Preston McClanahan's

Focal Point

Oct 24, 2007 at 2:06 pm

Bound by gravitational force, PRESTON McCLANAHAN'S sculpture STARTREE (1965-67) behaves like an astral system: The viewer is powerless to resist its attraction. The work is one of several in the current Graphic Content exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Center.

Following McClanahan's design, Martin Michaels engineered the sculpture with music composed by Sawn Lane and Jonas Hellborg. The kinetic sculpture consists of three hollow shafts mounted on low-standing speaker boxes. Hundreds of acrylic rods radiate from the shafts like branches on a tree trunk. Fluorescent tubes inside the shafts illuminate the rods, transforming the rods into optical fibers. The sculpture is like a cluster of three stars. They orbit one another, like a triple star system, an Alpha Centauri.

When a human body approaches these celestial bodies the sculpture kicks into gear. "Startree" lights up and Middle Eastern sounds emanate from the speakers. A motor rotates each shaft on its axis. Each star-shaped tree is like a Christmas tree made from shiny tinsel. But the hum of the motor can be off-putting; it disrupts the suspension of disbelief.

To get the full effect of what McClanahan calls a "kinetic light environment," it's important to spend time with the sculpture. "Startree" isn't very tall, so take a seat the floor. From this low vantage point you are surrounded by a meteor shower of light and color. Angling your gaze sideways, the rods look like trickling water. Dots and streaks of light appear to travel at warp speed. Or perhaps they float softy by in a gelatinous substance, like tapioca balls in your Bubble Tea.

This kinetic sculpture asks the viewer to be active. Walk with "Startree" but keep your eyes fixed on a single point. Then sit dead still while your eyes actively scan the piece. Relax your focus. "Startree" is a blur of Christmas lights in a sleepy child's eyes. Look away from the sculpture. Shadows shift across the gray floor. Look at the walls, illuminated with subtle hints of color. Close your eyes. "Startree" could be even more hypnotic if the lights were turned off.

"Startree" is on view at the CAC through Feb. 8, 2008.

FOCAL POINT turns a critical lens on a singular work of art. Through Focal Point we slow down, reflect on one work and provide a longer look.