5 January 2015

Light Levels in Galleries

Many art galleries show work at light levels which must surely be bleaching out the colours of works, not to mention burning the retinas of their audiences.

A bright gallery

Older paintings in galleries are often shown in a hallowed glow, although with their own little spotlight or display lamp. Despite apparent humidity and atmosphere controls, I often think these direct lights must be doing some damage. Still, I suppose they know what they’re doing.

Individual display lamp

Tasteful spotlight

I have been in galleries where the lights are throbbingly painful. At the upstairs Saatchi gallery the white walls are some kind of ├╝ber-white. The white swirls in strobing layers, making the art difficult to focus on.

All this seems to be proving that art, that is ART, must exist in a hyper-real atmosphere. Good lighting is one thing, but art needn’t be shown at the extreme end of the visible light spectrum in order to sanctify its worth. Artists appreciate good light for making, but equally may never have seen or imagined their work in the light of a thousand suns.

Another brightosphere

Also, it’s worth saying that such lighting mostly makes people look horrible if it is the sort that beams directly down from overhead, highlighting the dark contours and craggy pits which are more usually reserved for private scrutiny in a magnified mirror.

The effects of poor lighting

Not every gallery succumbs and competes in raising higher and higher light levels. Hauser and Wirth achieves an ambient normality, where you can see the artworks perfectly well. A little commercial gallery I recently visited, Mokspace, perhaps goes too far to the other extreme, their downstairs section having works cast in shadow and difficult to make out.

A little too dim

It has become as if the idea of showing art in a white cube space, that is, an idealised space especially designed for display, has become the bright white cube. It’s a modern idea that things can be made better by having more, so if brighter is better, then extremely bright will be better still. Just as sound is not necessarily better if it is louder, it’s time to turn the volume down from eleven when it comes to the dimmer switch, and allow work to exist at more natural light levels.

I hope to see art in good lighting, but I don’t need to see it in some rarified altar of illumination.

Looking at art

Eleanor MacFarlane
January 2015

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