Alex Clausen: Flood

What we call places are stable locations with unstable converging forces that cannot be determined either by fences on the ground or by boundaries in the imagination – or by the perimeter of the map. Something is always coming from elsewhere, whether it is wind, water, immigrants, trade goods or ideas.  – Rebecca Solnit, Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas

Growing up in Martinez, California, artist Alex Clausen would sometimes accompany his Dad, a private investigator, on stakeouts. This wasn’t exactly a Veronica Mars version of father/son investigating, he never really liked the long stretches camped out in a van waiting for something to happen, “it was actually really boring” he tells me. But maybe it was during these slow days when he started to wonder about all the things that went unnoticed in a place, the hidden layers that were overlooked because no one bothered to pay attention. Like a private investigator, an artist carefully observes his surroundings to solve problems, ask questions and shift one’s perspective. Even though Clausen may not have appreciated surveillance as a youngster, it is fascinating that his art practice is not a far stretch from those slow and methodical stakeouts that nudged him to look at the world around him a bit differently.

At Ampersand, Clausen has closely observed and recorded the patterns and movement of sunlight in the space. The gallery windows face westward so that the sunlight pours inside during the afternoon hours. Over the course of a day, Clausen carefully marked the moving sunlight of the south-side window using string and blue tape. He then used his measurements to create a three-dimensional sculpture, giving volume to an otherwise ephemeral force of nature. Comprised of wooden framework covered in a semi-transparent textile, the geometric abstract form glows gem-like as light passes through it, casting a cool glow throughout the space.  Just as a stopped clock is right twice a day, the work physically describes the range of sunlight in the gallery for one day of the year. With each passing day of exhibition, the sunlight slightly shifts in relationship to the work, one moment contained within the blue-tinted walls, other times bleeding just outside of it.

With his careful measurements and labor-intensive process, the completed sculptural object dominates the gallery, creating an architectural barrier to fully navigate around it. Clausen is interested in the aesthetic and conceptual limitations of what he calls his “obtuse methodology.” He admits that while there are certainly tools, equations and websites that have calculated the exact position of the sunlight in a particular place at a particular time, he is most interested in the first-hand experience of discovering the intricacies of this phenomenon. Not unlike the work of the California Light and Space artists of the 1960’s and 1970’s Flood shifts the viewer’s attention to his or her own perception and movement through space. The work disrupts the gallery’s architecture while drawing attention to how the outside force of the sunlight moves through the space.

Like many artists, it is no surprise that Clausen started out as a scientist. As an undergraduate at University of California, Davis, he majored in both art and physics. At one point he thought of pursuing aeronautical engineering and even spent a summer interning at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The big questions about the nature of the universe and how things work in the smallest level captured his imagination. It didn’t take long, however, for his scientific inclinations and questions to shift towards artistic pursuits. While the laboratory presented an enticing environment, making art opened a looser and more open-ended way of engaging with the world around him.

On one hand, observing and mapping the sunlight at Ampersand is an elegant constraint to build an architectural and site-specific installation. But the work also points to our relative scale to a dynamic and powerful force – the sun. It is the center of our solar system, providing light and warmth during the daytime hours and is the key factor in photosynthesis. Everyday it rises and sets (by the way, it takes 8.3 minutes for sunlight to reach earth), and its light casts patterns in our homes, bodies and out in the world. In paying such close attention to a phenomenon that we may easily take for granted, Clausen has built a space for introspection, encouraging the viewer to slow down, look, and consider the multiple converging forces that comprise a place.

Susan O’Malley, 2011

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