Los Angeles

Emilie Halpern's Phosphorescent Rock Art

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Inside her garage-turned-studio in Silver Lake, artist Emilie Halpern cradles a rock in her hands. It looks normal, rocklike, maybe a little glassy. But this rock is a wernerite (the emphasis here is science's). Wernerite, also known as scapolite, fluoresces, which means it emits an electron-induced glow under UV light. Halpern flicks a switch on a black light, the kind commonly found in the bedrooms of stoned teens, on her desk. "It's taken me 10 years to figure out how to turn this into an artwork," she says. The artwork Halpern finally devised recently showed at Pepin Moore Gallery in Hollywood, the first part of a trilogy of month-long exhibitions called "Shōka" for a particular style of ikebana that was popularized in early 19th century Japan.

"I first came across the fluorescent rocks on a visit to the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles in 2003," she continues, holding the wernerite over the black light at different angles to accentuate its brilliant ashen green glow. "They were doing an event called 'Gem Fest.' The guy that was representing the Fluorescent Mineral Society had a display -- like a terrarium -- but built into the case are short wave UV lamps. Fluorescent rocks glow under ultraviolet light, and we can't perceive ultraviolet light. Some animals can like bees and birds, but we just don't see that range. So, black light is just ultraviolet light, and it doesn't include any other colors from the spectrum."

Halpern did some digging on the Internet, and found a community of "fluorescent rock hounds," mostly men who sought glowing rocks. "You run into men who are not really interested in sharing too much information with you," Halpern explains. But she finally wrestled the names and locations of source mines from the rock hounds, and had over 600 pounds of rock shipped to California from various North American locations like Quebec and New Jersey. She proudly holds a calcite sample to the black light, and then a sodalite, and finally a crystalline selenite gypsum. Each has their own distinct taffy radiance.

"Shōka" by Emilie Halpern

"Shōka" by Emilie Halpern

With the fluorescent rocks in hand and the black lights, Halpern had the basic ingredients. But how to turn it into art? She played around with different installation designs, but each time something wasn't quite right. Finally, she looked inward. Influenced by Japanese rock gardens and the minimalist '70s Japanese art collective Mono-Ha -- Halpern is half-Japanese -- she began to slowly withdraw her influence over the rocks by presenting them unencumbered, in a simple rectangular rock field in the gallery, leaving just enough room to be able to walk around the rocks and view them from different angles. She replaced the gallery's original track lighting with black lights, and stopped at that. In the day, the rocks seemed dormant and banal, but at night, they bloomed. This first month-long part of "Shōka," Halpern called 地 (pronounced chi, translated as "earth").

The installation was an unmitigated success: Kaveri Nair, in ArtForum, gushed that "though her fluorescent rock installation may invoke painting, it's really more akin to Robert Smithson's indoor Earthworks ... Both Smithson and Halpern transform rocks -- a material not merely natural but elemental (in the ancient sense) -- by creating ordered compositions in the space of the gallery and, more crucially, by pairing them with a second, artificial element of quasi-alchemical power."

Halpern is wary of comparing herself to Land Art legends like Smithson, who made similarly subtle gallery works from piles of dirt in the '70s, and Michael Heizer, who recently settled a monolithic boulder above a walkway at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Halpern comes from a different place, and while her rock field resembles those attempts at bringing naturalistic elements into the gallery, Halpern only finds fluorescent rocks to be a small part in a larger story. In fact, Halpern has begun calling certain works of hers "instruction pieces," in that, if they are to be installed at a collector's house or an institution, the installing party will be given a set of simple instructions to install the work. For instance, the rock formations are tailored to the room's size.

"Shōka" by Emilie Halpern

The second part of "Shōka," called 天 (pronounced ten, translated as "heaven"), Halpern displayed an even more subtle work, this time dependent not on earthbound elements, but light and time. She spent a day observing direct sunlight coming in through the gallery window. "I picked a moment," she says. "It ended up being around 4:06 P.M." She then traced that moment of sunlight coming through the window with gold leaf. "When the sunlight it gone, it's just a shadow made of gold leaf, which represents light. It's a response to how architecture frames the sunlight."

The resulting piece, which shows up as gold rectangles climbing the walls of the gallery, is photographic, in that it captures a single moment of the sunlight, the rectangles in the shape of the light beaming through the windows at that exact moment. Halpern herself describes it as a "sculpture of time." It's minimal beyond belief, just two towers of golden shadow at the front of the gallery. Gestures this subtle don't often make it into galleries, especially in spectacle-obsessed Los Angeles.

But the Pepin Moore Gallery is different. Started by Genevieve Pepin and John Ryan Moore in 2010, the gallery built a program of consistently challenging exhibitions by artists such as Phil Chang, Bobbi Woods, and Halpern. What set Pepin Moore apart was that they operated almost as a non-profit, pushing their artists to make work without focusing on the sale-ability. At the end of the day, Moore tells me in an email, that model wasn't sustainable in an art world increasingly reliant on fairs and easily marketable works, and the gallery plans to close at the end of Halpern's trilogy. "Presenting our artists work in the context of exhibitions has always been one of the most important reasons to have the gallery, but it the market exists elsewhere then it makes better sense for us to step aside and support the artists in other ways," Moore explains. "We've had a successful run and we're very proud of what we've accomplished with our artists. We're very happy to be closing on a high note. It is fitting that Emilie was our first solo show at the gallery, so it feels right that we get to end this chapter with her as well."

Halpern, for her part, describes Pepin and Moore's ability to challenge her. "One of the things I teased them about, is both [Moore] and [Pepin] always will make the more minimalist choice. I fought with them about having only one show, where the fluorescent rocks and the gold piece were both installed. The idea was that the fluorescent rocks came alive at night and the gold leaf piece was activated during the day. And [Moore] said, 'No, they have to be separate, and you need so much more room for them to breath.' Even with the gold leaf, they wanted me to paint a little line of gold. I said, 'No, you guys, that's too minimal."

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In the end, Halpern won with the gold leaf, but Moore convinced Halpern to create the trilogy. "It's exactly what it needed to be," says Halpern. Which brings us to the final piece of the puzzle: 人 (pronounced jin, translated as "human"). For this, Halpern created a series of ceramics, glazed in a frosty blue that the artist has made her signature, and placed several bowls on a long block of wood, while hanging a series of cups and vases from the ceiling. Whereas the other two parts of the show were in some way informed by allowing nature to do its thing, the final part of the trilogy is controlled from the production of the artisanal pottery to the design of the exhibition.

When the show ends on the winter solstice -- December 21st -- Halpern will begin to look for a new gallery. A smart gallery would consider her, as she brings a powerful reality to subtle gestures. Though it's comes at a slow burn -- there's no theatrics in Halpern's work -- the art leaves a long lasting residue on the viewer's mind. These are investigations and experiments in a zone between art and science, humanity and the elements. Halpern's balance of art and science comes from a natural place.

"Shōka" by Emilie Halpern

Growing up, Halpern looked up to her father, an immunologist at Stanford, she originally had an interest in marine biology (a field she still admires today). But the mathematics and drudgery involved in a science career became cumbersome, and Halpern came to the conclusion that she was mostly interested in popular science -- the layman's version of biology that contains an easily digestible "oh wow" factor. In a way, Halpern's views of science were easily translatable to art, which often yearns for a similar sense of wonderment. "Did you know that birds can hear the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans at the same time? Or that there's a jellyfish that doesn't die?" she says, pulling a gemstone price guide from her studio bookshelf.

When biology lost its luster, Halpern turned to her artistic lineage. Takanori Oguiss, her maternal grandfather, found recognition as a painter of French street imagery, and even has his own museum in Inazawa, Japan. Her father's mother, Renée Halpern, left Warsaw to study at the Arts Decoratifs school in Paris. Halpern graduated with a degree in fine arts from UCLA, before attending Art Center College of Design in Pasadena for her MFA. But her love of science never left, and it slowly crept into the work she presents today. She still teaches a class of 4th graders at the Armory Center for the Arts called "Children Investigate the Environment."

According to Ikebana International, a worldwide authority on ikebana floral composition, Shōka "is a simple, graceful style suggesting the essential character of a plant as it grows in response to the factors in its natural environment." The same could be said for Halpern's career, which is still growing.

"Shōka" by Emilie Halpern

"Shōka" by Emilie Halpern

"Shōka" by Emilie Halpern


Read our recent articles on rock art:

Graffiti Row: Outsider Rock Formations in the Imperial Desert
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Top Image: "Shōka" by Emilie Halpern.

About the Author

Maxwell Williams is a freelance writer based in Rampart Village, Los Angeles.
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