Among the tactics for making a common thing seem unusual (changing its material, texture, color; putting it in an unexpected context; displaying it from an uncommon angle), the simple strategy of making that thing bigger (or, trickier to pull off, making it dramatically smaller) usually pulls me in, makes me attend, at least in the first instance.
Jasper Johns, Light Bulb I (1958).
Scale is not altered, however, in Jasper Johns's "Light Bulbs," a show which originated at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego and is now at the Henry Gallery.
In a series of 8 sculptures, set inside three walls featuring lithographs, etchings and drawings, all produced between1957 and 1976, the
20th Century's iconic incandescent light bulb is transmogrified. The
materials, texture, context and purpose of the Johns bulbs are all substitutes for those of the manufactured light bulb represented. But the physical scale of each light
bulb in the Johns show is the same as that of the light bulb
you buy at any grocery, drug or hardware store.
I focus on this choice of scale--this deliberate preservation of the
physical dimensions of the functional, every-day manifestation of this
ideal--because I suspect this may be what
endows the Johns light bulbs with their uncanny intimacy. A manufactured
light bulb's weight, its properties of displacement, are so familiar,
so domestic, you not only identify it with your eyes but you relate to it
tactile memory of how you hold and manipulate it, from shelf to
sleeve to socket to waste can.
Because Johns's chosen dimensions are of a form we can remember holding and working with, we relate to these pieces with a familiarity that confounds all of Johns's other strategies to de-familiarize us with the object. Three sculpted light bulbs from 1960 are displayed in a single case at the show (you can see this case in the picture above, at the bottom). These bulbs are realized, respectively, in plaster,
bronze and oil on bronze (this latter featuring a painted circular "GENERAL ELECTRIC" stamp). Each is of a piece with its rectangular
display base of the same material. It's odd to see a bulb reclining this way, like the nude in the Ingres painting, pictured below.
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and Workshop (1780–1867), Odalisque in Grisaille.
On the other hand, the base of each Johns bulb arguably becomes a tableaux for the bulb in transition: the moment after you have pulled a bulb from its cardboard sleeve with the corrugated
paper lining, and have laid it down on a table, while you fuss with the light fixture you must first remove in order to get at the socket needing a replacement.
Of course, you cannot actually touch the Johns bulbs. Jen Graves, in an excellent review relating this show to another now at the Henry, expresses how Johns' "idea-objects" (as she puts it) "have been elevated to the status
of the magical and the rare." They are far too valuable as Johns-branded art objects to be touched. A single, sculp-metal relief is the only thing in the show not protected by glass; a sign by it reminds you not to touch, though, and tape on the floor marks a safety-space around the piece that you should not encroach (you can see this at the top of the picture of the exhibition room).
The "Light Bulbs" show is kind of quiet coda to the massively impressive
"Gray" retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2008. That
show brought scores of huge canvases and multiple lithographs to the
airplane hangar-proportioned showrooms of the Met. I
recall seeing a light bulb sculpture there, along with a sculp-metal
flashlight, tucked away as curiosities. But in this smaller show, in the
single room at the Henry, there are no large
distractions (as there are no overt, anthropomorphic allusions, such as the Ingres image above). As you spend time in the room, you come to
realize that the prints are not independent two dimensional
representations of light bulbs, but instead are studies
specifically of the very light bulb sculptures on display in the room.
It is a virtual heaven of a self-contained, self-sustaining vocabulary
of art and representation.
The show has an almost perfect catalog, too, published by the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. It includes pictures of two of the sculpted bulbs from 1960 (one in plaster and one in bronze painted in oil) that are in the collection of the artist and apparently have not been publicly displayed before. Brilliantly, all of the pictures of the sculpted bulbs in the catalog are of exactly the same width and length of a real, household light bulb. I held one up to each page and confirmed that this is so.