Phillip K. Smith III: Light and Shadow Works

By Kimberly Nichols - Friday, December 11, 2015
Phillip K. Smith III: Light and Shadow Works

Smith III has become king of the double take in a rapidly evolving body of work that uses light as its medium. Growing up in the Southern California desert, the artist became acutely aware of light. Without a discerning shift in climate and season that emerges boldly in landscapes of more drastically occurring climate, his attunement to light arrived with subtlety. We recently spoke with Smith III about this further progression in his overall oeuvre.

Phillip K. Smith III: Light and Shadow Works

Upon entering the voluminous warehouse in downtown Los Angeles that houses Royale Projects’ gallery space, one is instantly sucked into a room where three of artist Phillip K. Smith III’s Complex Surface Disks hold reign. Like massive and fragile cracked eggshells they hover majestically off the wall, their planes fractured into dozens of variations on the color white. But when you are drawn deeper into the space, compelled to stand before them, they appear as a flat circle of white with lines produced by shadow the only indication of their three-dimensionality. Like all the other works in the show Phillip K. Smith: Light and Shadow Works, they compel the viewer to attempt a comprehension of what exactly it is they are seeing. They beg contemplation outside our everyday comfort zones that have come to accept things at face value. They jostle our ordinarily, complacent observations toward delving deeper.

Smith III has become king of the double take in a rapidly evolving body of work that uses light as its medium. Growing up in the Southern California desert, the artist became acutely aware of light. Without a discerning shift in climate and season that emerges boldly in landscapes of more drastically occurring climate, his attunement to light arrived with subtlety. A chocolate colored mountain to the untrained eye might seem singularly brown and triangularly two-dimensional. But in the course of the day, its contours manipulated by the ever-present sun, might transform into various shades of brown, its lines and edges revealed quietly and with grace. A passing glance might never notice these miniscule transitions, yet the young artist started to explore these fleeting moments in time, honing in on these silent transformations to inform a body of work.  

The artist became most widely known for his earlier Lucid Stead installation in the Joshua Tree desert. In the piece, he changed a dilapidated homestead cabin into a mirage-like reflection of the surrounding terrain by interchanging the façade’s wooden slats with mirrors containing LED lights. He then provided the centerpiece at the 2014 Coachella Music and Arts Festival with Reflection Field, a grouping of gigantic rectangular mirrored cubes that glowed from within, emanating colored light. But this current exhibition represents a departure in its unabashedly minimalist interplay of ambient light and shadows to create their visual impact.

We recently spoke with Smith III about this further progression in his overall oeuvre. 

KN: Your work has used various mediums to explore light, space and shadow across various geometrical shapes, forms and planes from LED light to advanced technologies to reflective mirrors. Yet in this series you reduce everything down to one color and shape composed of various sculptured angles and planes. What inspired the bare minimalism in this phase of your work’s evolution? 

PKSIII: Light and shadow has been a consistent thread throughout my work from the beginning.  I’ve created a number of works outdoors that interact directly with the movement of the sun.  These earlier works were more geometrically complex, but their “skin” was composed of an ever-shifting surface of light and shadow.  So, these new works really focus the eye on the singular elements of that shifting surface.  They are about distilling that overall experience to the purest elements of light and shadow.  

At the same time, this definition of the elements is allowing for new reconfigurations of light and shadow.  The three large Complex Surface Discs are the first step in that direction, merging planar and curved surfaces to create a highly controlled, three-dimensional form.  For me, they are a kind of three-dimensional painting of light and shadow. 

Photo by Lance Gerber

Photo by Lance Gerber

Photo by Lance Gerber

KN: What do you hope this work conjures for the viewer?

PKSIII: When confronted with the simplicity of two, three or four planes of light, there is something equally subtle and powerful about that moment.  There is also something that is equally familiar and unfamiliar.  Our mind and eyes negotiate light and shadow every day both consciously and unconsciously.  It is how we perceive depth, contrast, object identification, etc.  And so, when that light itself is presented, both as an object and free from the object, there is a sense of knowledge about how that works combined with a conscious willingness to not know what is happening in front of you.  The materiality and form fall away to present light in its most simple state.

KN: What did you intend to evoke with these pieces that is markedly different than prior series? 

PKSIII: I’m interested in allowing the brain to exist in blurred states between two and three dimensions, between darkness and light, between compression and expansion, and between knowing and not knowing. 

KN: What material was used in these pieces and how does material inform the work’s overall goals?

PKSIII:  All of the works in the show are fabricated using fiberglass, except for the three large Complex Surface Discs, which are carbon fiber.  The choice of material is guided by the precision of my intent.  Fiberglass and carbon fiber can be infinitely molded to incredible precision in just about any form that you can think of.  And to be clear, these works are, in their fabrication, just as technologically advanced as the mirror and LED works.  CNC milling machines were used to create the molds for these works with the result being that there is almost zero tolerance between my intent and the final fabricated work.

Photo by Lance Gerber

Photo by Lance Gerber

Photo by Lance Gerber

KN: What did you discover that surprised you in the making of these pieces? 

PKSIII: So far no surprises, just hopes and desires answered: the hope that scale would create a more enveloping experience; the hope that low sheen white can be as powerful as color and mirror; and the hope that light is understood as being my integral material whether I’m using mirror, acrylic, fiberglass, LEDs or steel.

KN: What kind of dialogue are you hoping to contribute to within the modernist oeuvre with this work?

PKSIII: While there are always easy categories to compare the work to including Minimalism, Light + Space, and Finish Fetish, I’m not fighting to be part of any particular movement or group of work.  I suppose I’m more interested in the continuation of ideas that have come out of these movements and how the discussion has or hasn’t changed in say, 50 years.  Or how these movements continue to influence design and our daily lives.  I’m interested in creating work that bridges categories or that refuses to belong to just one.  For me, the Complex Surface Discs are like merging a Robert Irwin disc with a Frank Stella, not that that was my intent, but it is a way to define categorical explanation or a blunt way of explaining what is in front of you.  I’m interested in how artists worked, like Sol LeWitt working serially.  He discovered problems and their solutions and found that there were ten and only ten steps between point A and point B.  For me, I like to create parameters that create infinite solutions between point A and point B.  From there, I can edit, curate, and define the steps between. I can be more “painterly” in my process, while maintaining a sense of working serially.  The 100 unique Faceted Discs are very much part of this way of working.

I’m really struck by the Complex Surface Discs because I think they tap into a kind of universal beauty while maintaining a sense of oddity, of not being able to be easily explained or defined.  How do you tell someone what you saw? How do you describe a cloud precisely? What are they? What are they made of? There is a sense of being familiar with the work while understanding that you’ve never seen something like this before.   

Photo by Lance Gerber

Photo by Lance Gerber

KN: What kind of dialogue are you hoping to contribute to within the light and space oeuvre with this work? 

PKSIII: I couldn’t be doing this work if artists like James Turrell and Dan Flavin hadn’t pioneered the use of light as a material. For me, I’m continuing the idea of working within the medium of light. In the end, this is a relatively new concept. I believe we are still in the stage of establishing the importance and reality of this as a medium. Turrell, Flavin, Irwin and others helped to create the foundation. Myself and other artists are now starting to build up from that foundation. And to note, technology is very much helping with this effort both in the development of light sources, like LED and OLEDs, and the ability to control and customize light in ways never before seen.

KN: How has the desert environment specifically helped shaped your work overall?   

PKSIII: There are light phenomena that occur naturally every day here in the desert.  I am surrounded by these occurrences. There are moments that happen only once a day or maybe just once a year or once in a decade. The beauty of the desert and its pace of change continue to keep me aware of the subtle and powerful shifts.  It keeps me looking. It keeps me searching.

Show runs through January 16, 2016 at Royale Projects in downtown Los Angeles. 

Portrait above: Photo by Antonia Jane Allan

Kimberly Nichols is an artist, writer, and social anthropologist in Los Angeles, California. Her conceptual works, literary fiction and creative nonfiction have been exhibited and published internationally. She is the author of the critically acclaimed collection of short stories Mad Anatomy (Del Sol Press, 2005) and is currently writing a second book.

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Museo Jumex (a private art collection based in Mexico City, Mexico) / David Chipperfield. Image © Simon Menges

Museo Jumex (a private art collection based in Mexico City, Mexico) / David Chipperfield. Image © Simon Menges

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