The disorienting atmosphere of the fabulous Julio le Parc retrospective, just opened at the Perez Art Museum Miami, takes on an unexpected resonance in the wake of the presidential election results. Where are we? Where are we going? When navigating a Le Parc mirrored maze or starring into the rabbit hole of a 3-D light piece, the visitor feels a little lost. And fortunately, in the end, also uplifted.
“Julio Le Parc: Form into Action” turns out to be a perfect exhibit for PAMM at the end of 2016, in time for Art Basel week. The 88-year-old Argentine artist (who with his son was on hand to install his works) is a pioneer in the Op and Kinetic Art genres, which would become closely associated with South American art beginning in the late 1950s. But this is his first solo show at a museum in the United States, paralleling a renewed interest world-wide in a geometric abstract movement honed by South American artists including Jesus Rafael Soto and Carlos Cruz-Diez. That alone makes it a nice fit for Miami.
As the curator Estrellita Brodsky states in the show’s exhibition notes, “Driven by a solid utopian ethos, Le Parc continues to regard art as a social laboratory, capable of producing unpredictable situations and playfully engaging the viewer in new ways.” Over six decades Le Parc has created art aimed at shaking people out of a complacent view, to look at the social world around them with new glasses. And in that aspect this solo outing is also pitch perfect.
There are over 100 pieces in the galleries at PAMM. That most of them were initially created almost 50 years ago is in itself eye-opening, as they come off as so contemporary, and therefore ground-breaking — another reminder about how stunning it is that Le Parc has never had a major museum show in North America before. The pixelated abstractions, kinetic installations and light pieces, made in a pre-digital age, still feel fresh.
The entrance to the exhibit is a darkened room, with a refurbished ceiling-to-floor mobile (originally created for a much bigger space in 1963) with hanging lighted mirrored discs that throw reflections across the floor and participants. The following rooms introduce us to Le Parc’s early explorations on paper, in painting and drawing, of optical illusions. With very little color, he initially made gridded gouache abstracts that begin to play with perception as they appear to move as you do. Later, he added vibrant colors (here the 1960s and 70s influences are apparent), such as the re-created “The Long March” mural for which PAMM has built out a separate room. The strong colors, loops and pop-art sensibility are a little misleading however, as this remains a study of form.
Another acrylic painting covers an entire wall, comprised of thousands of tiny multi-colored dots on black background that at first looks like a universe exploding. But wait a little longer and you discern the clear, precise geometric shapes that actually frame the work. Conceived in a pre-computer world, these painstakingly hand-made paintings are a pleasure.
But they are almost the equivalent of a preamble, as the intense part of the show is about to begin. Continuing on, things don’t just seem to be moving, they really are.
There are metal sculptures activated by motors; one resembles waves as the stainless-steel sheets shimmer across a white canvas. The most remarkable installation that is powered by motor sits in its own room, a giant circle that could be a microscope, an eye, a marble. Light shapes bounce around in the “Continuous Light Cylinder” (1962), and this corner becomes a contemplative, cocooned world. As you retreat from the very dark room, watching your step as it’s so hard to see, you glance back to what can now look like a view of earth from outer space. Beautiful.
Spreading out through the rest of the gallery spaces – unrecognizable for anyone familiar with PAMM in their configuration and darkened walls — are mesmerizing light works contained in small boxes, and more dazzling mobile sculptures that splash light and shadows from the swaying strings of small squares of Plexiglas and mirrors.
Then, there are the labyrinths. Three rooms with lights –sometimes strobe-like — glass, curved reflecting walls and Plexi plates dangling from the ceiling, this time forcing visitors to finagle their way through and around them. Part fun house, part immersion therapy, this is a forest of deceptive pathways. It’s truly a trippy, disorienting experience, with a feeling of some relief when you emerge – and then can’t help but go back again.
On the other side are several more installations that pull your senses in various directions. One room is very light-hearted, with a row of funky 3-D glasses that the visitor can test, each one revealing another tweaked view of what sits around us. Another room includes a sort of trick floor, where the tiles tilt and dip under your feet with pulsing light all around. Again, a typical pathway is thwarted.
Le Parc was born in Mendoza, Argentina in 1928, and like many of his South American artistic compatriots moved to Paris in the 1950s, where he intermingled with the European post-war Modernist painters. He became interested in what was at the time the revolutionary notion of interactive and participatory art, becoming a founder of Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visual and associated with politically and socially active experimental art. He entered the world-wide stage after winning the Grand Prize for Painting at the Venice Biennale in 1966.
Le Parc wanted to challenge the status quo as he started creating his kinetic, interactive art, said Brodsky during a pre-opening tour. “It was the 1960s. He wanted to shake up the museum experience.” A disorienting architectural space, where fun house mirrors and labyrinths reflect a disarming version of the way we normally conceive the world, makes his point.
After traversing these often darkened galleries in a bit of a daze, a white room with a splendid bright red sculpture serves as a release, creating a land of Oz where we can click our ruby slippers and get to a better place. The spherical installation “Sphere rouge” is made of gleaming red Plexi squares hung on nylon wiring, that move with air currents; blow them with your breath, and images of you and your surroundings dance around. They seem to wink at us rather than confuse us, guiding us toward a path that will take us home, wherever that may be.
If You Go
What: “Julio Le Parc: Form into Action”
When: Through March 19
Where: Perez Art Museum Miami, 1103 Biscayne Blvd., Miami