“It is rather our role to take what unrealistic factors that exist and to work them into a more sophisticated form that might be grounded in the grand scheme of reality.”
--Haruki Murakami, A Wild Sheep Chase
Memory is at its most magical when it conjures up not the event, but its surrounding perceptual and emotional space. Flashes of reflected light, movement seen out of the corner of eye, bits of sound or feeling – these are what ignite memory, giving it form and bringing it to life.
Light both beams into and envelops you. I started working with it in 2003 after painting for many years because of these singular spatial qualities. They allow me to build whole worlds with color and shape, ones that resonate with memory and experience. Painters have often talked about depicting light. Today’s technology allows me to use light as medium as well as subject.
My vocabulary combines light-emitting diodes (LEDs) with contemporary reflective and transparent materials. The works range from the organic to the architectural. The concepts for my installations and sculptures are structural, concerned with the way that form, light, and reflected light merge. My wall works bridge the chasm between the technological and the handmade. I incorporate their materials into the form of the work: wires become lines; transparent and reflective sheeting become spatial illusions; LEDs become objects of various shapes, sizes, and colors. Together they act as discrete elements that form two-dimensional work like paintings, while the volumetric nature of their light amplifies and radiates color outward to suggest metaphorical spaces.
My background as a painter has given me the ability to create works that are aesthetically rich, and technology provides a way to integrate color and line into the vocabulary of sculpture and architecture. I have recently resumed painting, and it is in turn informed by my years working with light. As I integrate my light work with my earlier painting I pay special attention to the proportionality afforded by their synthesis. I am now simultaneously experiencing new media and old, deepening my understanding of the different concepts of space. The spaces I create are artificial but not fictional: stage sets, lit from within and without.
Click here for video of artist talk with Ruth Hardinger at Brian Morris Gallery, June 9, 2014
Interview with West 10th Street blog (in conjunction with the window installation Village Square )
Interview with Leah Oates for NY Arts Magazine (both print and online)
Article written for the Engine Institute on the role of technology in my work
INTERVIEW WITH WEST 10TH STREET BLOG (in conjunction with the window installation Village Square)
Art-in-Buildings: You began your career as a painter; what precipitated your transition to working with technology? Do you think technology allows you to achieve something painting cannot?
Carol Salmanson: My paintings were concerned with energy and movement, and technology lets me use light to intensify that experience. Light’s spatial qualities allow me to build whole worlds with color and shape. The first way that we experience space is through light; it forms our response to it on direct as well as unconscious levels, so combining light with other more traditional elements allows me create fictional worlds even when I am using abstraction. Light also allows me to play with scale. The brightness and rich color of LEDs radiate out into their surroundings in much the same way that sculpture does, carving out volumes even though their sources are very small electronic components. Scale is often thought of as being experienced in relation to the body of the viewer; with LEDs, the light is large-scaled even though the source is not, and can evoke a larger range of sensations in the viewer.
AiB: Your work often allows the viewer to see the process of creation (via exposed wire, etc). Why do you do this?
CS: When I first started working with light, I made work that was very fabricated, as a response to the industrial nature of the materials. I was also enthralled with the new-found ability to create entire spaces with installations, not to mention the thrill I got from successfully learning how to make highly crafted objects. The resulting work was architectural, as a lot of my installations and sculptures still are. But underneath all of that was a gestural painter, and I missed both the lyrical act of moving my hand, and seeing the effect of my hand in the work. It took a long time to find a way to add that element; technically, my work is not simple to make, and finding a way that isn’t and doesn’t look tedious took a while to pull off. The result has been gratifying, because the work bridges the chasm between technological, manufactured materials and the handmade.
AiB: What influence does environment have on your work?
CS: It’s impossible to work with light without affecting the space around it, because that’s the nature of the medium. It’s also one of the reasons that I wanted to work with it. I studied a lot of dance, which, obviously, is moving through space, and working with light was a way to address that through visual art. In dance you use your body to draw shapes, and you evoke responses by the way that you make the movement; the way I use light, it’s color, shape and line.When I’m working with a specific space, I want to create a dialog between the space and the work. The form tends to be architectural and therefore geometric, because it’s a response to the three-dimensional geometry of its environment. Because I’ve been using a vocabulary in the last few years that comes from my paintings and drawings, the work has been gravitating toward two-dimensionality in physical structure; “Step Lightly” in the stairwell of the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey had 800 LEDs wired together and hot-glued directly onto the landing’s wall.
AiB: How did working within the space constraints of West 10th Window influence your work?
CS: The depth of the window on West 10th Street was its most interesting feature. I have done a number of window installations, and they’ve all been two dimensional in feel, although there was physical depth that was required for backlighting. I thought that was the wrong response to the West 10th Street window, because it was small and flush with the sidewalk: I didn’t want it to feel insignificant. The way I addressed that concern was to make three layers of LEDs and wire, receding back into the window. The alternating direction of the wires make a drawing almost like graph paper, and yet there’s no doubt that Village Square has depth. It’s added a whole new element that I’m excited to use in the future, and I’m in the process of developing ideas.
AiB: Are there any artists in particular whose work has informed yours?
CS: Jennifer Tipton’s lighting designs for dance made me see the power of light, and seeing Robert Irwin’s work made me understand that it could be transmuted into visual art, as did Dan Flavin’s. The way Keith Sonnier draws with neon, functioning simultaneously in two and three dimensions, was an influence that I’m only now coming to fully appreciate. Byzantine mosaics are huge in my universe, as are Persian miniatures: one form massive and one tiny, and both equally powerful.
AiB: What’s next for you?
CS: This spring I’ll be having a two-person show at Brian Morris Gallery on the Lower East Side, and I’ll also be in a three-person show at Key Projects in Sunnyside, Queens. I’ll also be working on a commission for the permanent sculpture “Spiral Exchange” in downtown New Britain, CT.
IN CONVERSATION: LEAH OATES TALKS TO CAROL SALMANSON
Leah Oates: How did you become an artist and what is your family background?
Carol Salmanson: I come from a family with a humble background and ambitious parents, who had no interest in the arts. I was passionate about both visual art and ballet, but my mother actively discouraged me until I was in high school, which is when she gave up. Still, I took her feelings to heart and stopped doing anything related to the arts at the age of 20. Therefore I got my degree in biological psychology from Carnegie-Mellon University. I subsequently got an MBA from the University of Chicago, where I developed a severe allergy to the theoretical approach to things. I resumed in the arts a few years later when I started taking ballet classes while living in Denver, where I was renovating houses. When a knee surgery prevented me from dancing, I signed up for a drawing class. I was immediately reabsorbed, and the instructor said that I should be “doing this full-time.” That was all I needed to hear. I then moved to New York and started studying drawing and painting at the Art Students League, as well as studying art history on my own. I elected not to get an MFA because I thought it was strange to be judged proficient in an art form, and I couldn’t stand the thought of any more theory.
LO: What are the ideas in your work and what is your working process?
CS: I started out as a painter, depicting abstractions with representational components that were concerned with movement and space. There was always some form of depth and space in them. My first mature work, a series of paintings entitled Architectural Gems, were jewel-like geometric constructions with gold edges, almost like cloisonné. They have a lot in common with my light installations now. After a certain point they had lost their vitality, and I started painting pulsating objects made of many colors and textures set on colored fields. At first the fields were made of woods stained with rich colors. I then discovered reflective pigments, which offered the possibility of greater depth so that my paintings could move in and out of space. I got especially carried away with interference colors, which look opaque or transparent depending on the angle of light relative to the viewer. They are usually placed over black, but I played with them on different colors instead, so that the backgrounds would change color as the viewer walked around the paintings. I also worked with iridescent grounds, and at one point placed a series in deep open boxes with neon light behind the paintings. The area between the inside of the boxes and the paintings looked like a frame of light. That was my first work with light, and it took me some years to get back to it. I really wanted to continue, but it was difficult to find a place to start—the specter of learning about the behavior of light, the various technologies available, electronics, and fabrication was daunting.
LO: At a certain point you began to create work with light to expand on spatial and color concerns you where exploring in your painting. Please elaborate more on this progression in your work.
CS: Before I got back to making art, I was renovating houses in Denver. I was essentially altering space within a structure, which is what I do now with my installations. Doing renovations while studying dance gave me a strong sense of how I moved through space, and how I responded to it. I was especially happy if I could change the feeling of the house from dark and gloomy to light and expansive. It was thrilling to me that I could completely transform a space using color, texture, light, and scale. This sense was further developed after I moved to New York. I saw a lot of dance performances in the minimalist era when there were no sets or costumes. The lighting design—especially Jennifer Tipton’s—created the entire theatrical experience spatially, perceptually, and emotionally. When I saw an installation of Robert Irwin’s at Pace that involved light (“1,2,3,4″), I realized that I could do that with visual art as well, and wanted to get back to that sense of space. I couldn’t do that with painting. You can carve volumes out of light, but it is immaterial so you can move through it. It beams into you, and it also surrounds you. Because of its range of color and scale, it has the capacity to elicit a great range of feelings. The way I work with it I can use the knowledge of color I developed when painting, and can also play with transparency and reflection. In my installations, I’m responding to the site, so they usually end up using architectural elements. In my small work of the last few years, I’m bringing back the gestural abstraction that was in my paintings, and using the shapes and colors of LEDs to make work that hangs on a wall like a painting or drawing. I am using the wiring as a drawing and the LEDs as paint and form.
LO: Why do you think art is important to people and to the world?
CS: Images, both moving and still, and other kinds of visual stimulation are very important to the way we negotiate the world. We are bombarded with them every day, and people now have a more keenly developed sense to visual stimulation than ever before, even though fine art and art appreciation are rarely taught in schools. Obviously, this is because technology has so rapidly changed the way that we can see everything. But many kinds of fine art are still dependent on physical presence for the viewer to experience its scale and texture, so visual art has a hard time touching as many people as do the art forms that can be easily reproduced and acquired. Art museums are packed, so there is still some kind of human need.
LO: What advice would you give an artist who has just arrived in NYC and who is not sure where to begin?
CS: Get to every museum and every gallery show that he or she can. (Of course, that means that there’s no time left to make art, so maybe no one should listen to me.) And, ignore fear. Or better yet, welcome it because that means that whatever causes it is something he or she should be doing.
LO: Who are your favorite artists and why?
CS: My taste is always changing, and I guess that is due to what I am working on at the time. Right now I am enthralled by the mid-century Constructivists—especially those from South America (such as Lygia Pape, Lygia Clark, Rafael Jesus Soto, and more)—and Soviet concrete architecture. That stuff knocks my socks off, and my recent installation Hercules Lite and my sculpture Lot’s Wife (Pass the Salt) are heavily influenced by these sources. I love that I can use a form similar to a structure made of heavy concrete, but get the opposite effect from transparent and reflective materials. Still, there are some sources that never change. Byzantine mosaics are my first love. The rich style of their color and imagery always moves me deeply, and the way they are integrated with their architecture and use the light streaming in their windows is awe-inspiring. Persian miniatures are a staple, for the same reason ironically: the way they bend space to communicate depth, and their colors work together to create an effect that I can’t stop looking at once I start. They are so small, and yet to me they feel so big. I also love the theatricality of Robert Irwin. Matisse never disappoints, and I see something different every time. I think it goes without saying that Dan Flavin is…. well, I don’t even know what the right word is for his work.
LO: What are your upcoming projects?
CS: I have a solo show in the fall at the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey. Also in the fall, I’ll have my first curatorial endeavor, a show called “The Language of Painting” that includes artists who use color and line without paint. In January, I’ll be doing a window installation as part of Time Equities’ Art in Buildings program.
CAROL SALMANSON: FROM PAINTING ABOUT LIGHT TO PAINTING WITH LIGHT
Posted on February 4, 2013
I started working with light and reflective materials in 2003 to take the spatial and color concerns of my painting into a different realm. Light’s unique ability to touch both mind and feelings let me build emotional spaces that resonate with memory and experience.
Light both beams into you and envelops you. By amplifying and radiating color, line and form outward, into and around the viewer, I can build atmospheres in a way that goes beyond painting’s two-dimensional limitations.
I first became aware of what light could do from seeing it on the stage, at dance performances when minimalist choreography reigned. There were no sets and the dancers wore unitards, so the lighting served simultaneously as costume design and set. Jennifer Tipton’s lighting was breathtaking. I contacted her to ask where I could study it, and she generously invited me to sit in on technical rehearsals. To process what I had learned, I had to forbid myself to paint, only allowing myself to do something, anything, with light. During the ensuing paralysis, I took long walks throughout Brooklyn for a few months until ideas emerged.
My first show with light, in the PS122 Hallway, was in an old building with very little power available. Since I was already making the large leap from paint to light, I had been reluctant to learn the electronics required for energy-efficient LEDs–but now I had no choice. I am fortunate to count as a friend Larry Dunn, who is a theatrical lighting engineer. He swore he could teach me what I needed to know in an afternoon. I brought us lunch, and the lesson began.
I had first started working with under-the-cabinet fluorescents that I could get at Home Depot, but it didn’t take very long to realize that they were too heavy and bulky to do much with. I discovered the lightweight and slim electronic-ballast fluorescents around the same time that a shape of metal kept appearing in my mind’s eye. I walked into a lumberyard and drew it, and learned that it was a channel used to house wiring in walls and ceilings, called Chicago bar. I got some and then Larry taught me how to work with LEDs.
I started beaming LEDs into the bends in the Chicago bar and watched them multiply. I then placed a piece of hexagonal prism rod over them, and saw that it blended the lights. In this way, I could mix the six available colors of LEDs. I then wrapped gel filters over the electronic ballast fluorescents and placed them behind the Chicago bar. The end result was the vocabulary of electronics and optics that formed the series “Luminous Layers.”
Working with light doesn’t always require electricity. In 2007, I found prismatic hexagonal reflective sheeting, a recently-introduced material that picks up and intensifies ambient light for road signs. It comes in eight colors, and does amazing things. The surface seems to disappear endlessly into space, while at the same time reflections are visible on the surface. I’ve worked a lot with the sheeting, and combined it with LEDs and fluorescents both because of the color effects I can get, and also because it doesn’t require a dark environment to provide a rich experience. An example of this is “All That’s Left,” a series of boxes resembling brick fragments that I first showed in Berlin, which has patterns of colored LEDs embedded in the sheeting’s surface.
This past fall, I showed “Hercules Lite” in an exhibition of site-specific installations curated by Karin Bravin at Lehman College. It was based on the massive central column in the lobby of the Marcel Breuer-designed building. I replicated it in green fluorescent-edged plexiglass on the glass wall that separated the gallery from the lobby, using neodymium magnets to hold it in place. This transparent plexiglass sends ambient light to its edge, casting a glow onto the floor and ceiling, allowing me to use light and suspension to contrast with Breuer’s sense of weight. It was the first time I had used this material, but it will definitely not be the last.
For the first years, the industrial materials limited me to working with straight lines. I had been a gestural painter, and eventually I wanted to bring back in the evidence of my hand, and my calligraphic brush strokes. By accident, I had discovered that if LEDs were placed closely behind diffusion, their wiring cast beautiful shadows, almost like gray pencil lines. I embedded LEDs on both sides of diffused plexiglass, and the resulting wiring on both sides created drawings. I had already been collecting surplus LEDs because of the variety of shapes and sizes I was finding. As technology had been evolving, so had applications for these LEDs, most were now obsolete, and gorgeous.
I have more than forty-five different kinds of LEDs, some of them still made, but most not. The older ones are dimmer, so they all needed to be calibrated to a consistent brightness before I could use them for my “Gesture Drawings.” Some of the works use only one kind of LED, but others use almost all of them, and by looking closely you can see the great variety and beauty of things that were manufactured for industrial purposes. This work is, in a way an homage to the history of LED technology, a transformation of things high-tech that have outlived their use.
I feel very fortunate to be alive at this time in history, when technology goes into the development of the industrial materials I use. For me, the trick is to make sure that the technology doesn’t overwhelm the art, so that I can convey the magic that I find in light.