Skin & Shaft by Berta M. Sichel

Inserting and slicing light


“Seeing through Light”                                                                                 by Berta M. Sichel

“When light meets darkness, color flashes into existence.” – Goethe

In Ricardo Woo’s installation, “Skin & Slicing the Light”, not only color does flash into existence when light meets darkness, but semblance and movement become active and alive as well. Born in Brazil, a country blessed by light and color, and now living in New York, a city that has unforgettable light, Woo grasps light as both object and event. He sees it is an agent of change, creating, as our eyes follow its contours, compositions and reflections on flat surfaces which are covered with distinctive illuminations. Here light acts as a channel of representation and as a communication. Thorough it the artist reveals his interest in, and his understanding and perception of, the world in which he lives.


When the surface When the surface or skin of a piece by Woo is sliced by light, intriguing shapes result, as do moving pictures, full of expressive resources. We should see light as a dancing figure in art, rather than consider it a material substance of fluid. Experiencing Woo’s art, we remember that the essential material of dance is pure movement, which demonstrates expressive communication through the organization of bodies in space for periods of time. In dance, visual significance is based on changing patterns created by body movements, in which the dancers interact with each other and with the space around them. But in art, as well as in dance, movement can be representational or highly abstract; in both disciplines it can be expressive, or it can be symbolic. In “Skin & Shaft” the enjoyment of movement partly results from the many interchanges possible among the many components of the work. Inner mobility, along with the various physical and mental components of the installation, is responsible for its conceptual and visual interest.


“Skin & Shaft” suggest synthesis, recombination, fusion, and evolution-elements which contemporary art addresses. In many instances, the installation’s methods mimic processes in molecular biology; for example, the variously changing work of Woo is able to create strategies and vocabularies which reflect an unconventional series of events, in which an action results A, which then leads to in B, only to revert to A again. In “Skin & Shaft” there is artworks and different media are recombined and reassembled in controlled way.


Woo, who has a degree in architecture and who always works in response to the physical particulars of each space he exhibits in, wants to promote conversation among the installation’s compositional elements. The installation, as he sees it, acts as a backdrop promoting a cross-dialogue between different constituents, between light and the viewer’s prospection, and among the piece’s elements in the gallery’s split-floor space.


Paintings, photographs, and wall reliefs are all parts of “Skin & Shaft.” They can be seen as multiple pieces or a single artwork. Because the installation is simultaneously one work and several works, the viewer is inevitably asked to participate in a visually interactive process, by which the work, or works, can be mentally assembled and reassembled. As Woo explains “The exhibit shin is presented conceptually as an installation but objectively as individual pieces.” 


When viewers rearrange this puzzlelike installation or-a better analogy-change the base sequence of the artist’s thought, they are visually and mentally allowed to generate “insertional mutations” affecting the random organization of the work’s elements. According to the viewer’s vantage point or mental stance, the installation divides itself as if it were a cell in the process of mutation. Even the substances of the various materials and media Woo employs are in transition; they are capable of instant transformation at any point in time. It is conceivable that this ability would inevitably result in a change in the pay I display of the work- or at least in the viewer’s perception. No matter whether they work together or separately, the elements of “Skin and Shaft” offer other ways of seeing, many more possibilities than those revealed at first glance. 


The installation is installed in two spaces. It comprises ten two-dimensional pieces: five acrylic paintings, in which Woo combines iridescent painting and glossy and matte shades of white, together with five Cibachrome photographs whose images are diluted by layers of silkscreen printing. All the pieces are of the same shape and size: 40 inches by 40 inches. Both the paintings and the photographic images determine the installation’s focal point of interest; the viewer’s perception is influenced by the different lights reflecting and emanating from different media. 


The other half of the installation consists of an arrangement of 150 square- format photographs (approximately 3 by 3 inches), mounted in white acrylic frames that extend two inches from wall. They are placed over walls covered with low reliefs created from a variety of materials; wax, graffiti, black paint, metallic paint. The many squared shapes suggest windows- openings into Woo’s private and public world. 


 Woo’s vision does not partake of the political or social sphere. He is not particularly concerned with how art can depict or change this world. He sees art as having moved beyond traditional aesthetic ideas, even as it had kept its philosophical and spiritual roots. Consequently, Woo’s art is an exit, and the light that flows from the its surface is the active agent that draws people to his conceptual gateway. 


As with other postmodern contemporary artists, abstraction and representation also are issues for Woo. Because there it a tendency to confuse representation also are issues for Woo. Because there is a tendency to confuse representation with figurative depiction, artists who believe that abstraction is also capable of rendering representational meaning usually work from the idea that if abstract art is to have representational meaning, it must first depict something recognizable. Yet we know that an image of something is not necessarily an image of something. Since Woo knows that the external world is independently unreal, he suggests in his art that an image of something as much reflects the perception of the object as the object itself.


We sometimes mistake perception for reality; however, in Woo’s case, the explanation does not come through words or representational images, but through a contemplative experience. Intuitive intelligence is meant to transcend imagery in Woo's art; one recalls the famous Zen picture from China, in which the adept tears up the scriptures: reality conquering words. Here perception arising from contemplation ultimately has the power to reveal the images and particulars of the genuinely real. 


Woo’s Oriental background- his father is Chinese and his mother is Japanese- has certainly influenced his art. Although he grew up in the city São Paulo, a noisy and overpopulated metropolis in the tropics, and although today he endures the urban difficulties of New York life, his work demonstrated an unmistakable wish to engage in contemplation. Perhaps his desire is an antidote to his experience in cities, perhaps it is something that exists primarily because of his ethnic background. No matter the cause for the artist’s contemplative mood, what is important is that Woo tells us how little the physical matters in his art. 


Because Woo favors the meditative, inevitably in “Skin & Shaft” he questions our image culture. The installation’s images mostly derive from a continuous exchange between light and shade, transparency and opaqueness. The artist is opposed to representation’s prominent role in a society dominated by commercialized illustration, a so, in response to the economic origins of much of contemporary imagery, Woo activates the lost art of perceiving what has been screened out or, even worse, ignored. 


Much of Woo’s art concerns the contemporary difficulty of seeing, both figuratively and literary. What is the role of technology or, for that matter, television in our lives now? After so many uncountable hours watching television, we can rid ourselves of our “television eyes” and regain a critical, perceptive, and contemplative gaze? More than a bit of courage is needed, for in today’s society the ability to see what is really out there requires a sense of imaginative adventure. 


Our obsession with the categories of art-such abstractions represent, light, space, and geographical and ethnic identity- are evidence of our search for other dimensions that are in flux, mobile, and dialectical. Contemporary Art is attempting to provide a response to the identity puzzle on both a personal and an artistic level. While Woo senses the situation, he has no more answers then the rest of us, yet he does know how to provoke questions- A valuable quality in a world which does not challenge much. In the midst of so much visual noise, he suggests that new insights can spring from nothing, or rather from light and concomitant reflection. The rest occurs a consequence.




1 Catching the Light: The Entwined History of Light and Mind, Arthur Zajonc, New York: Bantam, 1993.

2 Vision in Context: Historical and Contemporary Perspective on Sight, Martin Jay and Teresa Brennan, eds., New York & London: Routledge, 1996.

3 Thinking Art: Beyond Traditional Aesthetics, Andre Benjamin and Peter Osborne, eds., London: Institute of Contemporary Arts, 1991.

4 Conversations of Goethe with Eckerman and Soret, J.P. Eckerman, trans. by J. Oxenford, London: Bell, 1989.

5 The Third Culture, John Brackman, ed., New York: Touchstone Press, 1995.