Presence: David Wallace Haskins at the Elmhurst Art Museum

While exploring Presence, David Wallace Haskins’ first museum exhibition, you might laugh at yourself one moment and experience a rush of adrenaline the next. Situated somewhere between sculpture, painting, and architecture, the seven site-specific installations manipulate the physicality of the museum to frame a playful yet beautiful experience. Informed by a myriad of influences, from Yves Klein to J. M. W. Turner to the California Light and Space artists of the 1960s and 70s, the artist explores light, space, sound, and time through disorientating experiential works. "Skycube" Courtesy of the artist "Skycube" Courtesy of the artist Aiming for so-called “disorientation for reorientation,” Haskins’ confounding works frame phenomena of light and sound as the physical experiences that they are. Stepping into the pitch-black chamber of the “Void Room” enforces a slow read, if for no other reason than the practical concern of not wanting to fall face-first because you can’t even see your hands. This space feels infinitely larger than it actually is. As one enters, the absence of light is replaced with a presence of heightened energy in anticipation of what might be inside. In “Soundcube,”a bare white room with invisible speakers surrounding the viewer, one experiences sound as a physical presence coming from all directions. The adjacent work, “Light Seeing Light,” consists of a suspended circular scrim that is illuminated by a deep blue beam of light from either side. Presented in the middle of an open space, the projected beam form ripples like water when the viewer interrupts the path. Light and sound are such basic and permeating phenomena in our lives that when re-presented in these works, they become new again. "Void Room" Courtesy of the artist "Void Room" Courtesy of the artist In “Skycube,” Haskins manages to restructure our experience of the sky in real time as it assumes the language and format of a painting. As simple as an angled mirror and a beveled-edged square aperture, the work emanates a glow that strangely seems more like a screen than the sky itself. Referencing Kazimir Malevich’s black square and the surrealist paintings of René Magritte as much as the more obvious connection to James Turrell, this outdoor sculpture alone makes the trip to Elmhurst worthwhile. Literally located outside the museum, this large white cube could be read as an institutional critique. It uses an accessible visual language (who isn’t fascinated by the sky?) to combat the alienating and esoteric nature of much contemporary art. Likewise, Haskins doesn’t shy away from beauty, but rather adopts it as a mode of operation to consciously shape an experience for a broad audience. "Skycube" Courtesy of the artist "Skycube" Courtesy of the artist The strength of the show lies in its deceptive complexity. Each piece can be appreciated on a number of levels: for the minimalist aesthetic, for the playfulness of the experience, and for its rich art historical references. Yet this accessibility is by no means achieved through dumbing down the work. What sets it apart from a science museum exhibit, for example, is that it doesn’t attempt to reveal the process. It’s not about how these works exist, just that they simply do exist in some incomprehensible way. Instead of seeking to explain, Presence captures that wonder we all enjoyed as children when the world felt so new. Presence runs through May 8th.

 There are a number of upcoming public programs related to the exhibition and opportunities to meet the artist at the Elmhurst Art Museum. April 9 2pm - Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, Lecture by Stephanie D’Alessandro, Gary C. and Frances Comer Curator of International Modern Art, The Art Institute of Chicago April 16 - Exhibition Tour and Mindfulness Workshop April 28 6:30pm - Book Discussion, On Looking: A Walker’s Guide to the Art of Observation by Alexandra Horowitz April 30 2pm - Tour and Talk about the Science of Light and Art with David Wallace Haskins and guest Steve Davey, Technical Operations Specialist at Argonne National Laboratory May 7 2pm - Family Workshop on Looking and Listening, led by David Wallace Haskins

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Astri Snodgrass