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Modern Masterpiece

March 11, 2011
Stephen Knapp, Lightpainting

Photos courtesy of stephenknapp.com

After visiting dozens of museums all over the world you might think I know a little something about art. And that is exactly what I know, a little something. Mostly what I know is what I like, and what I don’t. And my experience has taught me that visiting modern art museums focusing on works created after World War II is mostly a waste of my time. There are the occasional gems to be found, of course, like some works by Jackson Pollock, for example. But too often artists of this period focused more on creating something different than they did on creating something enjoyable. For many, the modernist emphasis on breaking with convention gradually devolved into meaninglessness and ugliness. Thankfully, that period may be at an end. I’ve noticed an increasing number of museum displays from contemporary artists whose work is both ground-breaking and beautiful. Add Stephen Knapp’s name to that list.

We were first introduced to Knapp’s work in the Naples Museum of Art where they dedicated an entire room to his revolutionary “lightpainting.” Working with special glass designed to reflect and refract light into different frequencies, Knapp creates brilliantly luminescent abstract images from external white light sources. Combining elements from painting and sculpture, lightpainting is called the first new art medium of the 21st century.

I admit that technical aspects of the medium, or what I’ll call the “how the hell does that work?” factor, drove part of my initial attraction. To see this first hand is to see several clear, or slightly tinted, shapes of glass bolted onto a plain white wall, with a simple white light illuminating the area. But somehow the same piece of seemingly clear glass allows one brilliantly beautiful color to pass through on one side while reflecting an equally beautiful, but different, color in the opposite direction. Simply amazing.

What really makes the whole thing work, though, isn’t its technical accomplishment, but the attractiveness of the composition. It would be easy for these dazzling colors to clash, or overwhelm, or overlap into a muddy mess, but they don’t. Even forgetting the uniqueness of the medium, these creations are simply a joy to observe. We spent a long while in this room, the best of the entire museum. Glad for the first time in a long time that we went to a contemporary art museum and found the thing that draws us so strongly to art from earlier periods; beauty.

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