In the 1980s and early 1990s, when I was living in New York City, downtown Manhattan was a cauldron of creativity, with neo-expressionism, abstraction, and graffiti art spilling out of the galleries into the streets and clubs. But two of my most memorable art encounters occurred in Midtown: One was an assemblage consisting of a huge blue sail and dangling pieces of bamboo hung in the soaring space of St. Peter's Church, in the Citicorp Building, and the second was a huge mobile-like construction of colored geometric shapes like giant kites floating in the atrium of the new Embassy Suites hotel in Times Square. Both pieces recalled the contemporaneous skewed geometric reliefs of Frank Stella, but their transcendent lyricism, tropical coloration, formal rigor, and vernacular craft were unique.
In 2012, I unexpectedly met the creator of the two pieces, Guyana-born artist Andrew Lyght, who had moved to Kingston after purchasing a former brick mule barn he was restoring as a home/studio. Lyght was an exile several times over: After winning Guyana's top art prize at the age of 19, he moved to Montreal, where he lived for eight years before relocating to New York City. He had his first solo show at the Nassau County Museum, which was followed by commissions for IBM and other corporate clients; his pieces are in the collections of the Pompidou Center, the World Bank, and Smith College Museum of Art.
Upon losing his 8,000-square-foot loft after an extended court battle with his landlord, Lyght left the city and spent much of 2004 and 2005 in Italy before settling in the Hudson Valley. (The $150,000 grant he received from the Barnett and Annalee Newman Foundation funded much of his stay in Europe.) Through all the changes, he never ceased to make art. His five decades of drawings, paintings, installations, prints, and sculpture—categories that in his oeuvre blur and overlap—are now finally getting their due in his first solo retrospective show, "Full Circle," at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art in New Paltz.
The exhibition spans Lyght's work from the circular string-suspended colorful canvas floor pieces that represented his first foray into abstraction in Montreal to his current wall pieces, constructed of a curved piece of plywood, vellum or paper pinned to an underlying wooden crosspiece frame. Each sheet is a shape, painted in fruity, subdued, or earth tones, a palette inspired by his native Caribbean land. Like many of his surfaces, each is covered in an abstract patterned drawing, a kind of coded network that conflates the diagrammatic with the biomorphic and was inspired by the prehistoric petroglyphs in Guyana.
In between is a rich sampling of Lyght's work over the decades. The "Industrial Paintings," glossy, epoxied steel sheaths positioned in a steel post-and-lintel frame (in some works the frame morphs into a sculptural form) and wall or floor-based constructions incorporating 55-gallon steel drums, steel sheathing, ladders, piping, bamboo, and other natural and industrial materials that further push the language of abstract form into three dimensions, are from the 1990s. There are works on canvas or paper covered in rust shapes, made from the oxidization of objects placed on the surface under water, a process he first experimented with in Montreal. More recent works include the Air Rights NY / Lyght NY series, which combine CAD drawing, digital photography, and printmaking to depict fanciful, space-age shapes floating above the New York skyline; each image is covered in a radial pattern of colored-pencil lines, fracturing and divvying up the space, a diagrammatic device that both abstracts the image and perhaps references the calculations of real estate investors. (Lyght notes that after losing his loft, he transferred his studio "into the virtual space of the laptop" and created the computer-generated drawings, which garnered him another prestigious grant.)
Rooted in his childhood experience of the shipyards and multiracial markets of coastal Guyana, Lyght's body of work transcends specificity for an imaginative vision that conflates prehistoric past and gleaming future, the analytical and the mysterious, materiality and flight. His pieces function as both artifact and instruction, a source of sensory pleasure as well as an invitation to a journey. "I have physically deconstructed, altered, and reconstructed the picture plane, the frame, and the compositional elements within that frame to better understand and communicate the dynamic nature of pictorial space," he writes in the sumptuous, comprehensive catalog that accompanies the show. "Each new body of work has explored the limits of the eye by creating an art form that appears to have no fixed boundaries."
"Full Circle" will be on display at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art from January 20 to April 10. (845) 257-3844; Newpaltz.edu/museum.