The Dying Light

A neo-hippie art collective slams into the 21st Century

This is a story about failure.

It's about a particular kind of failure — an American kind. It's about the failure of art measured in dollars and the failure it constitutes if there's no place in the market for art that can't sit neatly on a gallery wall. It's about what happens when Lumonics, a Fort Lauderdale art collective nurtured from roots in the drug-soaked 1960s, tries to make a belated debut and about whether it fails if no one notices.

Lumonics makes ephemeral art. In their studio in Coral Springs, artists work with light. This December, they took their light art to Art Basel in Miami Beach, the most important art show in North America. And so, on the first Tuesday of that month, Art Basel's sneak-preview day, Lumonics mainstays Dorothy Tanner and Marc Billard were at Miami's Edge Zones gallery preparing for one of their only public appearances in the past 20 years. And true to form, they were wrestling with the light situation.

c. stiles
Dorothy Tanner, 84, doesn't just want you to view her art; she wants you to experience it.
c. stiles
Dorothy Tanner, 84, doesn't just want you to view her art; she wants you to experience it.

Two bright, hot bulbs shone down right onto Tanner and Billard. They felt like spotlights, so bright they seemed to steal color from everything around them.

"We can't take them down," Tanner said.

"I can put a piece of foam board up there and block them out," Billard suggested.

The lights were there to illuminate another artist's work, on the other side of a wall; but because the walls dividing the displays didn't go all the way to the ceiling, light poured into the space that the Lumonics crew wanted to keep dark and relaxed.

"It would be no problem to get up there and put up a piece of foam board that goes all the way to the ceiling," Billard said.

No, Tanner said. "It's Charo's place; it's not our place. We have to respect that."

Tanner and Billard looked tired and frustrated. They sat at a green desk that Billard made for their Art Basel booth. Tanner, a small, thin, 84-year-old with short hair and darting hands, was wearing a dress with support hose and uncomfortable shoes. Her feet hurt. She'd feel better when she got back to Coral Springs, she said. Billard, 58 and well over six feet tall, with a mustache and thin glasses, in black slacks and sandals, looked plucked from the pages of a hippie catalog. He sipped nonalcoholic beer he'd packed in a cooler. All of the art they exhibited had been made by Tanner and Billard and Tanner's husband, Mel, who died in 1993. For a week, they and the rest of the Lumonics crew — "The Lu Cru" — had been schlepping their heavy plastic light sculptures and wall pieces from Coral Springs down I-95 to Miami.

One looked like a Technicolor, plexiglass dollhouse. Another resembled a cream cocoon. Tablet was a wall-hanging black box full of abstract, glowing shapes. Their work includes colorful, plastic, illuminated sculptures as well as fountains, wall projections, and whole art spaces. It has a utopian bent. "The art is meant to be experienced," Tanner says. "We want it to cool you down — to chill you out — when you see it. We want people to feel calm and peaceful."

A woman in her early 20s with a bright-pink purse, whom Tanner and Billard did not know, plopped herself down in one of the chairs behind their desk in their booth and loudly conversed on a cell phone ("I'm at Basel"). The lights still shone over the wall so brightly that Billard feared the effect of the Lumonics sculptures would be lost. It was a rocky start for a new adventure, but it was also just one part of a journey that began decades before. The Lumonics group, known officially as Tanner Studios, had traveled in that time from Miami to San Diego to Bangor, Maine, and back to South Florida, dedicated all the while to their art and to communal vegan living.

Now, Tanner and Billard and Lu Cru members Barry Raphael and Barbara Ungar and Ritch Mosias were stressed and excited at the prospect of formally bringing their art before the public again, leaving the cool, dark cave of their studio to step into the light of the art world at its glitziest. A sister to Art Basel Switzerland, the annual Art Basel event in Miami Beach is the biggest contemporary-art show in the world, comprising work from more than 200 galleries in its official exhibitions plus at least 200 more galleries that show work in satellite spaces such as Edge Zones. Private jets brought collectors and dealers here from around the world, and the crowd was peppered with celebrities like author Tom Wolfe in his trademark white suit. More than 40,000 buyers and dealers had flocked to Art Basel the year before, and 2007 looked to be just as popular. Little red-dot stickers, the signs that works of art have been sold, had popped up everywhere, and 2007 looked to be just as popular.

Before this year's Art Basel got under way, New Times art critic Michael Mills told me that he thought of all the local artists in the show, Lumonics probably had the best chance of succeeding, of seizing the art world's attention. Lumonics had long rejected that kind of attention, Mills said, an attitude that collectors usually can't get enough of. Lumonics, with its use of light, sound, and space, makes work so unusual and experiential that it just might grip a few influential individuals, and from there, its renown could spread. Or it could play out differently: As the Lu Cru was aware, viewers might find their electric contraptions and abstract structures too offbeat, like something that had escaped from a sci-fi niche. "Some people have no idea what to think," Billard said with a laugh. "They just stand back, and it's like they can't take it in or can't process it or something."

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