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Within the pale 

Thirteen elongated hanging "lanterns" spiral through the dimmed gallery at Artspace, bringing an unexpected grace to that awkward room. They are part of East Carolina University professor Seo Eo's installation, Pale, which also includes some drawings made of strings and shadows. This installation is highly conceptualized, but the result of Eo's careful thinking, planning and making is an artwork that short-circuits the verbal part of your brain, forcing you to look and experience and leave analysis for later.

Entering the gallery, you first encounter a remarkably economical meditation on the powers of light and line. In a corner where two white gallery walls meet, six horseshoe brads have been pressed into the walls and white string drawn taut between them, making a shape like an opened book, with the corner of the wall being where the pages meet. On the open "pages" two arcs are drawn in pencil; they are mirrored by the shadow cast by a slack string hanging between a suspended light bulb and the corner. Another, smaller loop descends from two more brads placed along the drawn lines, adding more components to the mix of real, artful and illusory in this image that is very hard to locate in space. The whole thing is like some ephemeral monochrome pop-up book on the nature of perception. Two other string pieces in the gallery work similarly.

The main part of the installation, and the most enchanting, is the group of "lanterns." Suspended from the ceiling and hovering a few inches off the floor, they are neither columns nor dancers, although they make you think of both. For each one, a small, low-watt light bulb hangs from the ceiling on a long wire, enclosed by four long strips of a white, fine-meshed stiff material tacked to a white, open square that is suspended from the ceiling by nearly invisible monofilament. At the bottom, the strips are held together with tiny white clips so that they are offset from the perpendicular, leaving a little gap for you to visually enter the interior. The bottom of each panel curves under slightly in a graceful way.

The way the panels are attached leaves a clearly delineated open square at the bottom of the "lantern" shaft; the dark floor beneath makes that square very strong. About 12 inches above that and offset by 45 degrees, is a Plexiglas square suspended from the ceiling by monofilament and S-hooks. On the Plexiglas sits a square of aluminum screening. On that rests a small plastic bag filled with white clay. (Naturally, at first you think: Drugs! But then you realize it must be the same fine clay that has been used to coat the gallery's glass windows, marking them with smooth arcs like those made by the hanging strings in the corner.)

Centered above the little bag of clay is the light bulb hanging from its silvery wire. Following the wire upward with your eye, you see how the wires for all 13 elements have been carefully laid out across the ceiling, stretched tight in a nice crisp pattern, and held down with precisely aligned white clamps. For some reason, this is immensely satisfying. Precision and control are the hallmarks of this installation, yet the effect is magical, unexpected, dreamlike.

I could compare Eo's strings with Sol LeWitt's strings; I could compare his "lanterns" with Kei Seikimachi's dimensional forms woven with monofilament; I could favorably compare this installation with Lenore Tawney's suspended groupings--all of those references would be appropriate, but maybe not relevant. As New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl said in a recent column, "beauty presents a stone wall to the thinking mind." I have carefully described the work, but I fear I am not really telling about it. It is not so much that the work defies description, but that mere description fails to convey anything meaningful about the deeply pleasing experience of entering this artwork.

Although pale in color, it is somber in tone. Although it is somber, a joy quivers in your chest when you enter the pale. Although you are bounded within the pale, its space demarcated by the "lantern" palings and the webs of string more than by the gallery walls, a feeling of freedom wells up, and the urge to dance possesses you. Pale is beautiful, and as Schjeldahl reminds us, beauty evokes an animal joy in the mind, a joy that brooks no argument and requires no rationale. EndBlock

  • Pale, Seo Eo's installation at Artspace in Raleigh, is one local exhibit you don't want to miss.


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