- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 11, 2009

Three museums on the Mall are chasing away the winter blahs with sculptural curiosities guaranteed to lift the spirits.

Brightening up the tunnel between the National Gallery of Art’s wings is a dazzling display created from thousands of tiny lights. A huge, curving mirror playfully distorts reflections of visitors to the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, and a giant black spider wakes them up at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

These large pieces can’t help but be noticed. Situated on main routes through the museums, they force visitors to move through or around them on their way to the galleries. Part fine art, part spectacle, the unconventional installations provide food for thought as well as fun in engaging the viewer.

“MULTIVERSE”

National Gallery of Art

The short trip along the moving walkway connecting the museum’s East Building and underground cafeteria is no longer dreary. The 200-foot-long passageway glitters with 41,000 light-emitting diodes (LED) inserted into the channels between its aluminum slats. Moving from walls to ceiling are ever-changing patterns reminiscent of twinkling stars, rushing water and bouncing polka dots. Linger long enough and the brightness fades to black before revving up again in another burst of swelling light.

The mesmerizing installation is by New York artist Leo Villareal, who calls it “Multiverse” to convey the various possibilities programmed into its computer-controlled sequences. “Chances are slim to none that you’ll see a pattern repeat,” says curator Molly Donovan.

With its kinetic, optical display, the luminous environment has more in common with the flash of Times Square and the Las Vegas strip than the more contemplative light sculptures of the 1960s and ‘70s. In contrast to more recent, message-laden LED sculptures by artists such as Jenny Holzer, Mr. Villareal’s abstract, shifting patterns blast visitors with a purely sensory experience while they travel down the passageway. His near-infinite configurations ensure the ride is never boring.

On Monday, the installation literally became a tunnel of love as D.C. newlyweds Todd Weaver and Debbie Sampson had their wedding pictures taken next to the light show. “People don’t race through the space like they used to,” notes Ms. Donovan.

“Multiverse” is only on view through the end of the year, but deserves to be a permanent fixture based on its sensitive architectural integration and popular appeal. It is a perfect fit for the 1970s concourse in enhancing its curved enclosure through pulsing rhythms of light.

“Crouching Spider”

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

The giant arachnid situated next to the Hirshhorn’s Independence Avenue entrance looks ready to pounce. Its eight legs, narrowing to spiky tips, are poised in a muscular, threatening stance, as dark as the smoky glass encircling the museum’s ground floor.

Sculpted in bronze and steel by French-born Louise Bourgeois, the menacing insect is not meant to scare visitors away but lure them to visit the Hirshhorn’s upcoming retrospective of 120 works by the artist, opening Feb. 26. It will remain on view about a week after that exhibition closes on May 17.

Spiders are a hallmark of Miss Bourgeois’ autobiographical art, representing what she calls “a defense against evil.” They suggest the spinning of webs, a reference to her parents who repaired woven tapestries.

“Crouching Spider,” cast in 2003, is abstract enough to keep it from looking like a frightening creature plucked from a science-fiction movie. At 9 feet by 27 feet, its multilegged structure and rippling surfaces invite comparisons to a primitive shelter made of gnarly tree branches. Seen from above, the piece resembles a star.

These multiple associations are typical of the restless, organic work by this artist, who at age 97 is still challenging the male status quo.

“S-Curve”

Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Like a funhouse mirror, this shiny sculpture distorts and inverts images of all who pass before it on their way from the Sackler’s lobby to its underground galleries. Sit on the bench in front of the 7-by-32-foot piece and you’ll see your head appear upside down on the right side. Move around the structure and an inverted Smithsonian Castle appears, reflected from a nearby window.

Such perceptual tricks are a specialty of London-based artist Anish Kapoor, whose public art includes “The Bean,” the nickname for his popular “Cloud Gate” in Chicago’s Millennium Park. Mr. Kapoor’s 2006 piece at the Sackler, on view through July 19, is made by the same Oakland, Calif., fabricator from rounded sections of highly polished stainless steel. The title “S-Curve” signifies the way its two metal panels bend outward and inward like a sinuous ribbon.

Curator Carol Huh calls the piece “a virtual screen” for the way it blurs the distinction between the physical reality of the sculpture and its surroundings through the changing reflections on its surface. “One of the wonders of the piece is its mirrored finish,” she says. “It challenges our notions of materiality and immateriality.”

Although the sculpture weighs 8,000 pounds, any sense of its massiveness disappears once you start looking at the optical illusions floating across its curves. Spend time in front of the piece and you’ll probably feel woozy and disoriented; speak a few words next to its concave bend and you’ll notice a strange echo.

Almost nothing remains hidden from this big looking glass. The architecture of the room, the landscape outside the window, the viewer next to the artwork, “S-Curve” captures it all to heighten the awareness of ourselves and our surroundings.

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