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On the presence of light

How does ''The Presence of Light'' look from inside? This exhibition of fiber art at Southern Methodist University's Meadows Museum in Dallas (to July 29) is viewed here by one of the show's curators, critic Betty Park, in a version of her catalog essay. The other curator, Dominique Mazeaud, is director of Modern Master Tapestries in New York, where the exhibition will run from Sept. 11 to Oct. 6.

In her comprehensive work on color, Enid Verity traces a fascinating course from Descartes's hypothesis that ''light was essentially a pressure transmitted through a dense mass of invisible particles'' to Newton's observation, upon passing a beam of white light through a prism, thereby converting it to a continuous spectrum of color, that all colors are contained in white light. Verity connects the 19th-century physicist James Clerk Maxwell's introduction of the idea that matter is an electrical phenomenon - paradoxically both particle and wave - to Einstein's momentous formulation: ''The amount of energy is equal to the amount of mass, times the square of the velocity of light,'' or E EQUALS mc2.

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In the arts we are instantly in familiar territory with images of light in Rembrandt, Vermeer, Turner, and Constable. Monet studied the atmospheric effects of light with the precise attention common to scientists and poets. Eva Figes describes Monet's attunement to the ''envelope of light'' which each day is presented.

Most interesting in relation to this exhibition is the work of contemporary artists who explore the act of perception as it is affected by light. David Hockney's Polaroid photos break up the picture plane into quick takes, dissolving perception into its constituent bits and pieces. Robert Irwin relentlessly tracks the light falling on his studio walls or creates energy fields of light that elicit a profoundly meditative response; for some, it is not substance but the ambiance or the viewer's experience that is compelling.

Light is clearly a pervasive presence in the arts. In art fabrics there is a peculiar affinity for the metaphorical rendering of the presence of light, owing , first of all, to the textural diversity of materials commonly classed as textiles. They range from the most fragile paper or cast resin with properties of transparency and translucency to plant and animal fibers whose sinewy or hairy surfaces present manifold facets from which light is reflected. Secondly, when this material is formed into structures, the resulting interlaced or layered composition redoubles the surfaces from which light bounces. Playful and evocative, some work in this exhibition gives us an experience like that of an infant who perceives only flowing patterns of light and shadow without discerning particular objects.

Fiber may also act as a screen or as a transmitter of light, transforming the light in passage in new and unexpected ways. Substance is mutable; as time and light pass, we read or enter these works from ever-changing perspectives.

Several artists give us landscapes of the mind and spirit, suggesting an inward passage moving beyond the limits of language toward states of consciousness for which light, fire, and light on water are most eloquent symbols.

The artists in this exhibition are light bearers. Evelyn Underhill says, ''The artist is no more and no less than a contemplative who has learned to express himself and who tells his love in color, speech, or sound.'' Enid Verity finds that artists ''work with the same tools as our own experience could make accessible, but they produce results which are mysterious and act powerfully upon us.''

This gift comes to us in the spirit of playful, ever-changing surface appearance or, paradoxically, as a unifying presence which is an antidote to the multiplicity of form that is our daily fare. In either case, the light impinges upon our sense of solid substance, of reliable, unchanging reality, and presents us with an image of transformation. In the presence of light, our awareness is led ineluctably to a contemplative state.

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