Conversing with Clyde Lynds while seated amid his exhibit is a little awkward - kind of like talking out loud in church. And for good reason.
His tall, carefully placed stone sculptures look like columns at first glance. The walls are concrete grey, the lights low and, with the heat turned down, the gallery feels drafty. As if that weren't enough, the lights that change color and shape on the surface of one sculpture evoke another churchlike trait.
"The forms themselves come from Islamic tiles," Mr. Lynds says. "But if you keep looking at it, it will look like stained-glass windows in a medieval cathedral."
Mr. Lynds is no religious fanatic, nor is he a magician. He's a sculptor who's invented a new medium that combines concrete and fiber optics, which, in turn, enables him to combine the symbols of various cultures in what he calls a "unified" whole. His collection Buddha's Seat is on view at the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton through May 6.
Putting content aside for now, Mr. Lynds' work is, plain and simple, amazing. Even uptight art critics who'd argue technology and art don't mix would probably be caught stealing an admiring glance. Based on stelae (pronounced Stee-LEE), the tall, narrow stone tablets of ancient cultures, Mr. Lynds' work uses fiber optic strands to produce an ever-changing light display on the sculptures' surfaces.
One minute, the lower half of an eight-feet tall sculpture shaped like the Washington Monument is littered with blue and aqua-colored circles. The next, veils of white and purple fan the top half. Then, both halves are speckled with white, as if all the night sky's stars had decided to get together for a party.
Words can't do the work justice; they simply have to be seen up close. Looking for little pinpricks on a sculpture's surface, you're not going to find any. The fiber optic tubes, which are like thick strands of glass hair, are embedded in the concrete sculpture. So, when they emit light, the result is seemingly organic, as if the pores of the concrete were always meant to glow.
''I'm really not interested in the technology- that's important to point out," Mr. Lynds says. "To me, it's a means to an end."
Regardless, he allows a peek inside. Housed in each of the sculpture's two-foot high metal foundations, the lighting system consists of a headlight-sized lamp aimed at two color wheels, which slowly revolve in front of the ends of thousands of fiber optic strands.
The flexible glass-and-acrylic strands, used principally in telecommunications, are coated by a material that acts as a mirror, holding the light inside so that it only escapes through the other end. Arranged in intricate patterns based on Mr. Lynds' sketches, the strands are placed in a wooden mold, which is filled with concrete, thus embedding the strands in the sculpture.
Sounds fairly simple, but the strands, along with the patterns on the color wheels, and the speed at which they rotate, have to be perfectly synchronized to produce the desired effect. If the cycle of patterns simply repeated themselves every half-hour, the task wouldn't seem so daunting. But as Mr. Lynds points out, "they don't repeat until every couple of days."
What you see depends on where you look. Overall, Buddha’s Seat, consisting of 11 pieces, has the look of a temple. Those looking for a literal connection can find it in Japanese short story writer Yuko Mishima's story of the same name, which alludes to "light and space infinitely multiplying,” Mr. Lynds says.
"Mainly, the impetus for the work came out of visiting temples and sites, ruins that have a certain kind of reverence or quiet space - something that comes down through the ages," he adds. "And I'm trying to translate that in the work by using some of the things (other cultures) used."
And just about everything is up for grabs. Pointing at one of the exhibit's three shorter, stout sculptures, which are kept separate from the temple area, Mr. Lynds notes its concrete etchings, which, as with all his sculptures, are carved or sandblasted, or both, after the cured concrete has been released from the mold.
"It started from an Amish quilt," he says of the design. "Then, I developed (the lighting) on the computer to work out so that there's a star of David, a Christian cross and an Islamic star. And at one time or another, they will assert themselves over, or on top of, each other. So there's this unification, this melding of images.
"I'm not interested in expounding on any one religion or any religion at all," he continues. "What I'm interested in doing is just creating objects that make you think in a different way or make you look at things in a different way."
Sometimes, the objects can even be personal, so long as they fit into the mix. For instance, the actual seat in Buddha's Seat, a square, rough-edged stone bench, has one such feature.
"The beetle (sculpted) on the front is like an Egyptian scarab, but it's not; it's a stag beetle," Mr. Lynds explains.
A resident of Wood-Ridge, Mr. Lynds was born in Jersey City and raised in Rutherford
by parents who encouraged him to make use of his artistic talents. After high school and a stint in the U.S. Army, he got married, then attended two art schools for a total of 10 years, specializing in painting.
Even as a painter, he was interested in the effects of light, and he used them in his surrealistic and still life work.
"But painting got boring," Mr. Lynds recalls. "I mean, I really wanted to do the real thing."
Which meant a hands-on, three-dimensional creation. But having never tried sculpture, Mr. Lynds extended his painting talents to "nightscapes," abstract renderings placed in black acrylic boxes with fiber optic strands, which Mr. Lynds had started using as soon as they became commercially available in the late '60s.
Ten years, later, inspired by a trip to Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, the seat of ancient Mayan culture, Mr. Lynds obsession with stone art began. While developing the art he now shows today - which entailed learning the skills of an electrician, a sheet metal worker and a stone sculptor - he took more trips. They provided him with first-hand studies of the visual "accouterments" of European churches and cathedrals, Egyptian temples, Greek ruins and Japanese shrines and temples.
But it's the Mayan art, which was incorporated into the culture's architecture, that forms the basis of Buddha's Seat. Mayan stelaes were "the billboards of their day," according to Mr. Lynds, a tall, well-built man with long grey hair tied back in a ponytail. Their etchings told tales and recorded the illustrious (often one-sided) history of the hometown regime.
In contrast with the ageless permanent quality of the stone, the ever-changing lights - and their myriad patterns - give Mr. Lynds' work, which has been shown successfully around the world, endless depth.
"With any art, you have to have these conflicts, these tensions set up," Mr. Lynds says. "And I think the inherent quality, the ephemeral quality of the light against solid stone is one."
Even the stone etchings add to the fray. A few of the stelae appear to be half-covered with vines. "I saw a stelae in the Yucutan that was completely covered with vines, and it left marks all over it," Mr. Lynds says of the inspiration. "And then later on, I saw a gravestone that had worn away, and it had the same kind of pattern on it."
Such detail, combined with the rigid, geometric forms in both the concrete and the light designs, also make the work paradoxical. But the biggest paradox of all is the most obvious.
"They also have this ancient feeling," Mr. Lynds says of his work. "And yet you know you're looking at today's technology."
Of course, in the art world, as in life, mixed marriages are sometimes frowned upon. Mr. Lynds says that, as a result of the '70s trend in kinetic art, which resulted in lots of broken-down pieces, older critics often dismiss the medium, some saying If it moves, it's not art.
"But one of the reasons for using light and movement is, everything changes," Mr. Lynds explains. "Everything's in movement; your body's in movement - everything. So why can't movement be a part of art?"
Mr. Lynds best defense is in the way his work is viewed, an outlook, he claims, that is unique.
"People are used to looking at a painting or sculpture 30 seconds, 20 seconds, and that's it. And thy leave and come back, and it's still the same thing," he says. "Here, sometimes you're sucked into some of these. And you have to look at it more than a minute; you look at it five minutes, 10 minutes, 20 minutes, and it still goes on.
"And you leave the room and you come back and it's changed, it's different. And your life has changed and it's different."
Mr. Lynds' relatively new-found medium is no exception. Ten years into developing the technique he invented - and which other artists have yet to exhibit publicly - Mr. Lynds is like a kid with a brand-new toy.
"This is the first real medium that I think has incredible possibilities," he says. smiling. "And I’m only touching on them; I’m just beginning with it."
As an example, he points to his latest experiment, contained in the Buddha seat itself. It's a fiber optic rendering of a cluster of cubes, each cube showing three sides, producing, in turn, a 3-D effect. Changing from red to blue to green, the cubes appear to cruise through space, leaving a trail of white lights which look like stardust.
"It creates relief on the surface," Mr. Lynds says enthusiastically. "It changes the form of the stone in some way. It's like carving with the light."