Phillip K. Smith III’s light-based public sculptures draw on elements of the Light and Space art movement, and on aspects of reflection, color, light and shadow, environment and change. They are installed throughout this country and beyond in outdoor landscapes, site-specific conditions, and as part of urban architecture. These groundbreaking works are inspired in part by Smith’s Light and Space predecessors, including Robert Irwin and James Turrell. Three of Smith’s recent sculptures can be viewed as maquettes at the Great Park Gallery.
The Light and Space movement, which originated in the 1960s, is Southern California’s response to the minimalist art movement, popular at that time on the East Coast. But it is much more, as it focuses on depicting sensory phenomena, especially light. Materials include glass, neon, fluorescent lights, resin and cast acrylic. Fabrication methods include technologies of the engineering and aerospace industries.
Adam Sabolick, co-curator of the “Phillip K. Smith III: Shared Light” exhibition and gallery assistant, adds that the nearby UC Irvine art department hosted Light and Space artists as faculty and students in the 1960s and 70s. In addition to Irwin and Turrell, Larry Bell, Ron Davis, Tony De Lap, Joe Goode, John McCracken and others taught there, while several UCI students and teachers crafted artworks from that genre while studying and working there.
Smith explains, “I think that the Light and Space artists were all in search of a deeper understanding of perception, a more real experience. There was a search for truth through light, perception, site, material, manufactured product, paint, and composition.”
He adds, “My ‘Shared Light’ exhibition focuses on the notion of art sited in the public realm. The greatest cities of the world have embraced the arts as emblems of their identity. Art in the public realm creates iconic visual experiences that positively bond people together around shared memories and shared spaces. The Great Park and Irvine is fertile ground for the siting of these kinds of influential, unifying art projects.”
To create his many public art projects, Smith employs his artistic and architectural training, along with his understanding of technology, and his inquisitiveness about new processes and materials. Before building each installation, such as a large window display, he constructs a maquette – a smaller scale model of the piece. Three of his maquettes are displayed throughout the gallery.
Each maquette in the exhibition is accompanied by several photographs of the original installation by photographer Lance Gerber. These photos document the light-based works, along with their interplay with the surrounding environment. Two installations in the show are depicted only through the photos.
“I’ve been working with Lance since 2013,” Smith explains. “He has photographed every single piece I’ve made. In my opinion, 99.99% of the world will view my work through photography and video. So the documentation of my work has to be as good as the real thing. Working with Lance has been a fun, rewarding, ongoing conversation. He understands my intent as a light-based artist and knows precisely how I want to visually share my work with the world.”
The first maquette you will see at the Great Park is of the installation, Three Half Lozenges (2017-21) at the Newark (New Jersey) Museum of Art. The original piece with its multi-colored full-spectrum lighting is installed onto three historic double-height windows on the museum’s façade. It is constructed with LED lighting, electronic components and unique color choreography. Exhibition didactics explain, “Shifting from linear to rectangular to lozenge within gradating and full fields of color, the three half lozenge-shaped windows operate as a monumental light-based triptych at the scale of architecture.”
Across the country in West Hollywood, Parallel Perpendicular (2022), made of steel, glass, LED lighting, electronic components and unique color choreography, is composed of five freestanding parallel and perpendicular planes. They reflect the movement of the sun during the day; at night they become floating fields of color creating a constantly changing composition. The installation also reflects the surrounding trees, bushes, buildings and sky, often bathing them with colored lights. Walking around the magnificent maquette of this piece at the gallery enables viewers to become part of it, to see themselves and others in it through various permutations and colors.
Also in the Southland, The Circle of Land and Sky as part of the 2017 exhibition, “Desert X,” near Palm Desert, was composed of 300 mirror-polished upright reflectors. Emerging from the ground, angled at 10 degrees, the reflectors were placed in a large circle. They engaged and tracked the light, sky, mountains and atmosphere of the Sonoran surroundings as the light changed. This process was complemented by the viewers as they moved along and throughout the installation.
One of the more adventurous Smith installations is the Detroit Skybridge (2018), made of an existing skybridge, along with acrylic, aluminum, LED lighting, electronic components and unique color choreography. Connecting two important office buildings in downtown Detroit, Michigan, the 100-foot-long, 16th floor bridge is at night a scintillating multicolored work, composed of shifting gradients and moving planes of light, merging art with architecture, and available for all viewers to see.
In Milan, Italy, in the courtyard of the centuries-old Palazzo Isimbardi, Open Sky (2018) greets visitors. The multi-faceted semi-circular ring dominates the courtyard, mirroring the building’s intricate floor, its 16th century architecture and the sky, while providing multiple reflections of visitors. Made of polished stainless steel, aluminum and concrete composite panels, it combines an abstract design with circular construction. It is in a constant state of flux, propelled by continual changes of light, day and evening, and by the viewers as they move along it. This installation’s maquette reveals how majestic the original sculpture is.
Smith explains, “There are moments of universal beauty, of shared experience, of discovering experiences that bond all of us together as human beings. Light is most often at the root of these experiences. It is these moments of beauty, purity, and universality that I am seeking to create.”
“Phillip K. Smith III: Shared Light” is on view through August 28. Great Park Gallery, Palm Court Art Complex, Great Park, Irvine; Thu. & Fri., noon-4 p.m.; Sat. & Sun., 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; free. cityofirvine.org/orange-county-great-park/arts-exhibitions.