Artist Takes a (Creatively) Dim View of His Work
Bill English, Special to The Chronicle
Friday, February 9, 2001
2001 San Francisco Chronicle
John Watrous isn't worried about rolling blackouts. His kinetic sculpture installation, "Sacred Darkness: Sculptural Fabrications of Story and Place," on view at the Santa Rosa Junior College Art Gallery, is lighted entirely with white LEDs.
"This show could run on batteries," Watrous said. "All 200 of the light- emitting diodes used in this exhibit consume far less energy than one standard gallery light. The whole show uses under 12 watts. To my knowledge, this is the only gallery show ever lit exclusively with LEDs."
In an era when most gallery shows are bathed in enough halogen light to enable dental work, this lack of illumination is a true departure. Artists are notorious for demanding that their work be lighted without the slightest hint of shadow. Traditionally, visual artists want all the light they can get. Watrous has intentionally taken the opposite approach. Stepping into his installation is like entering a mysterious cave.
"Darkness slows people down and increases their awareness," Watrous said. "It's like the long entryway to a Gothic cathedral. It's a way to separate the outside everyday experience from the more sacred and pristine experience inside the gallery."
Watrous, 58, who lives in the Sonoma County town of Graton, has been on the art faculty at SRJC for 28 years. He teaches classes in three-dimensional design and computer art. He also has served as campus gallery director for more than 20 years, giving him an intimate knowledge of the exhibit space.
"I've installed more than 100 shows by other artists in this gallery," Watrous said. "I've always tried to make each show unique, but when you're dealing with the same space it can be difficult. I couldn't conceive of my current show without considering the space. I wanted to eliminate the architectural elements and focus on the work."
The small brick museum on the SRJC campus was built in 1939 as part of the Works Progress Administration program. It has few windows and offers a clean white box in which to display exhibits. By shrouding the gallery in darkness, Watrous has made the walls and ceiling virtually disappear. "I wanted to create a space where people could feel their adjustment to the lack of light," Watrous said. "Some people are afraid of the dark. I wanted them to be on edge when they entered this show. I was even thinking of posting a warning sign: Low light ahead."
The darkness, combined with odd and mysterious noises created by fan-driven wind through endless sheets of plastic and low-frequency sounds of lightning, gives the show a haunted feeling. There is a sense of heightened awareness and mild disorientation. You pay more attention, like when someone whispers.
"I like the fact that technology intervenes in the process and changes the work," Watrous said. "I want to be like the guy behind the curtain in 'The Wizard of Oz.' Some people will come in here and focus on the technology, while others won't see it at all."
As you enter the show you're confronted with a dimly lit canvas wall with squares of bright colors. Immediately, you have the sensation of being tested - - like looking at an eye examination chart for color blindness. "I wanted to have light become part of my sculptures," Watrous said. "My intention was to have my work lit, but to have no ambient light whatsoever. So people weren't aware of where the light was coming from. To have the sculptures seem as if they were glowing."
Stepping into "Sacred Darkness" is like being transported into another man's artistic vision. Nothing is familiar. As you stand at the rail near the entrance, a strange mechanical object reminiscent of a college-rowing scull lies silently in front of you.
Before your eyes can adjust to the low light, the sculpture begins to move through black plastic waters. "There's something about the rhythm of rowing, like a heartbeat, that connects a human to a machine that attracts me," Watrous said. "I like making mechanical interpretations of inherently nonmechanical and even spiritual events. I worked with fellow artist-engineer, Michael McGinnis, on this project who shared my mechanical frustrations."
The result is a sculptural storytelling experience that will give viewers a strong sense of place, while taking them across odd and unique landscapes. Actual geographic sites inform many of the pieces like "Monte Alban," "Pebbles" and "Wisconsin," and they include found objects, maps, and bits of technology all blended together into a seamless whole.
"Going to a location I collect stuff," Watrous said. "Not only memories, but objects and photographs. It's a way of trying to remember where I was. Back at my studio, when I look at these things the experience can be so powerful I want to fabricate stories about them."
But Watrous is also interested in information not available to our five senses. Much of his work deals with light invisible to the human eye -- what might be called unfound objects. "I'm curious about the unseen aspects of the light spectrum," Watrous said. "There is all this stuff that we can't really see, but we can see evidence of. It seems like a short bridge from there to spiritual beliefs. There are things being felt by people that are beyond what we can actually see and hear."
Watrous has not only created a space filled with inventive kinetic installations, he has reinvented the way sculpture is presented in a gallery setting. "I like the theatrical nature of the crossover between the visual arts and theater," Watrous said. "You have to be there to see it, or you've missed it."
See the Art"Sacred Darkness: Sculptural Fabrications of Story and Place," noon to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday through March 15. Santa Rosa Junior College Art Gallery, 1501 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa. (707) 527-4298.
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