WORDS Katharine Jacobs IMAGES Shavan Rahim
When Bassa Aspinall opened the Bassa Gallery in 2015, he needed a lighting system as bright and as carefully crafted as his monumental paintings. we visited the gallery in Claremont to meet the artist and learn a little about the art of lighting art.
Artist and gallery owner Bassa Aspinall in his eponymous Cape Town gallery.
THE ART OF LIGHT
In 1992, the Guggenheim’s famous rotunda was lit with multicoloured light. The Frank Lloyd Wright building glowed like a rainbow from outside and inside its spiralling walkways were misted with colour. The creator of this magical space? The artist Dan Flavin, who worked most of his life with light and fittingly held his wedding inside the installation. (The gallery was later forced to release a statement making it clear that it didn’t do weddings, so great was the subsequent demand.) Gallery lighting is not normally quite as prominent. In fact, the challenge is the opposite: subtlety.
“We try and avoid over-spotlighting works unless really necessary, and keep the lighting as natural and even as possible,” explains Andrew da Conceicao, one of the directors at South African fine art gallery Stevenson. That’s not always as easy as it sounds – especially when artworks include a high level of detail, or need bright light to read correctly. And then, as in most galleries, the target keeps moving as exhibitions change.
At most contemporary galleries – Stevenson included – the solution is twofold: upward lighting is used to create an even wash of light, while tilting spotlights and floodlights on a track supply light for smaller, more detailed works, or for a more intense impact.
Internationally, when new galleries are designed, light is pivotal to the overall concept. When Louis Kahn was commissioned to design the Kimbell Art Museum in 1966, he conceived of a space in which “light is the theme”. Louis designed a series of vaulted spaces pierced with skylights. Light filtered down into the space and was directed onto artworks by means of reflectors made from aluminium. Spotlights were then used to fill in the extra light needed, creating a kind of enhanced natural light space.
Another solution is to filter light. When Japanese firm SANAA designed New Museum in New York in 2007, they covered the ceilings in a crisscross of strip lighting, and hung a floating screen of mesh beneath to soften the effect. A major concern for art museums is damage resulting from UV exposure and heat over time. The Getty Conservation Institute has studied several methods for limiting the harmful effects of lighting, which cause some pigments to fade. These range from covering halogen lights in UV filters to, more recently, replacing them with LED lighting, which produces no UV and emits very little heat.
Bassa Aspinall paints from iconic photography. Inspired by the use of UV paint in graffiti, his graphic UV artworks transform when LED lights are switched on.
THE BASSA GALLERY
The stylish red logo and red vinyl frames outline the white rectangle of the Bassa Gallery in Claremont, Cape Town. Inside, bright, graphic artworks adorn the walls: Twiggy in greys, soft pink, red and hot pink; James Dean bathed in white light. The Bassa Gallery is the creation of businessman and parttime artist Bassa Aspinall. He began painting only four years ago, after failing to find the sort of Pop Art he wanted to adorn his new office. The gallery opened in 2015 and is a passion project Bassa regards as a tremendous luxury.
His first image – a graphic painting of Bruce Lee in black acrylic on a yellow background – received such an overwhelming response from visitors to his office that he was encouraged to continue. From there, things snowballed. A visit from a collector friend and sales by gallerist Lisa King led to a showstopping solo exhibition in a mansion on Nettleton Drive in Clifton, Cape Town after which the owner purchased 13 of the works. Yet he’s quick to point out that he’s not a professional artist. “I know nothing about art. But I love pop art and graphic design. I love vector images.
And the colours of pop art.” He paints from iconic photography, such as Herb Ritts’ images of Naomi Campbell or Cara Delevigne, with their clean lines and strong forms. Bassa completed the interiors of the gallery himself, but when it came to lighting, he approached it as an investment. “Lighting to me is paramount to showing the paintings off at their best. I personally think that’s the most important factor in a gallery,” he says. To create the lighting effect he was after, Bassa worked with Lightworld to find the right way to light his paintings and invested in Alpha spots made by Spazio. Mounted on a track on the roof, and designed to swivel, the spots bathe Bassa’s bright work in beautiful, clear light. “In fact, the lighting in the gallery is so good in comparison to my studio, that I often spot all kinds of things when I bring a painting through.”
This rigour with regard to lighting isn’t surprising: light is a big part of his work. Texture – built with layers of imported Italian Maimeri paint – shows up best under the gallery’s spotlights, while pieces that feature pearlescent paints in gold, bronze or copper, shimmer. “Lighting can change the character of the painting. You can switch off one light and switch on a warmer one and the golds take on a different tone and the painting takes on a different character.”
Inspired by the use of UV paint in graffiti, Bassa seized the opportunity when his favourite paint supplier brought out a UV range. By day, Prince hangs demurely on the wall. “But then you switch on a purple LED, Prince suddenly looks like the cover of Purple Rain.”
YOUR HOME GALLERY
Andrew of Stevenson recommends consulting a designer or architect if designing a home from scratch. “Plan which walls will be primary walls to display art and plan the lighting accordingly.” Consider the position of the artwork, the natural light coming into the space, the height of the ceiling and how far the lighting fixtures should be from the walls. At the Stevenson Gallery, the team uses a bespoke suspended lighting track system, which can be adapted for each exhibition.
Richard Mishaan, one of Architectural Digest’s AD100 designers, recommends using either ceilingmounted spots, track lighting or wall washers. Lighting designer Doug Russell, who frequently works with Richard, recommends that the spots be tilted at 30 degrees to the artwork. Any more acute and you’ll cast shadows from the frame; any wider and you’re aiming too directly and will end up with reflective glare off an artwork. If you’re prone to changing your mind or moving art around, track lighting, which can be adjusted and refitted, might offer a better option. Alternatively, consider washing a wall with light to create a more subtle illumination that will also light the room. Also remember to check that the lights are not too hot or too close. Consider LED lights, which don’t emit UV light and only a low level of heat, or fit halogen lights with a UV filter and keep them a good distance away to best protect valuable works of art.