An Unearthly Collection

Courtesy of HPAC

The upper-level exhibition space at the Hyde Park Art Center has gotten a lot groovier. Instead of the HPACs traditional lighting, black lights run along the gallery ceiling and the walls glow a gentle purple hue. The effect reminds one of bowling alley birthday parties and rounds of laser tag where black lights created a sense of otherworldliness. This extraterrestrial feel has now been captured in “Blaque Lyte”, a UV-light-themed exhibition curated by Chicago-based artists Chriss Kerr and Paul Nudd.

The show is a study in how light on the edge of the visible spectrum can alter our traditional notions of color, shape, and space. Kerr and Nudd commissioned pieces from 30 North American and European artists, assembling a surreal showcase that utilizes highlighters, gel pens, and fluorescent foam. Though handpicked by Kerr and Nudd for this exhibit, none of the artists had ever before made art for a black light environment. Many had to change the colors, shapes, and strokes they normally used.

“Even though they had never worked under black lights before, all the artists actually managed to preserve their own unique style,” Kerr explains. “They had the skill to incorporate what, for them, was a new form of lighting into their work, rather than the other way around. At the end of the day, every artist came through and showed us why we picked them in the first place.”

This foray into fluorescence and neon seems to have paid off. Veteran contraption artist Nick Black captivates viewers with his eye-catching glass tower filled with a rising tide soapy foam.  Entitled “Bubble Tower,” Black’s piece confirms his reputation as a skilled contraption-maker. Under the black light, his work shows how lighting has a profound effect on our perception of motion and shape. As the glow-in-the-dark column of foam slowly overflows its glass confines, the black light exposes each stage of the foam’s gradually changing shape. Every bend and fold in the soapy foam is highlighted, showcasing a surreal beauty that would appear flat under normal lighting.

While Black’s pieces are light-hearted and vibrant, Hanna Andersson’s take on a darker tone. Her untitled collection of distorted Fimo clay sculptures cast onto a black backdrop unsettles viewers: the little monsters are not quite human, not quite animal, but a unnerving combination of the two. At the center, a totem pole stands with a dog with human lips and legs at the bottom and two elongated half-human, half-cat heads with tears falling from their eyes on top. If that isn’t eerie enough, a closer inspection of the other statues show two human busts connected to each other at the shoulder like Siamese twins and a clown lying stomach-down with an evil smile cracking through its purple lips. Each “anti-toy”–as Kerr refers to them–contains at least one detail meant to disturb, and those details are only accentuated under the sinister purple glow of the black light.

Apart from the bizarre and otherworldly, “Blaque Lyte” also contains elements from what Kerr refers to as “academic art”–an allusion to the classical paint techniques that have dominated art for centuries. For instance, Belgian artist Marie Rosen’s untitled painting of two bird-like origami figures combines the traditional simplicity of Northern European portraiture with florescent blues and purples. Under the black lights, Rosen’s blue origami figures  adopt a transparency that renders the painting  delicate and beautifully fragile. On the other end of the spectrum, the young American artist Nicole Northway blends reds, oranges, and yellows to produce a deep, aurora-like fog that sucks the viewer into a world which–with its vivid colors and powerful brush strokes–is at once intimidating and alluring. Stalactite-like structures invade from the top and bottom of the canvas, producing a picture of a color-filled cave that offers a robust counterpoint to Rosen’s delicate designs.

For other artists, the black light has sparked a fascination with geometry. In an homage to M.C. Escher, Joakim Ojanen’s “Holding Hands” offers its own spin on the mathematical artist’s tessellations with purple froglike and humanoid creatures interlinked on a bright-green background. While Ojanen’s monsters are already fantastical, the artist’s choice of color under the black lights causes certain parts of his painting to pop out and some to sink in, creating a visual wave effect that spreads from one end of the work to another.

By wowing viewers with vivid colors, unconventional art materials, and optical illusions, “Blaque Lyte” demonstrates how a change in lighting can challenge artists to expand their personal style. By pushing the limits of color, material, light, and shape, Kerr and Nudd have conceived a funky, ethereal world that proves there is still much exploration left to be done in art.

Hyde Park Art Center, 5020 S. Cornell Ave. Through January 9, 2012. Monday-Thursday, 10am-8pm; Friday-Saturday, 10am-5pm; Sunday, 12-5pm. 773-324-5520.