Aswath of rainbow light cuts diagonally across CAM Raleigh's main gallery. When you approach the shimmering, spectral form, thousands of tautly strung colored threads come into focus, revealing the luminous presence as a material one. This is Plexus No. 25, the most recent in a series of site-specific works by Dallas-based artist Gabriel Dawe.
The term "plexus" refers to networks of nerves or vessels in a living body. The cumulative effect of more than 7,000 threads flowing from the floor at one end of the room to the ceiling at the other is, indeed, bodily. Part of the power of Dawe's installation is its capacity to convey the contradictory qualities of corporeal tensile strength and color-charged ephemerality.
As you move through the space, under and around the interwoven threads, different vantage points provide views of varying densities, from saturated zones to razor-thin striations of color cutting the air. If you train your eyes on a single spot while you move, the piece begins to animate in a way that can be literally dizzying.
Dawe evolves these works at various sites, so that no two pieces function in the same way. For CAM's version, the base from which the threads are strung is shaped as an exact semi-circle, echoing the window directly above it. Also in response to the semi-circular form, Dawe incorporated half of the color spectrum, so the tones range from bright orange to cerulean.
To my eye, the combination of the diagonal slashes through the room and the bright palette connects Plexus No. 25, at least obliquely, to Morris Louis' poured "stain" paintings. The variation in density that Dawe achieves through the interface of threads with the ambient space and light correlates with how painters use water or thinner to achieve translucency.
Although Dawe does not use digital imaging software to design the work, the intersecting trajectories of the lines parallel the virtual grids of 3D imaging. Seen as a whole, Plexus No. 25's structure reads as a multi-dimensional "X" extending in four directions, mimicking the patterns of the grid work in the upper reaches of the gallery's ceiling. This precise harmonic structure imbues the piece with a sense of the diagrammatic—the geometric manifestation of a mathematical equation.
Dawe sees this series as a reflection of the natural world, of the underlying principles of physics: time, space, light, energy. He also conceives of the work as a response to proscribed gender roles. As a child growing up in Mexico, his grandmother refused to teach him embroidery because he was a boy. A subtext of the Plexus series is an embrace of the textile form as a means of questioning and subverting rigid conceptions of masculinity. In this regard, the work can be productively considered in terms of Mike Kelley's homely craft pieces and contemporary Mexican artist Gabriel Kuri's wall-sized tapestries of supermarket receipts.
The more overt message of Plexus No. 25, however, is one of light, color and continual movement. In this way, the series is more readily associated with the work of the Southern California Light and Space artists of the 1960s, such as James Turrell, Robert Irwin and Helen Pashgian. The work generates a feedback loop with the viewer, a dynamics of optical variation and the motion of bodies in space. Even at its central point, the intersection of the "X" figure, the shifting colors never achieve stasis. The large scale provides a sensorial immersion that opens up a space for contemplation about form and color.
This, no doubt, would have pleased the poet and philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who, in 1810, published his breakthrough treatise, Theory of Colours. At the core of Goethe's theory was the essential interrelatedness of color and light, recognizing them as integral to the natural world. Goethe emphasized how we, as part of that same natural world, are uniquely predisposed to perceive spectral phenomena. Flooding our senses with radiant color, Plexus No. 25 activates that connection between spectator and spectrum.
This article appeared in print with the headline "X marks the spot"