Pablo Valbuena redefines parking garage for Lights on Tampa

BY LENNIE BENNETT

Times Art Critic

TAMPA — Raise your hand if you have ever, even once, paused and pondered the aesthetics of the Poe Parking Garage on Ashley Drive in downtown Tampa.

No hands?

Thought so.

Saturday that will change.

Artist Pablo Valbuena, who has created light-based installations around the world, will use part of this architecturally nondescript behemoth as his canvas for the signature work in Lights on Tampa, the biennial event that illuminates the city with works by artists from near and far.

A few become permanent parts of the landscape but most, like Valbuena's N27°57'00" W82°27'41" (the longitude and latitude coordinates of the Poe Parking Garage), remain only for the event.

Valbuena, 32, who grew up in Spain and is now based in France, is a rising artist in a medium called light art or light sculpture that emerged in the 1960s. Dan Flavin was the breakthrough artist at that time who used fluorescent bulbs as sculptural objects. He and other artists also began experimenting with light as a way to transform spaces. Valbuena is a part of that tradition, taking it further with his use of light to "restructure a space," playing with the viewer's perception of a space's physical reality.

Using a computer, he creates overlays on spaces that usually mimic exactly the actual lines of a wall, room, object or building. Then he begins to change its dimensions or design, drawing new elements and filling them in with light and shadow. The drawings are animated and projected onto the physical space, drawn with such precision and subtlety that they often become optical illusions.

"The construction is gradual," Valbuena says, "and makes you forget the original space. The difference creates a tension; the building becomes a special reality that is not there."

There's a point to his work that elevates it above an amusing bit of eye trickery to serious art. It goes all the way back to Plato, the Greek philosopher of the fifth century B.C. and his Allegory of the Cave, in which he explored how we perceive reality and the optical illusions our brain accepts as real.

Heavy stuff, but you don't need to dig that deeply to enjoy the artistry of Valbuena's work. Though underpinned by a serious vision, his installations play out as mesmerizing and beautiful meditations on light and space as the animated lines on surfaces become more complex and then bathed in solid washes of light, dark and nuanced shades in between.

For Lights on Tampa, he's concentrating on the garage's strong horizontal elements that face Ashley Drive and are formed by concrete bands between the parking floors. Two projectors attached to computers and a power generator are positioned near the sidewalk across the street to create work that will be in continuous loop during Lights on Tampa's hours.

As new-age as art such as this seems, it's more closely aligned to traditional art forms than a lot of contemporary art. Light, for example, is an integral component of all art in that it's needed for us to see the art. And anything we see as color is an interaction between our eyes and the spectrum of light. So painting, too, could be called a form of light art.

Maybe that's a stretch. But as you look at the Poe Parking Garage with Valbuena's intervention (that's an art term!), compare it to the way you look at the prisms, refractions and distortions you see when light shines through a stained glass window. They're different experiences. One began with those windows in medieval times and the other is pure 21st century. But they're connected, too, both part of the way we see the world. Or the way we think we see it.

And, in the best tradition of art, this installation slows us down. We have to spend some time with Valbuena's installation to see its complete realization. It asks us to linger.

At the Poe Parking Garage.

Who would have thought?

Lennie Bennett can be reached at lennie@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8293.

Pablo Valbuena redefines parking garage for Lights on Tampa 02/16/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 16, 2011 1:23pm]

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