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On Steven Baker’s “a well-lit room,” by Etien Santiago


forward not backwards

Light is somewhat akin to air. We desperately need both, and we usually take both for granted. On some occasions, we can actually see the air, like when a hazy fog creeps up from the Flatrock River on a chilly fall morning. Yet light itself is truly invisible, ironically enough. The very thing that makes it possible for us to see cannot itself be seen.

wall barnacles #1 (left) & #2 (right)

Whenever we think we might be looking at light, we are actually looking at either a thing creating the light—a lightbulb, the flames of a fire, a star located millions of miles away—or the objects it illuminates. Rays pouring through a window or sunbeams shooting past the edges of clouds are in fact just tiny particles, suspended in the air, that are being hit by sunlight. Although science tell us that light constitutes the visible spectrum of electromagnetic radiation, no machine could let us see these electromagnetic waves. Thus, in terms of everyday experience, light remains puzzling. We can see either the source of light or the objects it reaches, but never actual light waves streaming from one to the other.

flowering stem #2 (left) and #1 (right)

Through skillful design and craft, Steven Baker’s artworks in “a well-lit room” evoke this missing part of light that constantly eludes us. Notice how Baker has hidden from view the LEDs in each work. This forces us to experience light independently of its light source. At the same time, the relative dimness of his creations produces a soft twilight in contradistinction to the glare of the sun or, say, fluorescent ceiling fixtures. Baker’s artworks are evidently not meant to cast light as widely and brightly as possible. They instead deploy art to make tangible the strange phenomenon that allows a source of energy to make visible an object placed some distance away. As if by magic, they give us light as a “thing,” like a pulsating mist that we could scoop out of the air to let it hover above our hands.

wabi-sabi #1 (left) & #2 (right)

Materials are central to this illusion. In Baker’s creations, maple, walnut, paper, and metal become the medium through which he appears to distill light out of thin air. Gradients wash softly across the backlit paper, transitioning from peachy oranges and pastel yellows to murky bluish-grays. Where two sheets of paper overlap, secondary gradients complicate the one below. Crisp edges of paper swoop down to suddenly become superficial boundaries dividing fields of color. Minor variations in the thickness of the paper across its surface create a smaller-scaled, pebbled texture evocative of the lunar surface, with its own subtle range of light and dark. Black metal accents contrast against the warm wood and glowing areas of the paper to better emphasize the latter. The wood itself, while providing support and structure, seems to partially melt into the light. Bands of shadow and brightness alternate along the wooden surfaces interspersed with small bursts of luminance closer to the LEDs. Through their careful arrangement and exceptional workmanship, the materials of these artworks generate the magical impression that Baker has captured the substance of light itself.

hoosier floor lamp