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Michael Hardesty's Echo disorients pleasingly.

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Sphere of influence: Michael Hardesty's "Was/Is" at Wood Street Galleries. Photo courtesy of Wood Street Galleries.
  • Sphere of influence: Michael Hardesty's "Was/Is" at Wood Street Galleries. Photo courtesy of Wood Street Galleries.
For Michael Hardesty, whose four installations comprise Echo, at Wood Street Galleries, an avowed influence is light artist James Turrell. Turrell's pioneering works -- three of which are on permanent display just across the river, at The Mattress Factory -- use light and space to alter (and sometimes confound) human perception. Hardesty, who now lives in Equinunk, Pa., was a graduate student at the University of Arizona years ago, when Turrell was the artist-in-residence. Hardesty and partner Sandy Cundiff also provided Turrell's lodging, creating further opportunity for in-depth discussions of theory.

Over the ensuing quarter-century, Hardesty has developed Turrell's light-centric aesthetics beyond their original boundaries. With each of the four works in Echo, curated by Wood Street Galleries' Murray Horne, Hardesty fabricates mesmerizing alternate microcosms, offering unexpected juxtapositions of objects and unusual perceptual experiences.

The exhibition's introductory piece, the title work, is mounted on a wall at knee height. Spelled out in gently radiant blue neon is the word "Echo." Positioned beneath it is an aluminum pan brimming with motor oil, whose slick, ebony surface reflects the neon with the crystalline precision of a mirror. Because of the word's graphic symmetry, it is spelled perfectly even in reflection -- a visual reiteration that noiselessly mimics the acoustic phenomenon it names.

The next two installations, "Was/Is" and "Offering," each first appeared, in slightly altered form, at The Butler Institute's Beecher Center, in Youngstown, Ohio, in 2005. At Wood Street, Hardesty has created the two anew.

In "Offering," Turrell's influence is unmistakable. Like Turrell's glowing fluorescent geometry, the principal source of illumination is a giant backlit Plexiglas disk, which radiates a mystical amethyst light and carries the laser projection of a rotating ellipse. As with the low, meditative buzz in Turrell's installations, Hardesty incorporates sound to hypnotic effect. Accompanying the single, steady note of an organ is a spoken word issuing from a small speaker that sits in the palm of a suspended, cast-resin hand. Drawing out the syllables of the word "listen" for two seconds, the artist's voice eventually melts into an endless, fluid melody, advancing and receding like the tide. The shape and movement of the sound seems to correlate with the rotating ellipse. Along with the room's disorienting low light, it all suggests the enigmatic logic of a dream sequence.

In Hardesty's multimedia work "Was/Is," a stately, 10-foot-wide gold-toned sphere confronts the viewer. The sphere's silent regality dominates the installation. Hobnail shapes move across its surface to create a convincing illusion of rotation. On stepping closer, however, the visitor finds her crisp silhouette suddenly incorporated into the work, and immediately, the movement she perceived upon entering the gallery is revealed as a digital projection. At left, a metronome marks time, simulating a hollow heartbeat and lending the giant sphere an almost living presence. The beat is accompanied by the sound of moving water, articulated so softly it is nearly a whisper.

Lastly, "Feedback," which fills the gallery's entire third floor, is completely without sound and offers a self-reflexive demonstration of art's power to both chronicle and disorient. Video cameras, installed in opposite walls, document in-range activity, while projectors throw these live-feed images onto the same camera-studded walls. The result is a mirror-within-mirror effect that has each viewer seeing himself as a family of identical nesting dolls, repeatedly oriented in both directions and in increasingly diminutive sizes. Like the exhibition's title work, "Feedback" silently offers up a visual reverberation, this time via cameras and projectors rather than reflections.

With his installations, Hardesty deconstructs traditional visual and aural associations to create alternate realities governed by rules and associations that are not those of the everyday world. His room-sized environments are often filled with objects that, while still carrying their prosaic or symbolic real-world associations, combine to create experiences with new, uncharted meanings. In the process, like mentor Turrell, Hardesty forces the viewer to reconsider the nature and substance of the reality outside his artificial constructions.

Echo continues through Sept. 15. Wood Street Galleries, 601 Wood St., Downtown. 412-471-5605 or www.woodstreetgalleries.org

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