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The Alchemist of Light: An Interview with Phillip K. Smith

 Torus 9, 2014, 46” x 46” x 8.75”, Acrylic, LED Lighting,
Plywood, Custom Electronic Components

All images courtesy of the artist and Royale Projects unless otherwise noted.
 

By FRANCEASCA SEIDEN, SEPT. 2016

“We desire the powerful, memorable experiences that we can’t fully explain. We desire mystery and beauty as they remind us of the unity, love, immensity, and incomprehensible complexity that exist in the world.” – Phillip K. Smith III

Phillip K. Smith III is a lightworker, an alchemist, an inventor and a magician. His other worldly creations draw upon ideas of perception: space, form, color, light, shadow, environment, transience. The elemental root of Smith’s work is change -- shifting color variations, translucent to opaque, 2- and 3-dimensionality. Smith’s work is conceptual, intensely physical, extremely technical and meditative. In 2015 art writer and curator, Jan Tumlir wrote about Smith’s work: “There is the effect in sensory deprivation so prized by American artists of the 60’s and 70’s that reorients attention toward the phenomenal minutiae. The incremental movements of celestial bodies, changing of the light, quality of air, and so on – all are here more acutely observed.” Smith has often been compared to his predecessors such as Robert Irwin, Constantin Brancusi, Kenneth Noland and James Turrell. 

In Smith’s work, viewers are guided through an abstract metaphysical journey bestowing perception-shattering illusions of time and space, in a futuristic and geometric environment examining esoteric themes of singularity and totality. “These works,” says Smith, “make us step away from our pattern, our life, our work, our errands, and our conversations and allow us to see sublime beauty shifting and changing before our eyes. Those are the moments that make life worth living.” 

Smith’s best known works were launched from a modified antique cabin called Lucid Stead in Joshua Tree, CA, which became an international phenomenon receiving and led him to twice collaborate with the Coachella Music and Arts Festival. In 2014 he produced “Reflection Field,” a light installation that interacted with attendees, allowing them to move within dimensions as colors slowly shifted by ambient sunlight and movement; and this past year he created “Portals” an 85-foot diameter light pavilion. Whitehot Magazine’s Franceasca Seiden spoke with the artist about the intentions behind this choreography of light, space, abstraction, and consciousness.  

WM: Do you think of yourself as an alchemist?

PKS3: If our understanding of alchemist is being part scientist and part magician, I’ll say yes. Scientist, because I’m interested in breaking down experience to base elements, the most distilled elements. Magician, because I’m interested in mystery, discovery, timelessness, and memorable experiences. Somewhere in the middle of these two is a sense of sublime beauty, happily existing between knowing and not knowing. Beauty is not discussed much. As alluring as it is, it’s challenging and subjective, difficult to define, highly personal -- embarrassing even. However, 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’s these moments of beauty, purity, and universality that I’m seeking to create.

Bent Parallel, 2014, 258” x 96” x 106”, Glass, Aluminum, LED Lighting, Custom Electronics 

WM: Your studio space is away from Los Angeles in Palm Desert, which is a more serene area surrounded by nature. What makes it so special to create there?

PKS3: The desert is a place where the environment can be simplified to sky and earth, activated by light. It is in a way, an environment of deprivation, of a reduction of elements. It is a place where there are daily light phenomena occurring everywhere at once. To be out in the middle of the desert is to open one’s eyes to those phenomena. For me, that quiet, beautifully desolate, and visually rich environment is pure inspiration. And it’s wrapped around us, changing, every day showing something new. All that is required is stop, look, and listen.

WM: What is your take on being compared to James Turrell, Craig Kaufman, Robert Irwin, Dan Flavin, and others who have diversely explored the Light and Space arena? I also see influences from the visionary art movement, artists that didn’t necessarily play with the same medium, such as Alex Grey.

PKS3: Whether it’s Turrell, Kaufman, Irwin, Flavin, or Grey, I think that they 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. Most importantly, there was, amongst their works, an aspect of the pace of the experience. Stopping and really looking -- of understanding how your eye and mind perceives -- was a necessary component of the experience of these artists’ work. For me, Lucid Stead really established a sense of pace for the work I wanted to create. That project was my first work inspired by the desert, built in the desert, and that actually used the desert as medium, or material. Lucid Stead combined with Aperture, which really focused on color, set the foundation for future works. Prior to those pieces, I had done a lot of large-scale work that interacted directly with the sun through the movement of light and shadow across a surface. 

Lucid Stead, 2013, Joshua Tree, CA, 25’ x 16’ x 10’, Existing homestead cabin, Mirror, LED Lighting, Custom Electronic Components

WM: Many of your materials -- wood laminates, metal alloys, chemical compounds, plastics, glass treatments, digital and fabrication -- are non-conventional to fine art. How did you come to work with them?

PKS3: As a result of my college training as both an artist and an architect, I have an ingrained interest in materials and their innate capabilities. In addition, over the last 20 years, the development of materials and creative manufacturing technologies has been unprecedented. The arsenal of materials and technologies that are available to artists these days is incredibly exciting. Glass manufacturing, LEDs, controllers, CNC milling, 3D printing, Arduino, 3D modelling software, the list goes on. I’m always interested in technology so that I can better understand the potential of process and materials. If it’s out there, why not use it? If it can allow my concept to be as pure and true as possible, I’m going to use that material or that technology. The litmus test is always one of priority, that the concept must always come first, that these materials and technologies are just tools that I’m using. I’m never interested in expressing the “newness” or capabilities of these materials and technologies. They must be subservient to the idea and never compete with the intent of the work, otherwise, mystery and discovery dissolves instantly and I’ve lost my interest and my audience. Often, I find myself involved in high-tech processes and materials that are presented in a seemingly low-tech way.

Lucid Stead, 2013, Joshua Tree, CA, 25’ x 16’ x 10’, Existing homestead cabin, Mirror, LED Lighting, Custom Electronic Components

WM: Are you more influenced by your predecessors or aligned more with ideas of progressive futurists?

PKS3: Both, equally. Often, I find myself asking, What would Sol LeWitt do if he had access to the materials and technologies of today? How would these tools allow a progression of ideas? Or simply allow seemingly too complex older ideas to finally come to fruition as originally intended? When I look back at the work of LeWitt, Turrell, Irwin, Brancusi, Stella, etc. I often find incredible ideas sketched out that just simply weren’t possible in that time period. Look through LACMA’s catalogue of the Art + Technology program and you’ll find a book littered with failed attempts at immense, wild, incredibly forward-pushing ideas. It’s incredible. Really, you find that artists presented with a new material or processes were able to translate, expand, and further their ideas from their traditional materials -- and to degrees that were unprecedented. Ultimately, whether the project was built or not, that process of collaborative thought is quite powerful. It breaks an artist out of his or her studio or set way of thinking and forces them to work through ideas never before considered.

I still find the idea of the Art + Technology program incredibly inspiring and intelligent. When I was a young kid, I would drive around in the industrial areas of LA with my grandfather, who had an aerospace engineering background and was an original maker with his brothers -- a maker during the Great Depression and beyond, which meant invention out of necessity. But we’d drive by open warehouse doors and look in. If it looked interesting, we’d just walk in. Nervously, I’d ask my grandfather if we were allowed to do this. He’d say: “The worst they can say is No, please leave.” We got in everywhere and had personal tours by welders, product manufacturers and shop owners. They loved to share what they were doing with someone that was interested. Besides, who could say no to a 72-year-old grandfather and his inquisitive 7-year-old grandson? This same curiosity guides me today. I’m always on the lookout for processes and materials I’ve never seen before. Some of my most exciting projects have been a result of collaborating with shops that have never ever worked with an artist before. The excitement of working on something different builds a mutual bond.

Lucid Stead, 2013, Joshua Tree, CA, 25’ x 16’ x 10’, Existing homestead cabin, Mirror, LED Lighting, Custom Electronic Components

WM: What made you decide to patent your color-sequencing program? (Other than intellectual property protection.)

PKS3: Simply stated, it’s part of my creative process. It’s integral. It’s the result of much work and is still always changing. We’ve created a lot of proprietary elements in the studio to create the works and experiences that I’ve crafted. Sometimes, existing elements can be changed or used in an unexpected way for a project. Other times, we just simply have to create an electronic component from scratch or create my own process to achieve what I want.

WM: What is your relationship with the transitioning of color movement is there meaning or preference when the transitions occur?

PKS3: At the root of transition is change, which, for me, has become a necessary element in my work. Color shift, shadow movement, formal shift from 3 dimensions to 2 dimensions, sharp to blurred, translucent to opaque, reflection, using the environment. These are some of my examples of change. Change implies a sense of life… of breath. When something is always in a state of change and not a simple, repetitive, patterned change, but a paced, seemingly organic change, I believe it creates a real connection with the work. It forces people to stop, to question and to discover, to give themselves over to the work. That giving over is similar to a sunset making you stop and look or how a campfire strangely captures your attention. At the root of these experiences is that state of being in between knowing and not knowing. You know in a base scientific way in which these moments have come to fruition, but at the same time, you have no idea how they really, truly exist. The key is pace that these experiences universally force us to stop or slow down. They make us step away from our pattern, our life, our work, our errands, and our conversations and allow us to see sublime beauty shifting and changing before our eyes. Those are the moments that make life worth living. We desire the powerful, memorable experiences that we can’t fully explain. We desire mystery and beauty as they remind us of the unity, love, immensity, and incomprehensible complexity that exist in the world.

Reflection Field, 2014, 80’ x 80’ x 18’, Mirror, Steel, LED Lighting, Electronic Components. Images courtesy of the artist and Goldenvoice.

WM: I experienced “Reflection Field” at Coachella 2014; this was the first time that the festival displayed complex installation art. It was a place where you would want to hang out and take it all in. What was your intention behind this work?

PKS3: Reflection Field really grew out of Lucid Stead. In fact, I had just started talking with Goldenvoice about the potential of proposing a project, while I was finishing up the installation of Lucid Stead. So, when Lucid Stead sort of blew up publicly, and I was spending a lot of time in Joshua Tree, it was then that I started to conceive of a large-scale project that could be built at Coachella. The shift from day to night of Lucid Stead, of sky and desert to pure floating color was at the root of my concept for Reflection Field. In addition, I wanted to expand the reflected surface area of experience for the dawn and dusk moments when you see yourself reflected as, say, purple, but the reflection of the environment is still its true color. The trees are green, the sky is blue, but you are reflected as a shifting color. And with the expansion of that surface area, gradients across the surface of the glass became possible. So, now I could paint the sky pink and fade it into the true green of the grass. Or I could paint the ground blue and fade it upwards into the true color reflections of the yellow-orange-red sunset. 

In between Lucid Stead (October, 2013) and Reflection Field (April, 2014), I exhibited Lucid Stead: Four Windows and a Doorway at the Lancaster Museum of Art + History in January 2014. In this exhibit, the desert environment was removed and the shack was essentially turned inside out. Now, the 5 color fields of Lucid Stead were turned inward. And with the desert and shack removed, the 4 windows and a doorway interacted directly with each other. Reflected color merged with reflected color through perspective. A red window extended in space in the reflection of a green window as a yellow plane. Placed on 4 walls, the color program shifting at the pace of Lucid Stead, and with you the viewer moving through the space, the installation was in a constant state of change. And each viewer could have their own individually unique experience because perspective and spatial shift affected everything. If you want to see this in person, Royale Projects has built a space for this installation in their downtown LA gallery. That installation as well as the forthcoming Lucid Stead: Elements series of works are the only true artifacts from the original installation. 

Reflection Field, 2014, 80’ x 80’ x 18’, Mirror, Steel, LED Lighting, Electronic Components. Images courtesy of the artist and Goldenvoice.

WM: Does science (astrophysics/quantum physics) and space have any influence in your work like design, technology and color does? 

PKS3: Not really. I’d probably say that geometry and mathematics, combined with design, technology and color, have more influence. I’m interested in distilled form, base elements of line, shape, and form: arcs, circles, squares, parallelograms, angles of reflection, etc. These are elements that all of us understand. I often use these as “ways in” for viewers. They are common ground elements that, again, allow a strong step towards the middle ground between understanding and mystery. While I’m constantly using basic mathematics when conceiving and fabricating works, I was able to understand my work through a higher plane of mathematics while I was an artist in residence at Dartmouth College last year. A student that was double majoring in mathematics and art suggested that I give a talk to some of the Mathematics Department professors. It was then that I learned that several of my works could be explained via mathematical terms I had not heard of before, such as a 3-Torus space, or that some pieces emulated diagrams for conceptual mathematics. I’m not necessarily striving for these alignments, but I view them as affirmation that I am heading down correct distilled paths of thought.

WM: When and what will be the upcoming show in Laguna?

PKS3: The upcoming show in Laguna will be two fold. Firstly, I’ll be exhibiting Bent Parallel and Torus 9 in the California Gallery at the Laguna Art Museum. Bent Parallel is a large 9-foot high x 21-foot long light installation. It is composed of two mirrored planes that have been bent at 120 degrees. The result is a third reflected plane that is zero thickness, material-less, and the merging of the colors of the two planes. The mirrored surface affects your perception of the space that you are within and that is reflected. As you approach the glowing, mirrored plane, your brain tries to adapt to what it is seeing and begins to question which side you are on. Are you within the color looking back? Are you looking through color to the true colors of the space? Or...? 

Upstairs, at the end of the mezzanine level that looks down into the space of Bent Parallel will be Torus 9. This piece is the most recent in my Lightworks series that merges 6 different color zones, each differently paced, slowly shifting, across a very specific form and surface. There is a dialogue between color shift and surface. You will find that the warm tones of yellow, orange, red, and violet are held within the center of the piece, while the cool tones of blue and green are projected onto the wall around the piece. The result is a strong sense of depth. Depending on the color combinations, the form appears to push and pull, to change from translucent to opaque and back. These two works will be up as of mid-October and will be on view for about 3 months.

Additionally, as part of the Museum’s 4th annual Art + Nature series, I have been selected as the commissioned artist to create a temporary installation on Main Beach, directly adjacent to the Museum. From November 4-6, people will be able to view 1/4 Mile Arc, an installation composed of 300 mirror-polished uprights equally spaced over a quarter mile following the true arc of the beach itself. The uprights will emerge directly from the sand just above the high tide line. The result of these spaced uprights will be a condensing of reflection, as a quarter-mile long reflection of Laguna, that will reflect and track the light, sky, water, and atmosphere as it changes in real time. I wanted to evidence the beauty of the place…both in its distinct power and distinct subtlety. Don’t miss it!

And don’t blink. WM

 

 

Franceasca Seiden


Franceasca Seiden is a writer based in Los Angeles.

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