Desert rose: the mesmerising light art of Phillip K Smith III

The light-based installation works of the artist Phillip K Smith III are inextricably linked with the desert. The fleeting, ever-evolving creations of the Palm Springs-based artist have a meditative, almost religious-like quality to them thanks to a cornucopia of natural and artificial light, colour, and reflection. The visual nature of his work has enabled him to build a dedicated community of followers on instagram, simultaneously allowing him to shun the established art world and its conventions.

Phillip K. Smith III’s Lucid Stead. Photo © Steve King

Your works harbour many of the hallmarks of the light and space movement of the 60s, which was – perhaps not so coincidentally – centred around the Californian desert. What, in your opinion, makes this part of the world so fertile for producing artworks of this calibour?

You have to be here to understand the quality of light that exists here. It’s something that can’t easily be portrayed in photographs or understood through words. Every day in the desert, there are natural light phenomena. All that is required for you to experience them is to stop and look. But to look, requires time and focus. You have to step away from the normal pace of humanity and realign yourself with the pace of nature. When you do that, the beauty of the place opens up. The formerly subtle becomes freshly powerful. The ephemeral becomes the theater of the moment. Eyes, ears, and mind are opened – made aware of what was always there.

Light – both natural and artificial – is one of the central and recurring themes of your work. What is it that inspires you so much about light?

It is everything and everywhere and cannot be held in your hand. It allows life, defines atmosphere, and is always in a state of change. It is often at the root of our most memorable experiences, yet is something that we take for granted every single day of our lives. We notice it most when it is not present. Some light has been travelling for millions of years. It is at once definable and undefinable.

Phillip K. Smith III’s The Circle of Land and Sky. Photo ©Lance Gerber

Given the strong architectural presence within your work, perhaps it comes as little surprise to discover that you come from an architectural background. How did you move from architecture to art?

Conceptually, it wasn’t really such a hard switch as I’ve always been interested in site, context, detailing, materiality, and a spatial experience, whether I was thinking like an artist or like an architect. Even when I was still working on architectural projects, I was simultaneously working on design and art projects. Ultimately, I was trained at RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) at an architecture school that was in the middle of an art school. So, even from an early age, I was open to and interested in cross-disciplinary practice. The most difficult shift from architecture to art was logistical and financial. My studio had been focused on architecture and those projects were paying for my experimentation in sculpture. It wasn’t until the Recession in 2007/2008, when the architecture jobs were vanishing overnight and, at the exact same time, I was acquiring a group of new public art projects via RFQ’s, that I was able to make the true, desired shift in the studio.

Flatworks pieces. Photo ©Lance Gerber
Lozenge series. Photo ©Lance Gerber

Your works are all incredibly well made, each piece goes through full scale mock ups, drawings and modelling. What are the lozenge and light works sculpture series made from?

The Lightworks are made from translucent white acrylic. Recently, in my new Flatworks, I’ve introduced opaque white acrylic as well. The acrylic is always sanded to a perfect matte finish, removing the original gloss finish, so that just the color can be experienced, not the surrounding space. Ultimately, the acrylic dematerializes and the Lightworks appear to be constructed from stacked layers of light.

In the end, I’ve used a wide variety of materials, from acrylic to fiberglass to glass to stainless steel to concrete and so much more. I’m always on the lookout for new materials and new fabrication methodologies, which is why I continue to stay in touch with the architectural world. It is where the most innovative materials and methods are being developed that are often more easily accessible to the public.

Torus series. Photo ©Lance Gerber

We can’t talk about light without mentioning colour. Your mirror works series in the 10 Columns installation give a kind of ghostly three dimensionality to colour mixing. For these pieces, how did you decide which colours to work with and what do they represent?

Our human understanding of lit colour is quite simplistic. It’s still a relatively new medium…say, 50 years old, 70 max. How long has oil painting been in existence? Think of the development that has occurred since its inception, ranging from the Renaissance to Monet to Barnet Newman. Most lit colour is experienced through signage, which typically is composed of the most basic colors in a Crayon box. But the sky is really the one place where there exists an incredibly rich display of lit colour. From a burning burnt amber in a smoggy sunset to a dark, electric navy blue in the east, the sky is a constantly shifting spectrum of colour over all of our heads every single day.

I enjoy continuing to learn about my work through other people’s eyes, which currently most readily occurs via social media

For Ten Columns, the shift of colour occurs via two sources. One is from the hour long color score that I created for the installation’s 30 mirrored volumes, each double sided – so, 60 total rectangular faces of colour and reflection. The other source is the visitor themselves. As you move through the installation, the angle of reflection is changing dependent on where you are in space. The result is a shifting of the rectangular fields from individual fields to multi-layered fields reflected and reflected on top of one another. The surface of the glass provided an ever changing mixture of form and color that extended beyond the space of the gallery.

Torus series continued. Photo ©Lance Gerber

You’ve had very little gallery representation over the years, mostly gathering attention from the art world through instagram and kickstarter campaigns (In the case of your first work, Lucid Stead, from 2013). Robert Irwin allegedly initially refused to allow any of his works to be photographed because he felt that the experience of his work could not be fully captured in print. Do you feel that there’s a danger of making artworks with posting on instagram in mind? And is this even necessarily a bad thing?

Yes, I consciously chose to step away from the traditional gallery world in 2017. There were really only seemed to be two options for artists: Work with a gallery or be like Christo and Jean-Claude. But the art world is shifting and there are new ways of sharing work. Projects that I’ve been involved in, like Desert X in the Coachella Valley, are changing the ways that people interact with art. So, I am interested in working with collectors, institutions, and organizations in an effort to push the business side of the art world in order to better support artists’ visions.

Light + Shadow Works series. Photo ©Lance Gerber

Regarding Instagram, these days, just about every single artist or creative person gathers attention from Instagram. We live in a different time from when Irwin made that demand. Every single person has a camera with access to a global network currently in their pocket. The control that Irwin demanded simply doesn’t exist any more. With this said, the necessity of seeing work in person has not changed at all. Light based work is probably the most difficult to document. Lance Gerber has photographed every single work that I’ve made since Lucid Stead in 2013. He’s done an incredible job capturing the quality of the atmosphere within the work, but even he would say that nothing compares to feeling the light on your face. There is a more direct emotional and human connection to the sacred space that is being defined by the work when you are in the actual space of the work.

PKS3. Photo © Antonia Jane Allan

The desire for so many to make the trek to Joshua Tree or Marfa or the Lightning Field is rooted in a desire to experience the real and the tactile. You had to be there. Until you’ve stood in front of it with your own two eyes, there’s no way you can really understand what you had been missing.

As for the infamous “Instagram Moment” or selfies, people talk like these are new realities, but they’ve existed essentially since the invention of the camera. The only difference is that rather than that photo going into a photo album and stored on a dusty bookshelf that’s seen by 10 people, there now exists a technology for sharing that photo with millions instantly. In the end, I enjoy continuing to learn about my work through other people’s eyes, which currently most readily occurs via social media. Perhaps there will be a new methodology in the future…

Light + Shadow Works series. Photo ©Lance Gerber

I’m fascinated by the element of time within your work. The outdoor ‘land art’ works, such as the ‘Lucid Stead’ from 2013 or ‘The Circle of Land and Sky’ from 2017 function only in relation to the changing sky and lighting conditions. The light and shadow works also display hallmarks of time in the sense that they provide a snapshot of a moment in space with light and shadow. What kind of dialogue are you trying to tap into here within the greater modernist and minimalist tradition?

In the end, my work is about light and change. Change can only be understood through the measurement of time. I am interested in work that is changing in front of me. For 14 years, my studio was located in Indio, CA and I’d drive home west on I-10 every day for 10 minutes and stare at the sunset through my car’s windshield. Naturally, after all of that time spent seeing, the perfect gradient of sky entered into my work — as did the ephemeral quality — that if you look away for an instant, you may miss it. I’m seeking to engage with people in a more direct, powerful way. I’m looking for a language that is common amongst all of us. While I believe that we should celebrate our differences, I believe, more than ever, that we need to celebrate those things that are common amongst all of us as human beings, no matter our background, beliefs, or upbringing. The idea of sacred space is very important to me – a space where focused group and individual experience with the sublime and the mysterious is invited. I want people to happily exist in a place of knowing and not knowing. That’s when the typical and the usual are broken down, reconfigured, and reimagined. That’s when memory worth remembering is created.

Portals, 2016, Coachella Music & Arts Festival

What kind of light sources are you typically using in your installations? And how do you programme your installations?

The Sun and LEDs are my primary light sources. For me, I see the writing of the color score – the programming – as more closely related to painting. For instance, I see the Lightworks as highly specific three-dimensional canvases that I am painting with light through time. They are durational works – like an animated painting in light. I’m working with the full spectrum of lit color, the full range of brightness from intensely lit to incredibly dim, and pace of change. These three elements are on my palette. Like a painter squeezing out paint from the tube and mixing it physically and applying it to the canvas, I am working digitally via my laptop and paint live for weeks on end sitting in front of these works. When a Lightwork has been fabricated, which may have taken months of development and fabrication to get it on the wall finally, it is an all white form and the intense work of bringing it to life is finally ready to begin. Technically, there is no script writing or code or algorithm — all colors and shifts are defined precise decisions that are laid down, shifted, and pushed and pulled. Like a painter, I am making a mark and reacting to that mark, building up the score, orchestrating the shift of color across the all white surface of my canvas. W

10 Columns, 2019. Photos ©Lance Gerber

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