The ceiling above Finnbogi Petursson's installation "Reset," at Wood Street Galleries, is latticed with exposed pipes. The space housing the work is darkly lit, that stalactite ceiling and three attendant walls all of industrial white. In front of the screen that is the facing wall sits a square pool of buzzing water. Lights bounced off the water erupt from its surface to shine onto the wall in patterns that shift based on the sound waves used to disrupt the pool's surface. The resultant setting is like a grotto: a stark Lascaux in which dramatic lines turn to woven patterns and elaborate honeycombs.
This sense of starkness and geological spiritualism runs throughout the warren of room-sized installations comprising White Light-Black Light, a show of work by Icelander Petursson and Czech-Israeli artist Jan Tichy. The half-dozen pieces, crowned by the debut of "Reset" and Tichy's "Installation no. 11," use technology to question humankind's alleged dominance. These works create settings that glow with warmth and depth using only darkness and light, the patient and powerful sounds of the earth, and its equally dominating silence.
Petursson's main artistic tools are sine waves -- a basic sonic structure that the artist considers a direct aural connection with the natural world. In "Reset," sound waves are directed at the pool's surface to physically ripple the water into these patterns. Although purely technologically generated, the audio resembles the groans and sighs of Iceland's enormous glaciers, calling like the death throes of giants. Its waves are at the same frequencies as brainwaves at the border between the end of a dream and awakening. Whether it's a primal grotto instinct, the appeal of Plato's cave or the beauty of its simple monochromic images and sounds, "Reset" is immediately gorgeous to behold.
"Sphere" (2003) acts as a kind of evolutionary predecessor to "Reset." A cool and clean plinth bears a large bowl of water. A projector within the plinth illuminates the bowl from below. As sine waves are channeled into the water, it alters the projected light through the otherwise dark room. "Sphere"'s images are at once primitive and science-fictional -- like the gaseous clouds from which our physics erupted, or the fractured galaxies through which our fictive spaceships travel.
In Jan Tichy's "Installation no. 11," two wall-sized screens face each other. Over time, one sizzles with whiteout; a desert scene comes to view. Eventually, the once-searing video fades to darkness, at which point the opposite pattern occurs on the facing screen -- from blackness toward dissolution into light, a scene of the ocean. Photographs mounted on the walls show an icon of Horus, the Egyptian sky-god and conqueror of the desert, and another of a real-life moth. Lines of cord disrupt both the room and the video images, cutting from ceiling to floor, binding the room together.
"Installation no. 11" is tense and patient: It slices the viewer's focus and perception, placing one in a confined and divided room bookended by the limitless power of the ever-stretching desert and ocean. It is a formidable installation inspired by the sublime -- nature, paganism, evolution -- but tempered by its physical restraints, which act to bring the viewer back to the room's realities.
Tichy's "Installation no. 6: Tubes," feels more willful than the rest of White Light-Black Light. A sculptural skyline of tubes on top of a table-like video screen "play" the white-noise feedback on the screen in an otherwise empty dark room. As the noise and light from the screen change in structure and volume, the room seems to burst and shake. But while the rest of the show can be considered at a basic level of humanity's awe, "Tubes" can't escape its own postindustrial technology.
White Light-Black Light is a powerful show that plays to Wood Street's strengths: installations requiring control of light and sound, isolation and concentration. Petursson and Tichy's work is full of seismic awe and oceanic dread, yet simultaneously reminds us that from this stark beauty arose humankind. And with that comes a grand balance that few artists can attain.
White Light-Black Light continues through April 3. Wood Street Galleries, 601 Wood St., Downtown. 412-471-5605 or www.woodstreetgalleries.org