize my work. Sometimes I’m an installation artist, other times simply a sculptor. I’m usually the guy who works with light. But one time I was accused of being a painter. I liked that.

My background is in photography. I don’t know that I was ever a terribly good photographer. I always preferred the act of photographing to the pictures themselves. So I began searching for ways of sharing that experience. My earliest installations can all be read as outsized camera obscuras. Light entered a darkened space through a small opening to create a picture of the world nearby. Viewers participated in an altered vision of the familiar.

Photography became situational. It existed in the space between opposing forces: light and dark, inside and outside, near and far. I found it in architecture, installation, sculpture, performance, video, and drawing. Eventually it ceased being photography altogether and emerged as a way of being, a way of engaging with the world.

MM: As a light artist, if I dare use that term, to put it plainly, what is your material?

CF: I’m not sure that I have a material in the traditional sense. I create frames for experiencing the ambient environment, for emphasizing the nearness of the near. What I mean by this is the way space becomes a “non-space” or a transitory space. I want to articulate that these “between” spaces are spaces in and of themselves. These partitions are often made of drywall, lumber or glass. But they can be made of anything, really. These secondary materials are meant to disappear, allowing the audience to linger on light, sound and motion.

Slant by Chris Fraser, 2013. Courtesy of the artist and Highlight Gallery.

Slant by Chris Fraser, 2013. Courtesy of the artist and Highlight Gallery.

MM: Which artists or artworks do you find yourself coming back to for inspiration or to figure out how to approach a challenge in your work?

CF: I’m currently drawn to works that are not photographable. In the late 1960s, several artists working with sensorial environments took a stand against having their work documented photographically. Robert Irwin once started a very public fight with the editors of Artforum over the unauthorized publication of one of his disk paintings. He complained that the photograph was all surface and no substance. It described what the painting looked like, but said nothing of how it felt to look at it in person.

Irwin himself eventually abandoned this idealistic position. Concerned with his place in art history, he figured that a misleading record of accomplishments was better than no record at all. But some works defy visualization entirely. A photograph of Bruce Nauman’s Green Light Corridor says nothing of value about the piece. Two walls face each other, forty feet in length, with a foot of space between. Green tinted fluorescent lights hang overhead. It seems like an obstacle course at first. You enter at one end and slowly, playfully make your way to the other. At some point the walls change color from green to white, but you fail to notice. The walk has distracted you. You emerge on the other side and everything you see is bright magenta. The corridor is a brilliant piece of misdirection. It provides a reason to stand in green light just long enough to change your color memory. The work resides entirely on your retinas.

Eric Orr’s Zero Mass similarly plays with the boundaries of perception. A large ribbon of white paper lines the walls of a darkened room, lit dimly from behind. You enter the space and sit in complete darkness for the first five minutes. But as your eyes adjust, shapes emerge. People become dim silhouettes. After twenty minutes in the dark, you see the room in stark relief. The black walls are now bright white. Dark, featureless people walk around the space. All the while, your eyes flit and jump as they scan the room. Vision becomes newly strange.

Of all the perceptual artists to emerge in the 1960s, only Maria Nordman has maintained her ban on photography. This may account for her relative obscurity, but it also affirms the value she places on embodied experience. Photography can approximate certain aspects of vision. But it denies change. It removes vision from time, from the body, from the other four senses.

MM: Working on a project for the Artists Drawing Club I imagine is a little different from making work in the studio. How is working on this project similar or different from your studio practice? What have been the challenges/payoffs?

CF: For me, the studio is less a place than a set of conditions. I make work when I’m relaxed, in a space with few distractions. I’m productive when I have no specific goals or expectations, when play is my sole activity. Observation and accident are at the center of my practice.

When working on a show, the exhibition site temporarily becomes my studio. I spend time in it, watch it change with the day, and notice how people receive or ignore it. I then develop a set of circumstances that call attention to the overlooked qualities of the space. I take things at the periphery of experience—the ambient, the stray—and place them at the center.

In that sense, my project for the Asian Art Museum fits easily into my working method. I’ve made several trips to the museum for the sole purpose of walking and looking. But I’ve also spent time offsite, researching the history of the building. My projects typically ground the viewer in the present moment. But my experience of the Asian Art Museum is as a place between times. The building is so rich in historical markers that it becomes difficult to appreciate the present without the past.

MM: I am really curious about your comment that observation and accident are at the center of your practice. How does that function day-to-day?

CF: Occasionally I go into the studio with a set of known materials, perform experiments, and restage the results as an aesthetic experience. But most of my work isn’t nearly so methodical. Projects usually grow from simple observation. My first large-scale light installation was inspired by a crack between two moveable walls. I was drinking beers with friends and had a lovely daydream about a thin gap in my studio wall that ran from floor to ceiling. I didn’t know exactly what that gap would do to the room, but it seemed worth finding out. I spent six weeks transforming the space and was only able to see the results after everything was completed. That element of risk has become a trait of my practice. Because much of my work is site conditional, I seldom have the ability to test it beforehand.

The materials I do end up bringing into the studio are often discovered through accidental encounters. One of my current projects uses tiny glass spheres to simulate visual depth. I discovered the material while riding my bike through the Haight on a sunny day. Something registered in the corner of my eye as I passed through an intersection. I walked back, and there on the ground, around the shadow of my head, was a rainbow. It followed me everywhere. A fine layer of glass dust coated the activated ground. I wasn’t sure why it was there. But I took a sample and spent the next several months figuring out what it was. The answer was simple. Caltrans uses these road beads to make paint reflective. I bought a bag of the stuff and sat on it for three years. After a lot of trial and error, and a fair bit of luck, I found a use for it.

This is Part 1 of a two part series. Stay tuned for the next one tomorrow where Chris talks about his project for the Artists Drawing Club.

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