Site-Specifics Lights Up BAM 

Stephen Knapp paints with light and pushes pedagogy at BAM

Stephen Knapp's "Social Commentary" says a lot about art but little about cultural implications.

Stephen Knapp

Stephen Knapp's "Social Commentary" says a lot about art but little about cultural implications.

People interested in light and color will find a treat at Boise Art Museum through Sunday, April 17. Visitors can bask in the glow of Stephen Knapp's large installation in the museum's darkened sculpture court. The 80-foot-long site-specific creation ingeniously translates the output of six small halogen lights into an enormous and intricate tapestry of pure color and interesting spatial effects. Its only shortcoming is in being a bit too site-specific.

Knapp is a self-trained artist whose fascination with light has taken him from the field of fine-art photography into an interest in sculptural surfaces that rely on the play of light to achieve their full effect. He has worked with ceramic glazes, kiln-formed glass and etched metals. Lately his concerns have gone from the play of light on surfaces to the elements and behavior of light itself.

Knapp has created a process that involves laminated glass, stainless-steel mounting hardware and projected light. Through a calculated array of these laminated and shaped pieces of glass, the small beam of light from a 75-watt halogen light virtually cascades across space creating an impressive elaboration of its hidden design and power.

The polished glass is treated with at least 18 layers of a metallic oxide that turns it into a selective prism, allowing certain wave lengths through and reflecting others. The shape and placement of the treated glass creates what might be called the work's painterly score. The dichroic laminates, along with the shape and angle of the glass pieces, direct the light through a series of six interconnected installations that have the appearance of large musical phrasings.

The word "musical" works well here because there is something in pure colors and the soft edges of the light that brings to mind the ethereal qualities of sound more than the visceral and tactile qualities of paint. But, unlike music, the notes here don't fade. It's as if you were looking at a less useful but more visually accurate kind of musical notation.

My one gripe would be the degree to which the piece is promoted as an example of pedagogic art. As soon as I saw that this piece of pure artistry and scientific curiosity was titled Social Commentary, my stomach tightened and my balance wavered. Don't attempt to conscript this kind of enjoyable art into pedagogic servitude. In this case, the indiscretion was slight but the distraction was great. It's as if the language of grant writing has insinuated itself into art. For some reason a majority of artists and art institutions feel like their greatest usefulness is in the field of critical inquiry. Their jobs as good culture workers are to educate the public, and critical inquiries are all the rage. Raising questions is the end all, be all.

Knapp's installation is the third show in a series BAM has titled "Threads of Perception," which is a three-year project meant to draw on scientific thought and technology in order to visualize the mental act of perception and consider its social and cultural implications. Sounds good doesn't it? Except, so far, there hasn't been anything in this series that explores the mental act of perception beyond what you might see at the Discovery Center of Idaho. It is implied that we will leave the museum with some important revelations about the social and cultural implications of the ways in which we perceive the world. We might, but only barely. The typical scenario involves some intellectual prose with interrogational overtones that achieves nothing beyond a vague suggestion that perceptions or facts--or beliefs or ideas--are in many ways, always under further deferment. Yes, it's a nudge in the direction of critical inquiry, but it's often pretentious, distracting and rarely is it realized in the artwork in any meaningful way.

In the statement used to introduce the first "Threads of Perception" show in the series, a work by Lead Pencil Studio, we were told that the artists explored the complex systems involved in the production of space and were exposing contemporary thought around the impermanence of architectural structures and their impact on our collective memories. Even where it delivered on those claims, it seemed like a depleted duty for art. Devorah Sperber's contribution to the series, in which thread spools played the part of pixels and the subject was reduced to an optical lens, was the most overtly analogous to the mechanics of seeing, but once again, we aren't really exploring the cultural and social implications of the subject's role in seeing. It's like picking up a book by Charles Taylor or Richard Rorty and just reading the table of contents. It's suggestive, but how much have you learned?

In the site-specific prompts surrounding Knapp's piece, viewers learn that the conceptual basis for the work is a reflection of how we perceive the causes and effects of our present societal environment--war, financial crisis and political polarization are mentioned.

Social relevance isn't a requirement for art. Light and color are enough. It's not impossible to make really good art that explores the epistemology of social issues, but if I had to choose between hearing a song about the social and cultural implications of contemporary perceptions of loneliness and a song about the mystery of feeling alone, I'll choose the song about plain old loneliness every time.

For a handful of don't-miss stops on First Thursday, see Downtown News. For a full list of events click here.

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