Luminous
Bellevue Art Museum, 425-454-3322.
Through June 17.

THE TRANSFER OF the Bellevue Art Museum from the top floor of a mall to a new building designed by a renowned architect signals more than a change of venue. A sweeping conceptual change accompanies the move: The institution becomes a real center for intellectual and artistic pursuit, not just attached to commerce like a codicil, or an afterthought.

The new building combines light and loft in a structure that's fairly low, in contrast to the general highrise-ness of Bellevue. It's built, like other creations of architect Steven Holl, around an atrium with a staircase that rises slowly around it. If you've ever visited Holl's St. Ignatius Chapel on the Seattle University campus, you know that light is something Holl spends a great deal of time thinking about: innovative ways to channel it, reflect it, amplify it, and close it off. In this museum, the chief mandate seems to be to make the most of it in a place where light is inconsistent and often not enough, and on opening day--under dour, dark gray skies--the atrium was suffused with our own particular brand of weak light.

In honor of the kind of attention Holl pays to light in his work, curator Brian Wallace has assembled a show called Luminous, which pays tribute to and explores the idea of light as subject, object, and material. (Sharing the gallery space is a series of weird botanical paintings by Juan Alonso, which did absolutely nothing for me.) The first work you see as you enter the gallery on the third floor is Joseph Kosuth's philosophical No number #1 (Not on Color/ White), a statement rendered in neon that lays down the show's ars poetica: "Visual space has essentially no owner." It's a dense declaration, with a lot of meaning to unpack, especially considering the work's title. Its many negatives suggest a world of impossibility, yet the idea is slippery and debatable. Visual space, like virtual space, is something that you can't put your hand around, but it can be owned, if in odd ways--think of the airspace over St. Patrick's in New York City, which the cathedral was allowed to sell to the developers of the skyscraper next door. There is also a kind of ownership (psychic, you might call it, or emotional) between a viewer and the work viewed. But the statement attests most clearly to the ineffability of light--all the while affirming its quiddity in neon--and the difficulty of describing it.

In the museum's great atrium, Dan Webb has placed a series of graduated lampshades that ascend from the wall sconces to the round skylights. Webb has read Holl's space and intent almost flawlessly, connecting the atrium's inner and outer light and complementing rather than echoing the grade of the stairway that wraps around it. In another site-specific work, Julianne Swartz has draped fiber-optic cables from one gallery to the next, like something by Eva Hesse transported into the future. In the courtyard, James Carl's Fountain (all respect due, I'm sure, to Duchamp) is a series of nine vending machines whose surfaces connect to create a backlit mural of tremendous beauty, which a lot of people missed because of the work's vehicle. (The Tully's in the lobby further complicates matters, but I think that's kind of fun.)

The most sublime work by far is Dan Flavin's Untitled (to S.A., lovingly), a simple grid of red and blue fluorescent tubes. It's situated at the end of a gallery where the long walls pitch toward each other, creating a triangle with the work at its apex. No other work hangs near it--a wise decision, because Flavin's work should be approached. You notice, as you draw closer, your shifting perceptions of the light--now ambient purple, now humming blue, now gentle, now aggressive. Flavin, who died in 1996, tried to deflect the spirituality people rushed to attribute to his work, writing in 1964, "It is what it is, and it ain't nothing else." Nonetheless, I had a moment of pure happiness in the North Light Gallery when the room suddenly cleared, and I sat on a bench looking down the length of the narrowing room toward Flavin's work, which glowed like a hearth. It was one of those rare times when the brain ceases its eternal chattering, and pleasure is communicated directly to the synapses. It was light at its most tangible, a benevolent presence under the high white gallery ceiling, an idea, a beacon, a terribly good thing.

Support The Stranger