Nothing to See Here: Doug Wheeler at David Zwirner

A California artist’s heavy light

An installation view of Doug Wheeler's work at David Zwirner. (Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner)

Any description of Doug Wheeler’s gallery-filling installation artwork at David Zwirner must proceed in terms of a given viewer’s experience—that’s the point of the piece. An almost unbearably subtle light sculpture set into a walk-in void, it sidesteps the ordinary complexities of emotion and intellect in favor of an oppressively concrete sensory effect that pushes the viewer back onto his or her own devices, then throws those devices themselves into high relief.

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After crossing the gallery’s anteroom you come to a black leather bench and a friendly gallery assistant with a bin of stretchy white booties. You sit down to put the booties on over your shoes, thinking you’re about to be shown a delicate new experimental transistor or the remains of a recent spaceship crash in the high New Mexican desert. Instead you’re directed along a row of bristly floor mats to a single step up into a long, rectangular, glossy-white room that frames, depending on the direction you face once you’re standing in it, either a misty white emptiness behind a deep gray line cut into the concrete floor, or the “Please Watch Your Step” sign and dark hallway you’ve just stepped out of.

Projected into that misty-white emptiness—actually a curving, matte-white room that extends beyond the gray line—is a 32-minute cycle of light. It begins with a few moments of nocturnal darkness and then moves distinctly, but only just distinctly, through a diurnal range of colors and moods: from a bluish, ominous dawn, through a long, grassy-yellow day in which the world seems well ordered and everything is possible, into the slightly rose-tinted but melancholy fall of dusk, and then back into darkness again.

It is a lush but cold distillation of color that replicates the inhuman grandeur of the desert. But that grandeur, in the desert, depends in large part on the knowledge that the landscape continues, in all directions, farther than you can see. And so you approach the dark gray line in the gallery floor and step across it, like Alice through the looking glass, out of glossy white and into matte, out of the rectangle, into the void.

It’s a meticulously painted and maintained void that curves up gently and imperceptibly, so that for a moment, when you first step in, it really does look like it might go on forever. It’s a simulacrum of the visually-ordered kingdom of perception with all its particulars erased. But you know that you’re in a gallery space and that the room must end. Unable to tell exactly where, you shuffle forward slowly and, nervously, reach out one hand.

The paint is matte, but the light is sharp, and the whiteness you’re seeing is additive: It doesn’t just delineate but actually fills the space. When you look down at your outstretched hand, its edges seem too sharp; it could be anyone’s hand. So you try to look at the wall, but you keep noticing your own nose and the boundaries of your glasses. You hear the dull echo of your footsteps, the hum of the lights, voices in the gallery, the noise of a passing plane.

An artwork’s staging and its content are always concurrent; sometimes you choose one or the other to look at, and sometimes they merge. But in this case, the split between the light cycle and its physical execution is so narrow and so sharp that it’s as impossible to take them together as it is to focus on one without being distracted by the other. It’s as if the walls were pressing against your eyes: you can’t for a moment forget the artifice.

There’s also an inversion of proportions: The eye naturally searches out detail, and in front of a painting that takes up only a small fraction of your field of vision, you naturally screen out everything else. But standing inside of and surrounded by something you’re supposed to be looking at, you feel an irresistible urge to turn back and see where you came in.

When you do turn, you see 13 purple fluorescent tubes, three up each side of the entrance chamber and seven along the top, along with two large lamps bolted to the floor on each side, a few colored lamps on top, and the endearing, slightly awkward shadows that collect in this backstage area of an otherwise shadowless set. (Part of the initial disorientation is due to the fact that although you’re standing with light behind you, your body casts no shadow.)

Facing this way, you can read the whole installation as an elaborate machine for demonstrating the tight, paradoxical restrictions of the faculty of vision. It’s impossible, or at least extremely difficult, to turn you mind away from something you’re looking at. Even when facing into the void, you couldn’t help finding a single hair on the floor or a bit of dust, and analyzing such faint shadows as there are in order to gauge the dimensions of the room. But if, in response to this difficulty, you try to turn your attention to the faculty itself, you find that it’s equally impossible, or equally difficult, to notice how your vision works without giving it something to look at.

Nothing to See Here: Doug Wheeler at David Zwirner