Light has always been an important component of art; at its most basic, one needs light to see art. But light itself became a medium, as paint is, for example, during the 20th century with artists such as James Turrell and the late Dan Flavin pioneering its use beginning in the 1960s. It has only become more popular and important with advances in technology that allow for the creation of works in which science plays a major role in the art.
The Polk Museum of Art gives us a new exhibition of light-based art with 14 works by Stephen Knapp. He calls them "lightpaintings" because he considers them paintings rather than sculptures though they have sculptural qualities.
Whatever you call them, you will also call them dramatic. Knapp positions small glass panels treated with a high-tech metallic coating that create reflections of one color and also its complementary color, sort of like a color wheel. The result is a burst of reflected and refracted light that appears to be of real dimensions, not an illusion.
"Glass is a small part of the works," Knapp said in a recent telephone interview from his home in Massachusetts. "There are three components: the shaped glass, light and stainless steel brackets that create shadows, which become an important part of it."
He sometimes suspends frames in front of them, both to underscore his definition of them as paintings and to create even more dimension from the shadows they cast.
The process by which Knapp constructs his lightpaintings is complex; after an hour of conversation, I still didn't understand it. But they are unique, like ephemeral collages that play with our perception. If you live in the Tampa Bay area, you may have seen his permanent installation on the Tampa Municipal Office Building, which he created in 2005 as part of the Lights on Tampa public art program. The lights shimmer up an exterior wall like exotic birds.
You'll be able to get close to them at the Polk Museum, which will give you an appreciation of how they are put together. Knapp wrote in an email, "One thing that is very important to note is that there is a 'Wow' factor involved in seeing one for the first time. Many people also think they look similar. It is only when you see a body of work together that you realize that they are all very different paintings, and then you get past the 'Wow' and start to look inside, at the details, at the flares and images in the shadows."