by Mark W. Scala, Chief Curator Frist Center for the Visual Arts

Great works of art become a part of us. Some do this by recalibrating our understanding of the political, social, or linguistic structures of the world; others intensify time, form, and memory, or open doors to our chaotic interiors in powerful and revealing ways.

Art can also seep into our core by imposing stillness. I began writing this at the ocean, where the mind is calmed by the expansive horizon, volatile sky, and changing moods of light. I compare this to being in a work by California Light and Space artist James Turrell, who architecturally frames light to create human-scaled arenas for the contemplation of pure and numinous experiences. In his interior works, this light spills outside its structure to illuminate and transform the surrounding space. It often pulses with changes in color and intensity, frequently in degrees that are barely discernible. This prompts the viewer to recognize the elasticity of the boundary between the senses and the mind: the mind, with its tendency to recognize and name experience, has to catch up with the eye.

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Wide Out, 1998, Moscow Installation, Photograph by Florian Holzher

The interval between seeing and knowing enables a subtle disorientation to occur, which is caused by the reading of the light as both a material plane—a wall of color—and a field of indeterminate depth. Further uncertainty may arise as one feels a gap between perception and the material body. That is, being immersed in colored light can make one’s own skin seem distant—to appear to be a foreign surface composed of light. This acute sense of dematerialization helps us understand Turrell when he says,

“My work has no object, no image, and no focus. With no object, no image, and no focus, what are you looking at? You are looking at you looking.”

Raised a Quaker, the religion that describes Christ’s spirit within each person as an inner light, Turrell acknowledges the history of light as a signifier of religious experience—an avenue toward illumination, literally and spiritually.

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Blue Pesher, 1999, located at Cheekwood

In Nashville, the power of harnessed light can be seen at Cheekwood, where Turrell’s Blue Pesher nestles at the edge of the sculpture trail. The city’s most exceptional work of outdoor art, Blue Pesher is a simple affair, just a partly buried concrete bunker with a circular skyward opening. We enter it through a long corridor, and then sit on a concrete bench encircling a field of black gravel. As we look up toward the aperture, we perceive it as both a disk of light and a solid sphere—an emptiness that silences the mind and a fullness that suggests the sufficiency of absolute form.


For more information about James Turrell visit





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