Sand swirled on the unpaved road as we headed deep into the California high desert toward a site-specific installation that had contemporary art fans across the country buzzing. It was October of 2013, and “Lucid Stead,” the creation of artist Phillip K. Smith III, was situated in Joshua Tree, about 45 minutes from Palm Springs. Using an existing 70-year-old homesteader shack as the base, Smith modified the structure with mirrors and LED lights that transformed as the sun set. During the day, the mirrors reflected the surrounding environment, while at night the multicolored LED lights in the doorway and windows became the focal point.
Smith, already an accomplished artist at that point, experienced a newfound level of recognition and fame spurred by the project. Some still wander the desert in search of “Lucid Stead,” but such searches are for naught—Smith has since disassembled the installation, with the LED components repurposed into “Lucid Stead: Four Windows and a Doorway.” Initially exhibited at Royale Projects gallery in Palm Desert, the work is now located in Smith’s new Palm Desert studio. And what a studio it is, with 24-foot ceilings and more than 10,000 square feet of space across the main studio and the adjacent workshop. “Lucid Stead: Four Windows and a Doorway” is located in an alcove that allows the five pieces (four windows and a doorway from the original structure) to reflect off of and within each other, merging hues as the lights shift and allowing the viewer to focus on the interaction of pure color.
Born in Los Angeles and raised in the desert, Smith is a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, where he studied fine art and architecture, and he spent just over a decade on the East Coast before returning to his desert roots in 2000. Smith uses his work to push the boundaries of modernist art and design while working within a community that is no stranger to embracing modernism. Smith’s wife, Lisa Vossler Smith, currently heads up the staff of Palm Springs Modernism Week as its executive director.
2014 saw Smith’s work take a leap into the cultural phenomenon that is the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, with the installation of “Reflection Field” on the polo fields at the festival. “Reflection Field” is a continuation of his examination of color theory, optics, perception, scale and technology, consisting of five freestanding monoliths of light and mirror scaled as large as 18 feet high and 17 feet wide. By day, each piece of ‘Reflection Field’ is a mirror reflecting earth and sky (as well as Coachella attendees, iPhones in hand capturing selfies), while at night they become expansive fields of color that blend and layer through echoes of reflection.
It was at Smith’s studio that we got a peek into what’s new, with his current projects widely varying in concept and scale. There is the Light and Shadow series, with white fiberglass sculptures like the “Faceted Discs” that line one large wall of the studio. Smith plans to produce 100 unique discs over the next 10 years, releasing 10 each year.
Then there are more Lightwork pieces incorporating LED technology with continually changing colors, like the Torus series, which draws its name from what Smith describes as “the fancy mathematical word for ‘doughnut.’” Also in the works are new small-scale pieces that integrate original wood elements from the “Lucid Stead” structure, along with LED lights. “Lucid Stead” also appears in yet another incarnation through a series of photographic prints entitled “Chromatic Variants,” which incorporate images of the installation in situ in Joshua Tree, layered with tight bands of transparent color that appear to fade into the desert scenery from a distance, while up close they separate the view of the environment, recalling the banded surface of “Lucid Stead.”
The evolution of Smith’s work includes a continual increase in the scale of his works, as demonstrated by his “Bent Parallel” installation created for the 2014 Untitled Art Fair in Miami during Art Basel. Almost nine feet tall and over 21 feet long, the work is described by Smith as a “new investigation of the spatial and perspectival relationship of color, light and reflection.” Bending two parallel surfaces programmed to change color from red, green and blue, “Bent Parallel” creates a third reflected, material-less plane of color that is the mixture of the colors on the two bent planes.
Site-specific, large-scale commissions keep Smith particularly busy these days. “Each new site provides new conditions and realities which in turn provide new insight into the potential of my concepts that could not necessarily have been replicated or produced in my studio,” says Smith. A piece for the VA Hospital in Palo Alto is still in the small-scale model stage during our studio visit, while two corten steel Light and Shadow works entitled “Line to Circle” and “Arc-Line-Arc” were en route to Arlington, Virginia. Smith was also about to hit the road himself, heading to Hanover, New Hampshire for a prestigious artist residency at Dartmouth College that boasts such past participants as Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella and Donald Judd.
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