The Spaces Between Things

Imagine the coast of northern California. Carefully navigating the rugged terrain, you push against the oceanic wind as salty sea spray mists your face. You understand how the cypresses and pines have been sculpted into the rhythmic shapes they take. Within a single day, the climate fluctuates from bright sunshine to dense fog, howling winds, and pelting rain.[1]

Photo credit: Craig Bassam, BassamFellows Journal. "Into the wild. Before its construction, The Sea Ranch was a working sheep ranch on rugged land that stretched ten miles long and around one-mile inland."
Photo credit: Craig Bassam, BassamFellows Journal. “Into the wild. Before its construction, The Sea Ranch was a working sheep ranch on rugged land that stretched ten miles long and around one-mile inland.”

This landscape inspired architects Charles Moore, Donlyn Lyndon, William Turnbull Jr., and Richard R. Whitaker Jr. to design The Sea Ranch, a community of vacation houses on the Pacific’s coastal shelf. Austere, demanding, and inspiring, this dynamic landscape is the location of 19 homes that stand as still objects around which nature dances. Wood buildings rise out of the cliff, seemingly sculpted from the landscape by decades of fierce wind and sea spray. In this free-willed landscape, the goal of The Sea Ranch was “to create something worthwhile which did not destroy, but rather enhanced the natural beauty we had been given.” [2]

Photo credit: RoxyRobles. Sea Ranch homes on a foggy day.
Photo credit: RoxyRobles. Sea Ranch homes on a foggy day.

Los Angeles artist Pae White is known for blurring the boundaries between fine and applied arts, architecture, and design. Her exhibition at the Henry, Command-Shift-4, explores the spatial qualities of the large, open volume of the museum’s lower-level gallery. For this installation, she took inspiration from the buildings at The Sea Ranch.

Upon entering the gallery, I was immediately swept into another world. As my body moved throughout the gallery, my perception constantly shifted. Every step I took was carefully calculated to avoid the massive sinews of string that seem to appear out of nowhere. Mesmerizing yet disorienting, networks of bright yarn seem to move with me, invoking the dynamism of Sea Ranch landscape. Solid blocks of numbers and shapes (including The Sea Ranch logo) are painted onto the white walls from which webs of colored strings explode into multiple directions. It seems as though the painted letters and numbers shaped the patterns string, or perhaps the other way around. But it doesn’t matter. Solid and void meld harmoniously to form a cohesive whole that flows off the gallery walls onto the wooden floors and the high ceiling.

Photo credit: Rebecca Thompson.
Photo credit: Rebecca Thompson.

Beyond invoking the dynamism of the northern Californian landscape, White asks and addresses the question: How can we experience a place that we are not actually in? Command-Shift-4 explores the ways in which a place is known and remembered; at the Henry, White evokes the essence of The Sea Ranch with symbolic images and sculpted networks of yarn. Just as the Henry contains the exhibition, the unassuming exteriors of The Sea Ranch mask dynamic interiors that lift and shift, seemingly of their own volition, with the dynamic landscape and climate of the coast.

Photo credit: Sonoma Magazine. "The living room of Donlyn Lydon’s House."
Photo credit: Sonoma Magazine. “The living room of Donlyn Lydon’s House.”

Barbara Stauffacher Solomon, one of the first artists to utilize supergraphics, initially painted The Sea Ranch’s Moonraker Athletic Center. “Circles and diagonal stripes and optically ambiguous trapezoidal shapes were painted in bold colors on white walls. The shapes, sometimes broken and displaced from one wall to the next, sometimes on the ceiling, were designed to cause the tight limitations of the rooms to dissolve among an array of cheerful and bright presences. These figures were sometimes applied whimsically, […] but not arbitrarily. The position of various shapes were carefully calculated to create illusions of depth and overlapping space, and to direct users through the rooms.” [3] Even though the Henry’s gallery is wide and open, White’s supergraphics shift the scale of the room, adding to the disorientation and dissolution of physical boundaries.

Photo credit: Sanslartigue. "Fireworks and swimming pools."
Photo credit: Sanslartigue. “Fireworks and swimming pools.”

The supergraphics are symbolic; on the gallery walls are the numbers of the zip code of The Sea Ranch, their logo (the ram’s head), and half of a red heart that completes its image in a floor-to-ceiling mirror. On one wall, there is an oversized mask that shifts the scale of the room yet again, creating a dreamlike effect that and changing the spatial understanding of the gallery. This mask is a replica of one in a condominium at The Sea Ranch, a piece from the collection of the inhabitants.

Photo credit: Rebecca Thompson.
Photo credit: Rebecca Thompson.

The bright string accentuates the effects of the supergraphics, adding layers of illusions of depth while directing the visitor throughout the space. These colorful give an aspect of dynamism to the anchored shapes; as the body moves throughout the gallery, the installation seems to move with it.

These aspects, transposed to the white walls and open space of the Henry’s gallery, comment on the experience of place; what is a place and how do we experience it? What happens to places that are gone and forgotten? How do we continue to experience places that we are not in?

About her work in general, White says, “For the last several years, my practice has focused on an exploration of the neglected, the forgotten, the spaces between things, even the things between things. I am equally drawn to the temporary, the fleeting, to the ephemera of everyday life. My work has attempted to subvert the viewer’s expected relationship to an everyday object, nudging them off balance, encouraging a deeper look.” [4]

I left the exhibition amazed. As an architecture student, art like this excites me. For me, architecture is more than cookie-cutter houses and stale office buildings; it is an inhabitable art that simultaneously fulfills needs and desires. From necessity, a building protects us from weather without collapsing, and, if we’re lucky, is a work of art that brings joy to the inhabitants. Command-Shift-4 evoked such architecture. It spoke to me of a place born from a wild environment, a complex composition of simple materials that makes one question what is seen with the eyes and what it means.

 

Rebecca Thompson is a student in the University of Washington’s Masters of Architecture department and the Communications Assistant at the Henry. She enjoys exploring the grey areas between art and architecture and experimenting with how each can inform the other.

 

[1] Gordon, Kathi. “The Sea Ranch: Conception and Covenant.” The Sea Ranch Association. 2004.
[2] Gordon, Kathi. “The Sea Ranch: Conception and Covenant.” The Sea Ranch Association. 2004.
[3] Alinder, Jim and Lyndon, Donlyn. The Sea Ranch. Princeton Architectural Press, New York. 2004.
[4] White, Pae. “Artist’s Statement.” http://my.calfund.org/artist-gallery/gallery/year-2009/pae-white/.

 

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