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Visual Art: Richard Gleaves’ Life Aquatic

Above: Richard Gleaves' previous exhibit, "Front Curtain," employed hundreds of floppy disks to create a colorful mosaic.

Conceptual artist Richard Gleaves’ new exhibit is unspeakably gorgeous. A tactile, cerebral recreation of immersion in an ocean wave (and the calm it renders), “Liquid” has been siren-songing crowds to the Oceanside Museum of Art since it debuted last week. But there’s a catch – we can’t post pictures of it here. Despite the wishes of its creator, it refuses to be photographed.

“With flash it turns into something interesting but completely other, while without flash the camera simply can't get a decent image of what the eye can,” Gleaves e-mails last week, almost apologetic. It’s true – the images I later receive don't represent the experience of the work.

I assure him that it’s fine – after all, plenty of images of his past work are on file. Perhaps a larger-than-life mosaic composed of multi-colored floppy disks (“Front Curtain”) is more amenable to the camera than 19,000 feet of monofilament fishing line, which will tease the necks of museumgoers from a 100-pound cube suspended above.

“Ask yourself why surfers don’t use the word ‘beauty’ to describe the ocean,” says Gleaves, he himself a devout surfer who spent his childhood summers wandering the shore of Sunset Beach (he’s now a technical writer for Qualcomm).

“Why? Because it wasn’t manly. But if you grew up surfing, you’ll experience these amazing qualities of light – I still have memories of this exquisite aqua beauty.”

After moving to S.D. to study computer science at UCSD (while still logging surf time, of course), it was this same light/dark discipline that incited Gleaves to find his calling. Inspired by James Turrell’s 1986 Light and Space retrospective, he soon began his artistic alchemy by manipulating found materials into other-worldly conceptual experiments.

“(The exhibit) proved that you didn’t need drawing or painting skills to be an artist – it was psychological light,” says Gleaves. “There was no painting, no drawing – I thought, oh God, I can do this.”

Gleaves began tinkering with experimental surfboard shapes and boxes that allowed one to conjure a miniature “rainfall” at home, which he purveyed to local vendors. He eventually shifted to larger projects, like one at the San Diego Art Institute that recorded the “human wake” of passers-by via magnetic tape.

“A constructor is what I am,” he explains. “(‘Liquid’) is the most overt form of representational art I’ve ever done.”

He says the fishing line – all 19,000 feet of it – is a nod to the city of Oceanside, and he’s pleased with its “sense of relevance” blocks from the city’s famed pier, where dozens of fishermen congregate each day. But, as any seafarer would agree, sometimes the exhibit’s monofilament source material can be… complicated.

“You wrangle the stuff,” Gleaves tells me with a laugh. “If you let it get tangled at all, it becomes unusable – the hardest part is not allowing it to get out of control."

“You just have to take something you don’t use and learn about it… work with it, play with it,” he adds.

Next up, Gleaves says he hopes to continue his “Dark Room” project, which recently coerced SDMA gallery-goers to commingle in night vision at the museum’s summer salon series. Meant to simulate the smidge of light experienced pre-dawn, the project pitted perfect strangers into an environment that Gleaves promises was “warm and inviting.” He’ll present the experiment again during the Art San Diego at Space 4 Art.

As for contemporary inspiration, he’s quick to name another famed for crafting something from seemingly nothing – Tara Donavan.

“Her show (at MCASD) was pure magic,” he says reverently. “Magic has a powerful pull on people… and Donavan is a magician.”

And as for how Gleaves somehow encapsulated the experience of being submerged in water into a gallery space… well, you know what they say about the best practitioners of magic. Their tricks are their own.

"Liquid" will be on display at the Oceanside Museum of Art until Nov. 21.

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