Local Color

. June 1, 2015.
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Visual arts can be defined by light—the contrast between dark and bright, shadow and illumination. Masters of a variety of genres are recognized for their control of light; the dramatic chiaroscuro of Caravaggio’s images, the shocking high-contrast of Diane Arbus’ photos. Paint and film are media that readily lend themselves to the perception of light. But what of light itself as the medium of artistic expression?

Local artist Mike Gould crafts delicate and mesmerizing displays using lasers. As he declares in his artistic statement, “I try to raise light to its purest level, illuminating our world in novel ways to inspire and awe the beholder. And what better way to condense the perfection of light than by using lasers?”  

Four decades of light shows

Gould is a life-long Ann Arborite who began producing visual spectacles in the late 60’s with his Illuminatus Lightshow, including stints at the notorious and short-lived People’s Ballroom.  In those days, his gear included multiple overhead and slide projectors, mixing boards, and enough ancillary equipment to fill a van. When he discovered gas-powered lasers in the early 70s, the connection was immediate. “Lasers are very pure in color, they’re very straight, they mind their own business until you get in there and dick with them and then they can do amazing things. I love the pretty colors and it’s all an outgrowth of my work in lightshows. This is so much brighter, more compact, more high-tech, and you can still build it yourself.”

In the forty-odd years since Gould started working with lasers, the lights have shrunk down to small, inexpensive diodes, allowing him to mount them in a variety of different housings, connect them to motors to make them move more intricately and control them from a laptop.  The appearance of his laser creations often is a wavy interaction of lines wrapping and warping around themselves. It’s called “Laser Lumia” and is demonstrated in his exhibitions for Fool Moon, DElectricity, and Grand Rapids’ ArtPrize. “It’s this wispy abstract stuff that happens when you fire coherent light, which is very pure and straight…through defractive media—melted glass or plastic or something. That causes the laser beam to interfere with itself, making interference patterns. The point of all of that is that it is dirt-cheap to do.”

“Laser-like” focus

At his home workshop, lasers in various states of completion are housed in lengths of PVC sewer pipe and vintage canister vacuum cleaners. For a family-friendly presentation called “L Is For Lasers,” he hangs metal lunchboxes from the ceiling, projecting laser images around the room. At a show at Midland’s Dow Museum, he overheard one youngster exclaim, “I want to live here!” The same project at Ann Arbor’s Hands-On Museum drove another child from the room screaming. “Between those two extremes, most kids pretty much dig it,” admits Gould.

Pint-size critics notwithstanding, most of us enjoy staring at the waving lights. What primal nerve do lasers tease? Are we just cats with thumbs? Gould thinks, “It’s like looking into a fire.  You can just chill out. It is a random process, but carefully designed to fit within a certain framework.”

Gould is currently working on a piece for the upcoming Saline Celtic Festival which incorporates music and representative laser imagery in a narrative program. He’s also planning an exhibit for a new museum in Wisconsin this fall. He has lists of projects he’d like to tackle, such as working with a dance troupe and lighting up an entire side of Tower Plaza. “I’ve only been doing this on a big scale for five years, and I keep thinking I’m only scratching the surface. There’s so much more I can do with this.”

He also has concepts for smaller applications. “I have a design for laser sconces. It would hang on the wall, or better yet, in the corner, and light up the ceiling. I’ve also got an idea for a little nightlight thing built into a soup can, called “Cream of Laser Soup.” Laser art in the home? I want to live there!

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