Color, Light & Space – Brian Quirk

It’s been awhile since our last post on Color, Light and Space, but I’m determined to continue to ask other artists questions about the subject, especially, how they go about confronting these issues in their work. I am fascinated by the thought processes that artists use when they consider color, light and space. In this post I’ve asked the playwright, actor and artist, Brian Quirk, a few questions about how he uses these tools when he is developing his scripts.

MS: As a playwright I suspect the ideas and processes of color, light and space are integral to the way you develop the scenes, the characters and the atmosphere of your play. In painting we have to develop this all at once, and these things unfold as one looks – I’m thinking here of Caravaggio especially, who set his scenes for a dynamic visual overload that then unfolds.

BQ: Yes, I love how that works in Caravaggio. He is such a theatrical painter and visual overload is right! There is such realistic detail in his work and gorgeous light too.

MS: How does color, light and space unfold in your writing?

BQ: It really depends on which play I’m writing. In MAPPLETHORPE/The Opening, it was all about visualizing space in black and white. With PLUSH LUST, interior decorators are moving in together and then moving apart so color was vital. Palladin, the lead character, develops a substance abuse problem and his best friend, Marion, stages an intervention. She, literally, draws back the blinds and lets the healing light in. In my play CRASH which deals with obsession and imagined scenarios, the lighting changes depend on the mood; more threatening scenes imagined in reds, whereas lighter scenes have a softer palette. There is a character, Lucille, in a train station and blue is prevalent. At the end of the play, we realize it has all been imagined and the light of reality shines harshly. How these elements will unfold depends on the play.

MS: Are you concerned about these issues as you develop not just the scene, but the characters in the scene?

BQ: Yes. In the Mapplethorpe play the “portraits,” characters based on his images, were imagined in black and white. Whereas, the people in the world of the gallery were imagined in color. In my most recent play NERINE about a young girl’s awakening and breaking away from a dysfunctional family, space is almost another character in the play. They are living in cramped quarters and that confined space informs the scenes. Nerine, the young girl, discovers gardening. The open space offers to her the possibilities of a different life, of being an artist.

MS: Do you consider spaces between characters or character and audience as part of the tension or release of a scene?

BQ: Absolutely. When John Stix directed the Mapplethorpe play, he had the “portraits” off center and staged at a bit of a distance from the audience. Giving the audience space to take in these very extreme characters. However, the artist’s grandmother, another character, is played almost in the audiences lap. She welcomes the audience into the gallery space and makes them feel safe. In PLUSH LUST, the characters cohabit and there are silent scenes which document their life. This is all done visually with their pulling together and breaking apart and tentatively coming together again. These silent tableaus help tell the story of their love affair.

MS: Do you specify direction toward the audience, the way they are seated, how the play is seen, how they might participate, etc?

BQ: I don’t specify direction toward the audience. However, my writing has a lot of direct address in it (where characters speak to the audience.)

MS: Does the design of the theater itself play into the idea of the text?

BQ: Not really, though I do visualize the space when I write I do not at this point write with a particular space in mind. Of course this could change if I was continually writing for a specific theater!

MS: Can you alter that (the limitations of the theater itself) with the lighting, the color or the space that you describe in your writing?

BQ: Yes. With my Mapplethorpe play, we had to alter each of the spaces that I performed in so that it would be that neutral space called for by the text. At Dixon Place, we had to deal with an all white space, so the designers had to create shadow. In Provincetown it was such a large space, so a platform was built to define the playing space, and in San Francisco, the theater was painted to look almost like a Polaroid.

MS: How do you use color as you develop a character or a scene?

BQ: Again, it all depends on the project. In my play SUMMERLAND based on the Fox sisters, I drew. I was on two fellowships at The MacDowell Colony and was inspired by all the great visual artists. Frustrated in my writing process, I ended up drawing (badly) colorful circular forms. I was trying to imagine the supernatural. I made dozens of drawings and cut out collages, trying to wrap my mind around the “ghosts,” both real and imagined in the play. While working on PLUSH LUST (I was at The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts on a fellowship) and I made collages and drawings to both imagine and define the spaces that the designers lived in and the spaces their imaginary firm designed.

MS: Brian, as a visual artist, I like the fact that you move to a visual practice to help you define your characters. I find this true of other playwrights and directors, I’m specifically thinking of Robert Wilson, whose drawings relate directly to the light and spaces of his productions. Orson Welles would draw his productions out before he began – translating the text into a visual experience. In your drawings you used circular images to refer to the supernatural – you were searching for a way to represent the un-seen or unknown. How do you translate your visual images back into the text in this regard?

BQ: The images that I drew became clues to me as far as the text and also the character. In a way, the drawings made me realize that the girls were just regular normal children (this was the solid element that appeared in the drawings.) Their “gift” (the ability to speak to the dead) was the lines that were spiraling out all over the page.

MS: Has this become part of your process when you’re writing (using visual practices) to define the text?

BQ: I am very inspired and influenced by visual arts. I have used this visual practice to develop two scripts and I’m sure I will again but for the last play I wrote NERINE, I did not define the text visually.

MS: As the play forms on the page lighting must become a great concern. How do you indicate the light or the spaces of light in your writing?

BQ: Yes. Extremely important and it varies piece to piece. As a production approaches, I rely on a designer to help realize the various scenes I have imagined. Sometimes with stage directions such as “the light of reality shines in this scene.” Sometimes guiding the designer with a specific color suggested for a scene. I sometimes specify it in text and sometimes I just know what I’d like to see and this comes out in collaboration with the production team.

MS: Are you thinking in tableaus or is there a more natural unfolding of light and space?

BQ: It all depends on the world of the play. PLUSH LUST has a series of silent tableaus which are very stylized and staccato. In NERINE, the light is all natural (cramped and dirty inside, and beautiful California bright outside.)

MS: Can it become a character in your play as well?

BQ: Yes. In SUMMERLAND the ghost is only light.

MS: There are always the inevitable changes from the page once something goes live. What processes of color light and space are you looking for when the piece becomes physical? What tensions or releases?

BQ: It is going to be a challenge when PLUSH LUST is staged. There is the silent tableau world of fabulous interiors and an upwardly mobile career. There is then the interior private world of Palladin and I think the light becomes more severe and the space more confined as his addiction spirals out of control. In the final scene after Palladin’s best friend Marion intervenes, I think there is a big release. The light will become more natural, warm and kind. Whereas earlier, the world will become harsher, crazier, unnaturally bright and smaller – mirroring addiction. At the end, there is hope and more room for the audience and the characters to breath.

MS: How are those elements heightened by color, light and/or space?

BQ: As the character spins out of control I think the color and light become “crystal methed” out, as does the space. Then with recovery there is warmth and natural light.

MS:In your work “Mapplethorpe: The Opening” you created a black and white space to open one’s imagination to the stories behind the images. How did the idea of the photographic space and light play into the writing of the piece?

BQ: When I first started writing the play, I went to the Strand to look at the S&M portraits that Mapplethorpe had photographed in the late 1970’s. I could not afford to buy the book at the time so I would return again and again to live with these black and white images. When I imagined them, they were always in a black and white world. Even the presence of Mapplethorpe himself seemed to be in black and white. That world was always the world of the studio, of defined, specific and bright light.

MS: Mapplethorpe’s images, though at times disturbing, have a classic all-over light and space. Did this imagery affect how you wrote the staging, lighting etc for the play?

BQ:I actually did not specify any lighting directions. Lance Horne’s brilliant sound design really helped define the difference in the worlds between the “portraits” (one reality) in black and white and the world of the gallery (another reality) in color. The lighting design then gave the gallery an overall natural wash with color. The world of the portraits was studio-like lit and confined white light.

MS: How did you animate that light and space to re-present that imagery and that camera process – that moment when the image was captured?

BQ: It was a square of light in which I would suddenly appear. There would be a music cue then a transition and we would be in this hot confined space and the photography session would be in process. The “portrait” monologues were all about a dialogue between artist and model. Private moments that were helped by the “gallery” colored lights coming out and just the hot “studio” light coming on. The transitions were rehearsed endlessly so it really happened so smoothly and quickly, like a camera click. Then zap, we would be back at the gallery and Mapplethorpe’s first opening in 1977.

MS: It seems to me that there are a lot of visual cues that you have to take into consideration as you write. This also is part of the process for painters – we have to lead the eye so to speak. I’m interested in how you build an interaction between the audience and the play itself. Is this something you write into the text or does this fall more to the director’s interpretation?

BQ: I think that I give a lot of suggestions for visuals in the text but in the end it really falls more to the director’s interpretation. Ultimately theater is a collaborative.

Brian Quirk will have a reading of his new play, Nerine, sponsored by the id Theater this July 19th.

Color: Nature and Reality


The Matrix, Warner Brothers, 1999. Written and Directed by the Wachowski Brothers.

The transition from signs which dissimulate something to signs which dissimulate that there is nothing, marks the decisive turning point. The first implies a theology of truth and secrecy (to which the notion of ideology still belongs). The second inaugurates an age of simulacra and simulation, in which there is no longer any God to recognize his own, nor any last judgement to separate truth from false, the real from its artificial resurrection, since everything is already dead and risen in advance.
Jean Baudrillard

Red or Blue.

I am always surprised by the power of color. It affects us in ways that we don’t expect which makes color a dangerous thing. Case in point – when the Sistine ceiling was cleaned the unexpected riot of color found under the centuries of grime caused a huge controversy. For many, Michelangelo would never be seen in quite the same way again. His pure white marbles and strong monochrome drawings took on an entirely different meaning in the face of the deluge of hue painted on that ceiling. Form and Structure were seen as being threatened by Color, Light and Space. A whole new idea was forcing its way into our world and it changed what we thought we knew, what we thought we had seen.

Over the years we have become used to our chromophobes draining color from our pictures in order to accentuate the black and white of Structure and Form. These monochromaticists mistakenly believe that color is extraneous to any real issues of visual meaning, and they are suspicious of the power of color, especially when color easily evokes emotional connections. But things have changed. Since the 1980s we’ve seen art become more of a social/political commentary rather than a personal adventure, and as this didacticism has increased a new kind of chromophobe has emerged. Postmodernism continues the tradition of suspicion by sucking the meaning out of color – making it yet another found object placed in our way to provoke “discussion” of an issue. Rather than eschewing color entirely, the POMO gives us every color in the rainbow, or should we say, every hue on a color chart. Starting with Warhol, this new way to use color became a focus of Postmodern practice. It drains the meaning, the experience of personality from any visual encounter. Color is used as part of an interaction, as a means to participate in a culturally mandated, institutionally sanctioned critique of a socially emboldened, politically enhanced art entertainment experience™. And in their way, Postmodernists, catholic in their tastes of hue, remain suspicious of what any specific choice of color might mean.

Color in this sense is used as a selling point, a deus ex machina, the facilitator of a purchasing experience rather than a reason for visual contemplation. POMO is all about fetishizing our expectations, breaking narratives into elliptical codes and re-contextualizing meaning into packages of institutional critique while maintaining the viability and fungibility of institutional dogma. By inundating us with color the POMO leaves us drowning in endless choices. It is this illusion of choice that brings us to an endlessness of forgetting. We no longer retain thought or even experience deja vu, because we no longer remember, our computers do it for us. We choose our color for the first time every single time. Is it any wonder that we are surprised when our blood runs red, our veins trace blue, and our eyes shine green in the hard yellow light of an early spring morning? We prefer the chart of choices to the lived experience – we can make color fit our expectations rather than feel for its meaning. You might call this sort of color “camouflage” – color used to subvert the meaning and power of color.

To experience the meaning of the blue pill we must paint it in just this way. We wake up in our beds, we remember nothing and we go on with our studio lives – choosing our latest fetish from the color chart of endless possibility. We accept the “reality” of this construct, the everyday sureness that what we know is what we are doing, that one thing leads to another. We know what is expected of us. We know that we are in control.

Neo: Why do my eyes hurt?
Morpheus: You’ve never used them before.

Ah, but the red, that is something different. When we enter the red world color begins to take shape, to form essential relationships, to reveal itself as dangerous and unexpected. For the chromophile this sort of color is a revelation, it conveys something more physical, something thicker about our experiences. And when we encounter this sort of color, like Caravaggio’s Red Drape or Delacroix’s Boudior Rouge, we find vision. We experience a shift in how we understand our realities. The promise of the red world is that we will see a deeper truth, one connected to our very nature, one that is specific to who and what we are. We won’t know how things will end, how the color will look, how our expectations will never meet the reality of other existences. This sort of color is not easy and it requires more of us.

“Reality”—the idea that something really happened—is providing us with that thrill right now. We’re riveted by the rawness of something that appears to be direct from the source, or at the very least less worked over than a polished mass-media production. Living as we perforce do in a manufactured and artificial world, we yearn for the “real,” semblances of the real. We want to pose something nonfictional against all the fabrication—autobiographical frissons or framed or filmed or caught moments which, in their seeming unrehearsedness, possess at least the possibility of breaking through the clutter. A deliberate unartiness: “raw” material, unprocessed, unfiltered, uncensored. David Shields

It’s here that we see the change from the Postmodern to something distinctly different. This idea of reality, once held at a distance through our prolonged desire, has become, in the early 21st Century, a Hunger. We have moved from the abstract, from the map, the replication and the simulation, to the physical, the impassioned and the ‘real.’ For David Shields this is the crux of the matter. We want things to be unmediated, unprocessed, uncensored – RAW. All of these terms evoke a physical involvement, an unknown element of chance, the reality of fucking up – Consequences. It also brings up the idea of a new kind of morality, one connected to that physical element. What happens when there is no return policy, when the rubber breaks, when the pistol is drawn or the towers fall? At the end of a long flight when the plane has landed, nearly every passenger immediately turns on their cell phones and calls or texts someone. Why? Those who stand waiting to greet these passengers will be there at the exit gate. One can continue to travel to the office, home, or hotel before issuing the online reconnection. Why the need to instantly immerse in the world of invisible dematerialized communication, to acknowledge that our disassociated consciousness is now available again? What assurances does it give and/or require and to who does it give it? Why are we so willing, so needing, to immerse ourselves in this extended field of ethereal desire? Why blue, not red?

In our studios that is the question we must ask of ourselves. What happens if we continue on into the red world without the immediate gratification or the reassurance of longing? What happens if we speak directly about our life? What happens when we confuse the art with our emotional experiences? Will this enhance our color, change how we see it, how we use it? Will it be as compelling as the color being pumped directly into the back of our minds through these electronic screens? Will this studio light and space open up or will it show us as smaller human beings, stilted and uninteresting? When we determine to engage color in the red world suddenly we come up against our failings, our weaknesses, our limits and our humanity. We compare our vision to the known conscious comfort of the dematerialized world of pure color. It is a struggle to create our own reality in and through this simulacrum. We must find a way to paint these things, these small definitions of our very character and vision, using the charts and the purity of manufactured hue. We must find a way to claim these Postmodern things as our own. This “reality” may not be truth, but it can feel like it is, and more important, it can feel that way to others as well. And it is in the feeling that we impart something real.

Color will continue….

Color Light & Space – Alan Kirby

Postmodernism Curbed? Contemporary TV Comedy and the Apparently Real

Miranda Gray, the art school student who is kidnapped by the besotted and asocial Frederick Clegg in John Fowles’s novel The Collector (1963), passes much of her time in her locked room drawing. Ill-educated and uninformed, Clegg judges her work by the only criterion he knows: whether or not it is a “good likeness”. As an adherent of a late modernist aesthetic, Gray responds to his assessments with understandable contempt, but they have the merit of focusing attention on one of the most enduring of artistic puzzles, the relationship between the aesthetic object and the real. Clegg’s assumption that the purpose of art is to achieve an exact reproduction of the real is disdained by Gray, who believes that the role of the artist is to, as it were, personalize the real, to infuse it with a singular vision, a signature style, within which the work’s quality or its absence will inhere. Almost half a century since the publication of The Collector, today’s reader is unlikely to be very sympathetic to either character’s aesthetic doctrines. Postmodernism was to redefine the real as a fiction which artworks rely on but cannot be accessed. The postmodernist real is already swamped by representations, images, fictions themselves; the postmodernist artwork places itself among preceding and competing artworks, seeking neither a “likeness” nor a “vision” of something supposedly located beyond the field of representation. The author, neither the minion of a “real” which s/he slavishly seeks to mimic nor its godlike reinterpreter, becomes a fiction too, ironically signaling his/her position within this kaleidoscope (or Joyce’s “collideoscope”) of pre-existing texts. In J. G. Ballard’s words:

We live in a world ruled by fictions of every kind – mass-merchandizing, advertising, politics conducted as a branch of advertising, the instant translation of science and technology into popular imagery, the increasing blurring and intermingling of identities within the realm of consumer goods, the pre-empting of any free or original imaginative response to experience by the television screen. We live inside an enormous novel.

In my book Digimodernism (Continuum, 2009) I argue that one of the signs in the 21st-century cultural landscape of the exhaustion of postmodernism is the retreat of this notion of the necessarily fictive real. In its place, I argue, has come the aesthetic of the apparently real. Owing something to the example of the Dogme 95 filmmakers at the end of the last century, this aesthetic finds its natural home on television, most banally in the genres of the docusoap and reality/interactive TV. It has also spread across television comedy (sometimes spun off into films) in shows like The Office, Jackass, Ali G, and Borat. The real in such texts seems to be unproblematically held out to the viewer: what we see seems to be real, though the naivety of this aesthetic is in fact entirely deceptive.

Within the contemporary TV landscape, such programs stand at the opposite pole to Seth MacFarlane’s Family Guy (Fox, 1999-2002, 2005- ), which many critics have hastened to label as “postmodern”. Depthless and affectless, Family Guy alternates broadly between two styles: a foregrounded pseudorealism supposedly and ironically sited relative to the traditional genre of the family sitcom, with its domestic squabbles, petty tensions, learning, and loyal loving; and the cutaway snippets, brazenly antirealist and often alluding to popular culture (ads, other shows, movies, etc.). Though these styles are routinely blurred by the show’s makers, Family Guy recognizably deploys a fictive notion of the real as composed of a miasma of texts, above all The Simpsons, through which one can navigate but beyond which, to paraphrase Derrida, nothing lies. Despite its moments of brilliance, I would argue that Family Guy’s collapse of the postmodernist sophistication of the Simpsons’ aesthetic into a snarky and punkish juvenilia suggests a reductio ad absurdum, a decadent final stage in the decline of an historical style. It’s to the point here, though, that Family Guy relies on a specific use of color, light, and space: clean and even primary colors; logical, structured, and staged framing; brightness and precise illumination. This is the look, of course, of an advertising that glamorizes and simplifies the world it evokes; there is an idealizing crispness and well-lit sheen to Family Guy that suggests a store catalog, though this is immediately played off – with a “subversiveness” which will be wearily familiar to long-term observers of postmodernism – the pervasive ugliness and stupidity of the characters depicted.

At the other extreme to Family Guy, it can be argued, stand Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO, 2000- ) and Armando Iannaucci’s The Thick of It (BBC, 2005- ), the latter recently spun off into the movie In the Loop. These are sophisticated examples of the apparently real within the field of the sitcom. Both shows variously deploy a “documentary” aesthetic: hand-held cameras that wobble and shake; natural and uneven lighting and sound; entirely location shooting; underdressed, stark sets; washed-out colors; retroscripted dialogue (where the actors improvise within a known framework, much like “life”); “caught” or “stolen” shots filmed through physical obstructions; distorted angles, wonky framing, or blurring of images as characters “suddenly” shift position; camerawork that, in rapid exchanges, “cannot” keep up with the “unpredictable” switches of speaker; dialogue that is sometimes inarticulate, incoherent, repetitive, awkward, or confused to the point of inaudibility; and so on. The primary effect of these techniques is to make the viewer feel that the events depicted are genuinely happening; moreover, it is to make us feel that we are actually present at them, since our “behavior”, reified by the camerawork and reinforced by the content of the shot, positions us within the process of recording itself.

Comedy has always drawn on the kind of embarrassment, humiliation, and pain episodically depicted by David and Iannucci. However, the advent of the aesthetic of the apparently real permits such authors to seemingly insert the viewer as implicated witness into the toe-curling scenes which their plots throw up. In fact, these are not “documentary” techniques, and not only because David and Iannucci unambiguously present their shows as fictions; they are not even “faux-documentaries” in the style of the BBC’s legendary Ghostwatch (1992), since no viewer is likely to be fooled by their ontological status. Instead, the battery of techniques works to mimic the physical movements and perceptions of someone actually there at the time and in the place of filming. To speak, then, of an apparent reality in these shows is to refer to something visceral, something experiential, with no basis in hard fact. This distinguishes them from the 1960s’ cinéma-vérité techniques of The Battle of Algiers or The War Game, which were driven by a desire for naked truth about recent colonial history or the effects of nuclear war; such films, which superficially resemble these shows, believed in and sought to capture and communicate a dogged “likeness” to objective fact. David and Iannucci, by contrast, purvey reality after postmodernism: the fictive real may have disappeared, but there is no motivating belief in the accessibility or desirability of objective truth. They therefore present their work as fiction which is experienced, physically and perceptually, as reality, without extending this to the realm of the objective; that one show involves several famous people playing a version of themselves, and the other alludes to well-known personages and events, does not, paradoxically, enhance their apparent reality. This latter is conveyed and felt, but it has no intellectual or philosophical content.

Yet even on these terms the apparently real is problematic. Why, for instance, should washed-out colors strike us as “real”? Walking down a street or moving through everyday public or private places affords us a plentiful supply of color. The answer, it would seem, is that the techniques of the apparently real are no more than the flipside of Hollywood’s traditional professionalism, with its fixed camera set-ups, well-equipped studios, huge props budgets, hi-tech lenses, crisp dialogue, posed scenes, careful and artificial lighting and sound recording, and so on. This is filmmaking as industrialized and expensive artifice; the systematic negation of these techniques therefore looks to our eyes like spontaneous and cheap “reality”. Yet this is doubly misleading. On one side, these shows depend to a self-evidently high degree on professional expertise: they require experienced actors, deft editors, non-diegetic music, and painstakingly honed scripts (if only in outline) which, far from clinging to a naturalism that may be supposed coterminous with apparent reality, in practice weave artificial and complex webs of coincidence and strategy to arrive at self-consciously far-fetched conclusions. On the other side, unmediated experience does often appear to us, as already noted, as rich in color, visually posed and structured, and well-lit. Hollywood’s vast commercial success has conditioned us to read its techniques as marketing devices, as insincere trickery designed to part us from our cash; in unreflecting reaction we may assume that life as it is directly and authentically lived (should we feel at ease with such thorny and whiskery terms) eschews such promotional devices. It goes without saying, however, that whatever techniques they may employ, David’s and Iannucci’s shows are also commodities in the cultural marketplace; the apparently real is not some post-consumerist nirvana, as David’s own stupendous personal wealth attests.

It is 25 years since Fredric Jameson noted that “aesthetic production today has become integrated into commodity production generally”. He claimed that this would spark a culturally dominant aesthetic that was depthless and affectless, that recycled imagery in a blizzard of pastiche and allusion, a postmodernist art, in short, of Family Guy and the fictive real (Warhol, Prince, Sherman, etc.). It might be felt that Jameson assumed too narrowly that art would inevitably mirror or interrogate its own prevailing cultural-historical conditions. Yet when this response grew tired or stale, such conditions might, without losing their force, induce artists to revolt against the supposed necessity of representing or addressing them. Rather than achieve a “likeness” or critique of a “world ruled by fictions”, such artists might then find ways of suspending or circumventing that global tyranny, in particular by seeming to resuscitate that early 60s’ shibboleth, the unmediated real. If so, the apparently real would become merely another visual expression, subsequent to the fictive real, of postmodernism; in this case, it would not signal a decisive move in contemporary art beyond the postmodern.

There is some truth to this point. However, texts such as David’s and Iannucci’s do achieve an important innovation: whereas postmodernist fictions would undermine their own illusion by breaking the fourth wall and addressing the viewer, David and Iannucci suck the viewer experientially into their productions in a way that reinforces their own perceived reality. The flatness of the fiction is not critiqued or undercut in a skeptical, deconstructive manner; instead, it is extended out toward us in a finally spurious but experientially powerful way such that it appears to engulf us. We feel that we participate in such fictions in much the way that we are implicated, potentially or actually, in the haphazard text-making of Web 2.0 platforms. David and Iannucci do not take their own texts apart; they expand them outward in their own production till they seem to encompass their own viewer. Consequently, they have no use for self-conscious fictiveness or the cultural backward gaze; instead, they recuperate a real which, under special and known conditions, is held to be here right now, and which derives its contemporaneity from the multiple and onward authorship of the Internet: a digimodernist real.

For more information about Digimodernism or Alan Kirby follow the links provided.

Color, Light & Space – Expanded

We are about to expand our discussion on Color, Light and Space with other artists (of all kind,) theorists, and writers. Tomorrow, we will begin this broader discussion with a fantastic essay by Alan Kirby. He is a cultural theorist and author of the book Digimodernism: How New Technologies Dismantle the Postmodern and Reconfigure Our Culture. The Postmodern “problem” we all have inherited is laid out succinctly in the introduction to his book:

“My sense is that, whatever its current relevance in other fields, postmodernism’s insistence on locating an absolute break in all human experience between the disappeared past and the stranded present has lost all plausibility. The last third of the twentieth century was marked by a discourse of endings, of the “post-” prefix and the “no longer” structure, an aftershock of 1960s’ radicalism and a sort of intellectual millenarianism which seems to have had its day. Like Habermas, my feeling is that, ever more crisis-ridden, modernity continued throughout this period as an “unfinished project”. Although the imponderable evils of the 1930s and 40s could only trigger a breakdown of faith in inherited cultural and historical world-views such as the Enlightenment, the nature and scale of this reaction were overstated by some writers. In so far as it exists, “digimodernity” is, then, another stage within modernity, a shift from one phase of its history into another.”

Alan makes the case that Postmodernism has reached an end, and he speculates on new directions that our culture may take. We recommend you take a look.

You can read more of Alan’s take on culture at his blog Digimodernism.

Color: Simulation

…Eugene Delacroix, occupied one day in painting yellow drapery, tried in vain to give it the desired brilliancy and said to himself: “How did Rubens and Veronese find such brilliant and beautiful yellows?” He resolved to go to the Louvre, and ordered a carriage. It was in 1830, when there were in Paris many cabs painted canary color; one of these was brought to him. About to step into it, Delacroix stopped short, observing to his great surprise that the yellow of the carriage produced violet in the shadows, He dismissed the coachman, entered his studio full of emotion, and applied at once the law he had just discovered, that is, that the shadow is always slightly tinged with the complement of the color, a phenomenon that becomes apparent when the light of the sun is not too strong, and “our eyes,” as Goethe says “rest upon a fitting background to bring out the complementary color.”
Charles Blanc, The Grammar of Painting, and Engraving, translated by Kate N. Doggett, Chicago, 1889.

When artists started using paint straight from the can in the 1960s and early ’70s, they forfeited their personal take on color and gave themselves over to the dictates of the mass market…With the arrival of fast-drying acrylics and other mass-produced paints heavily marketed to a nation of do-it-yourselfers, art began to resemble a ready-made commodity, taking its hues from packaging, billboards, magazines and comic strips.
Paint By Numbers, Li Edelkoort

“Well then, my friend,” said he, “to begin with, the earth when seen from above is said to look like those balls that are covered with twelve pieces of leather; it is divided into patches of various colors, of which the colors which we see here may be regarded as samples, such as painters use. But there the whole earth is of such colors, and they are much brighter and purer than ours…
Plato, Phaedo

In the above quotes we begin to understand the difference between vision and optics, between the color wheel and the color chart. For Delacroix color brilliance can be found through the complimentaries and values of shadows, in the vision of experience. In our Postmodern age we find our color in the hues of commerce, through the optics of desire. The first is sloppy, fleshy, messy, natural – color found in life and in memory. The second is clear, clean, manufactured, ‘real’ – color found through a collective and through programs.  And finally, there is the surprising Platonic idea that runs beneath our electronic world of light speed and light screens – heavenly color – color unimaginable – brighter, purer, seen from above. You’ll find that sort of color on your flatscreen – pulsating and irradiating into your eyes. It is hyperactivated color, direct color, color better than that in the can, color of light and speed.

The other day as I looked from my window onto Times Square, projected color was slashing around from the mirrored buildings and electronic light screens onto everything and everyone in the area creating a spectacle of Socratic godly hue. And all of it, ALL OF IT, was the brilliant color of advertising. ADVERTISING! These jewel-like colors, floating in the air, this vast sensate factory of hyper-activated optical hue, is nothing more than advertising by corporations done to stoke one’s desire to consume something. I am transfixed by it, I’ll admit, but I can not get past the feeling that Socrates’ idea of celestial color seen from above is a sham – nothing more than a come on for Toshiba or Coca-Cola. It’s here that chromophilia becomes chromophobia – the meaning of color, the need of color, is reduced to buying and selling – pure electronic color IS pure commerce. I recognize this as the legacy of Postmodernism and the 1960s. “As good as it is in the can…” was revolutionary and radical then – today, it is institutional, mannered and expected – something that one purchases.

Bronzino, the Florentine Mannerist, loved his jewel tones and dressed his subjects in Neo-Platonic other-wordly hues. He would lay these colors against dark grounds and glaze them over grisaille forms, building up the layers of hue until the painting really began to hum with optical clarity and deep-set values. This sort of color is like our flatscreen color, but it’s still tied to the reflective, the materiality of paint, glaze and varnish. Today our paints are saturated with hue, bound in new chemicals that don’t dilute the optical kick. The paint in the can is nearly pure color, and it binds to every surface, every structure without a loss of intensity. The paint can be glossy or dull, bright or dark, translucent or opaque and each of these tonalities gives the color a different luster. You name it, the applied color and the application surface become one and the same thing, and because of this, one need not develop relationships of color – the hue remains independent of other hue. We do not look to the shadows for luminosity or brilliance. The optical independence of one color from another creates a sustainable brilliance and independent sheen – every hue remains differentiated, self-contained – a readymade. That brilliance comes right out of the can, and more tellingly, it comes right out of our flatscreens. Color as readymade, color as color chart, color as pure light – this is the final outcome of Modernism’s colorist legacy of emotion and spirituality. This is Postmodernism’s endgame – color divorced from physical meaning. POMO color is chosen for its optical impact, but mostly, it is used to create a simulacrum, a real unreality of hue.

Color when used like this derails meaning, connection, or visual understanding. Now in my severe misreading of David Batchelor’s wonderfully brilliant book Chromophobia, I’ve come to understand that POMO color is anti-color. It is color used as a camouflage or cosmetic to disengage or discount the meaning and visual force of color. To put it simply we have replaced natural color, the color we encounter in our physical natures with the color of the simulacra, the color of the “real.”

“Chromophobia manifests itself in the many and varied attempts to purge colour from culture, to devalue colour, to diminish its significance, to deny its complexity. More specifically: this purging of color is usually accomplished in one of two ways. In the first, colour is made out to be the property of some ‘foreign’ body – usually the feminine, the oriental, the primitive, the infantile, the vulgar, the queer or the pathological. In the second, colour is relegated to the realm of the superficial, the supplementary, the inessential or the cosmetic. In one, colour is regarded as alien and therefore dangerous; in the other, it is perceived merely as a secondary quality of experience, and thus unworthy of serious consideration. Color is dangerous, or it is trivial, or it is both.” (italics are mine)

Postmodernism’s use of color, however, encompasses both of these forms of chromophobia in order to drain the force of meaning from our encounter with color. We’ve discussed this in the examples of Richter, Heilmann, and Yuskavage. In their works we are swamped with color, but it is color that goes no further than the surface. This color is part of the critique of Modernist color, the critique of visual meaning. It does not emote or inspire – it is there to entice, to show, to consume, while it remains wholly on the surface. It doesn’t move beyond the optical, it remains a product, straight out of the can, self contained and isolated. This color is about design, customization, decoration. It is the readymade found on the color chart. This is how Postmodern color differs from Modernist color. In Modernism color was about an emotional or spiritual connection, color was chosen specifically to appeal not just to a sense of design, but to a deeper experience of visual interaction, one tied to meaning. The Postmodern world is about context, about the impossibility of meaning or narrative, and so, the color remains inscrutable. It develops discontinuities rather than relationships.

Postmodernists, like Peter Halley, instinctively understand this idea. In his work Halley has tried to reconnect abstraction to meaning, and he has done so through a post-structural critique of meaning derived from signs, plans, flowcharts, and simple schematic structures. His abstract imagery, a turn away from Postmodernism’s critique, contains a subtext of the fear, conformity and isolation that happens in these grids. His geometric allusions, the cell and the conduit, refer to the endless self-referencing that are the products of these graphs and flows. But even as he tries to reinvest meaning into the Modernist paradigm of geometric abstraction, he uses color in the accepted, expected Postmodern way – the customizing chart rather than the flowing wheel – straight out of the can. Color plays a major role in Halley’s work, but it remains a cosmetic color, a consumerist color of application, as series after series of the same abstract structures arrive on the wall in every color, for every taste (like choosing color chips in Home Depot’s paint department) – sucking the meaning out of the abstract structures of the paintings. In these paintings “color is either dangerous or trivial or it is both.” This is Postmodern consumerist color at its zenith. It is the intense, brilliant, wonderful color of a true Chromophobe indulging in optical hue, and it keeps Halley trapped in the simulacra of  the Postmodern tradition.

Both Bronzino and Halley approach meaning and color in the same way – both are Mannerists. They are involved in the artificiality of experience, the unreal in Bronzino’s time and the hyper-real in Halley’s. The artificial defines the expected reality, and in turn, the simulacra replaces the natural. Reality is constantly in flux, it is redefined through our culture. We accept reality or change it as we go along. The natural, on the other hand, remains tied to our bodies and our physicality. I find this point to be imperative as we struggle to understand a new idea of color – it is the idea that the natural has been, will always be, replaced by the “real.” This is where I start my painting in the studio. What part of my natural experience, my physical experience can I impart through the “real” of culture? We live in the world of the flat screen and the color chart. Color is everywhere but it is no longer specific to our physical natures, it exists outside of our experiences. Unlike Pollock, I can not claim to be nature, that is no longer the case, and I can’t live for color in his way. But neither am I a machine, like Warhol, and I can not replicate the color of the lens/machine world. I do not believe the Postmodern ‘reality’ of the replicating lens, nor can I fully engage the natural color of Modernism. When I pick up my brush I must always find a way between the two.

So I leave you with this from David Batchelor’s book –

“Colour is both a fall into nature, which may in turn be a fall from grace or a fall into grace, and against nature, which may result in a corruption of nature or freedom from its corrupting forces. Colour is a lapse into decadence and a recovery of innocence, a false addition to a surface and the truth beneath that surface. Colour is disorder and liberty; it is a drug, but a drug that can intoxicate, poison or cure. Colour is all of these things, and more besides, but very rarely is colour just neutral.”

This states the idea that color is not neutral, that color can be meaningful, and for me, this is the sand in the oyster.

Color will continue…

Color: Emphasis

Richter_KornGerhard Richter’s abstractions are perfect POMO vehicles. They describe how color, light and space work in our current painting endgame. As is made abundantly clear by these paintings abstraction continues to reference and represent the Modernist urge to rise to the surface. The high key hues keep jumping into sight bobbing right up to the edge of the picture plane. In this painting the clumsy yellow schematic line almost disappears in the lighter valued yellows of the background. The green scumble over the red pushes the hues one on top of the other while overlaying the surface of the yellow creating a push / pull of ambiguous color, light and space. They each create a singular intensity nearly matching one another in value. The blue grey and white slab of strokes breaks into pieces sending the values into a tailspin simultaneously standing out against the yellow ground and held in check by that yellow schematic line. Here form and structure are collapsing in on themselves lost in the process of mark-making. To paint and isolate this “form” of strokes, and once again, assert the surface, there is the black and red stroke dry brushed over the “accident” – a Postmodern ironic acknowledgement of Pollock’s denial of chance and a play on the idea of action painting. We are teased by the interaction of the secondaries, tertiaries and primaries. The structure and form of the painting shatters in the hue and we wind up thrown against its surface. Abstraction twice removed, a critique of a critique.

Like Mary Heilmann’s work in the last post this work is a very clever amalgamation of various types of painting practice, all designed to keep it light, surface-y and optical. There is also a sense of richness and generosity to Richter’s practice. His work is fat rather than thick, and by that I mean he lays on the paint, lays on the optical color – he give’s you your money’s worth – there’s no scrimping on the materials. The surfaces are usually clotted with dry, thick goop, and as he overpaints, that clotted surface creates textures in the new layers of paint. This abstraction sifts Abstract Expressionism through the sieve of Pop experience, and then again, through the idea of reproduction. It is a diagram of an abstract painting, a simulacrum, the meaning of it drained by referencing its very making and its insistence on optical color. These paintings are Richter’s Marilyns – great looking, high maintenance and very low participation – you know, like movie stars. Once again, this is color done for the chromophobe, a kind of applied color, a cosmetic color – there is no visual danger, no risk taking, no direct meaning inferred – just an act of cloning and replicating. We are at an endpoint of Greenberg’s dictum (expressed nicely in the movie Pollock – “You’re retreating into imagery again, Jackson. Paint is paint, surface is surface. That’s all they should be.”) Richter’s painting is the endgame of this idea, this is what color became in the POMO world – an optical critique of optical painting -painting twice removed from visual experience – paint and surface.

Gorgeous isn’t good Enough

Now what we are looking for in color, light and space is not just a way forward into a different thought process, but we are looking to find new meaning for the way we use these things. For instance if I lay a prussian blue brush stroke that has been valued with a bit of titanium white over a red orange field that has been burnished with a bit of green – what VISUAL (hot) or OPTICAL (cool) experience might I be imparting? Is it simply a neat effect of color or does it serve a larger purpose? Am I creating space, and if  so, what sort of space? Am I making a statement about language and form in the Johnsian sense, or am I merely splashing a flat rhetorical landscape in the Frankenthaler sense? Does that blue have a specific meaning to me, and does it create a deeper resonance of meaning now that it is laid over the red orange field? Or does that even matter at this point in Art History? If it is dark or light does that provide something other than an optical effect? Can I FEEL this color through my eyes, does it provide an emotional reaction, and if so, what emotion and where it might if come from? How does the color relate to the entire structure and form of the painting, and is there something going on that might create meaning in those forms? This could go on forever, but what we intend most from all of this questioning, is to find OURSELVES, find a way to stretch what we are doing with our color, light and space and find a different application, a different kind of meaning for what we are doing.

I’ve often wondered about Pollock’s last years, and as that movie clip (see above) makes plain, it probably wasn’t a very easy time for Pollock. I guess he could have rested on his laurels and made hundreds more Blue Poles or Autumn Mists like so many contemporary painters seem content to do, but that wasn’t what he wanted. He understood that even though he had broken through to the surface and skirted the issue of decoration it could not last, there was too much painting at stake. He was beating at that locked door once again, only this last time, tragically, he didn’t make it through, he couldn’t see it through. The problem for us is that in the Postmodern world our imagery, abstract or naturalistic, and our color have little or no relation to one another. These works whip up desire, but desire for “what” exactly is anyone’s guess. For Postmodernists color is the map to desire but, it goes no further. We have come to believe that the color map and the desire it engenders are the realities of painting.

“Years ago, when we met, I dreamed of paintings I could love.”

Caravaggio kept returning to that red, that deep rich red. It’s there in each of his great paintings. It binds vision in such a visceral and uncomfortable way. We have a hard time relating to that idea of being bound by color. In Derek Jarmin’s Postmodern masterpiece we discover what that color can mean, and what it was connected to, where it might have come from. It is not just the trite idea of passion or love embodied in color theoretics, but it speaks of a deeper connection to paint, to blood, to life and mostly to vision. As Jarmin interprets it there was no retreating from the actions Caravaggio took on the canvas or on the streets, no separation of life from art, no gap between the two. Vision was real for both art and life. We Postmoderns can only see this in parts, in bits and pieces, not in continuity, not in flow. One thing doesn’t lead to the other, one color need not exist for the other. It only has to look good.

In David Batchelor’s Chromophobia the author lays out distinctions of color theoretics, both for the chromophobe and the chromophile. There is a wonderful theoretical sway between the idea of hot color or cool color, visual vs. optical. He articulates the issue perfectly…

“The colour circle has dominated the understanding and use of colour in art. Based on a geometry of triangulation and a grammar of complementarity, the colour circle establishes relationships between colours – primaries, secondaries and tertiaries, the pure and the less pure. The colour chart offers an escape from all that. It is, in effect, simply a list, a grammarless accumulation of colour units. In the colour chart, every colour is equivalent to and independent of every other colour. There are no hierarchies, only random colour events. The colour chart divorces colour from conventional colour theory and turns every colour into a readymade. It promises autonomy for colour; in fact, it offers three distinct but related types of autonomy: that of each colour from every other colour, that of colour from the dictates of colour theory and that of colour from the register of representation.”

For the last 50 years we’ve used that color chart. We customize with it, we apply it, we decorate with it. But it remains a tool strictly of Postmodern practice. Our question is can we not find a different use for this color chart? Can we not make it personal, more lived?

When I’m in the studio there is always the thought and experience of color as one and the same, that color and object can not be separated, that one draws meaning from the other and both together present a totality of visual experience. This allows a certain emotional content, a certain visual involvement in color that I don’t feel in the saturated flat hues of the Postmodern chromophobe. For them color is an application, a cosmetic, and a way to gain attention. In this sense they face the dilemma that both Michele and Jackson faced – the dilemma of the decorative. The difference in artists today is that they believe this dilemma is resolved, passe, that color is without meaning – that color is just color. But for many of us we want more connection, more specificity – we want color, light and space to mean something on the canvas just as it does on our lover’s flesh.

We are not suggesting a return to the Salon, the Academy or to Modernism, but we are saying that we should be looking deeper at our involvement, our visual, emotional involvement in the consumerist color that is so readily accepted, expected and unquesitoned. We want color to become our own, we want it to live through us instead of through the institutions, academies and the media that create those color charts. We want a more fleshy, visual reality of color, light and space. Again this doesn’t mean we should paint like the old Masters, create color light and space like them. Conversely, it is time to confront the Postmodern Provisional Painters as they continue to slice the meaning of color, light and space into smaller and smaller bits and bytes. Can we not learn from both while we step forward, while we create something new, while we find a different way to create meaning?

Color will continue…

Color: Chromophobia

Let those who are in favour with their stars
Of public honour and proud titles boast,
Whilst I, whom fortune of such triumph bars
Unlook’d for joy in that I honour most.
Great princes’ favourites their fair leaves spread
But as the marigold at the sun’s eye,
And in themselves their pride lies buried,
For at a frown they in their glory die.
The painful warrior famoused for fight,
After a thousand victories once foiled,
Is from the book of honour razed quite,
And all the rest forgot for which he toiled:
Then happy I, that love and am beloved,
Where I may not remove nor be removed.

Shakespeare Sonnet 25

Christopher Wool has become one of my favorite Postmodern painters. I can not contain my exuberance when I encounter his paintings because he, or rather his work, is the Devil. That’s right, you read that correctly. He has pared his optical world down to the absolute basics of paint, and he has taken all of us with him straight down into the pit of abstract despair. Color has nothing to impart to us in this work – we are all chromophobes. Monochromes (black and white usually,) “brush strokes” (printed, sprayed and brushed,) texture (removing paint with astringent chemicals,) reproduction (in the usual media ways,) and surface, surface and more surface. It is Postmodern abstraction par excellence – media generated with handmade customizations. To use a Stella-ism what you see is what you see. What I see in nearly every optical instant I spend with his work is pure concentrated evil – in the Time Bandits sense (Mum! Dad! It’s evil! Don’t touch it! Bang!) One has to respect such venality, acknowledge and celebrate its accomplishments, and as an abstractionist, respect what this work does on the wall. It is wicked smart, optically vexing and theoretically sound. But even with its contextual heaviness and professional flourishes, it remains what it is, and that is not visually engaging. Once you’ve seen it, well, you’ve seen it. Ok this is all a bit OTT, but what the hell, I’m allowed.

Before we go further I’d like to clarify, once again, the difference between optical or visual interaction. Many of you are confused by my distinctions of these two very different ways of experiencing art. Basically this involves how we see and how we understand what we see. I believe McLuhan’s distinctions are best for this. “Some media, like the movies, were “hot” – that is, they enhance one single sense, in this case vision, in such a manner that a person does not need to exert much effort in filling in the details of a movie image. McLuhan contrasted this with “cool” TV, which he claimed requires more effort on the part of viewer to determine meaning, and comics, which due to their minimal presentation of visual detail require a high degree of effort to fill in details that the cartoonist may have intended to portray. A movie is thus said by McLuhan to be “hot”, intensifying one single sense “high definition” demanding a viewer’s attention, and a comic book to be “cool” and “low definition”, requiring much more conscious participation by the reader to extract value.”

Visual is Hot, Optical is Cool. Modernism is Hot, Postmodernism is Cool. Painting is Hot, Reproduction is Cool.

Chemical TuneNow we’ve talked at length about Mr. Wool’s paintings in another post and I mention it here once again because this is an example of the Postmodern endgame that must be won. It’s not just the idea of the “reproduction” of painting, but the entire Postmodern painting enterprise that remains in stasis. To this end I’ve added a repro-link that will make a lot of contemporary artists’ heads spin – especially as I talk about color. But you’ll have to just weather this storm with me. To begin I will state the obvious – without Matisse this work by Mary Heilmann would not be possible. Why? Because this comes post (after) Modernism – after color theory and after visual involvement. This is high Mannerist colorfield abstraction.  In Ken Johnson’s review of her recent NuMu Retro he lays out the POMO doctrine in no uncertain terms – actually writing the words we know to be true:

“Her palette extends to tarry black, but mainly it goes to bright colors from the 1960s and ’70s: fruity stains; carrot and avocado hues; swimming pool blues; psychedelic Day-Glos; and minty whites…the exhibition has a wonderfully airy, optically elating effect…Ms. Heilmann is a Postmodernist scavenger…she takes 20th-century art history as her personal toy box. A kind of painterly Pop artist, she gives vibrant new life to standard forms of 20th-century visual culture….” (italics are mine.)

In her work we can also see other references to 20th century practice – the manicured tossed-off scrub, the elemental scratchy line and the smeary slosh of wet into wet. But what we shall look at is the Color, Light & Space in this painting and how it works. (We’ve chosen yet another acidy green, on purpose, to reference it to our previous posts.) The ground lays across the surface of the painting – scrubbed into existence. It is those scrub marks that play with the value in that ground combining Modernist materiality and physicality in order to create shading and toning. This is a direct process rather than indirect color valuation – it shows the artist’s hand rather than a choice of value. Down the right side is a bar ( a menu bar?) of color, a kind of coded chart of secondary and tertiary colors, mostly deep in value or hue. These colors are used to create the points of reference within the field. The undulating ground threatens to swallow up the color dots (reference points) pulled from the chart. They are “nestled” within the field, staining it. Across the entire composition is the unfinished schematic line – the “un-built” structure. Here the architecture of measurement is broken by the field of brightly hued color. We keep looking to the color-coded points of reference which point back to the reference bar – they refer to the referrer – A to B and back again. One can not connect the plan to the references – the lines lead nowhere, the points are not defined by either the meaning of the color, nor the color chart. To put the meaning of this composition in the terms of another POMO artist of the same period we must “Stop Making Sense” in order to discover where and how we exist.

The painting is entitled “Chemical Tune” relating the image to both a scientific schematic and to music – in Kandinsky’s theoretics, something that abstraction should to aspire to. We are in the non-physical world of color, the Northern School of heady involvement achieved through conceptual practice, and the Postmodern world of open ended interpretation and contextual referencing – we are cool. But this use of color is full of a kind of chromophobia – the fear that ties meaning to color, that relates color to actual experience and takes color out of the decorative. This color identification exemplified in Heilmann’s work is yet another light entertainment. It is color done specifically for the chromophobe. Color like this works like something we are accustomed to, something we have seen in Bougereau and Yuskavage and nearly every contemporary Mannerist that puts paint to surface. Color as concept keeps the world of emotional visual entanglements at bay. Color, when applied like this, skirts the issue that Modernism raised, that Postmodernism ignored, and that we inherit. Can color become “hot” and physical in a “cool” and conceptual culture? This refusal to find real physical meaning in color is the hoary test we Postmoderns refuse to take. It requires a more in-depth commitment to visual interaction, one many of us are not willing to take. We are used to contextualizing art works as if they should have no inherent visual logic or personal experience. We discount the fact that we must step outside of ourselves in order to expand what we know, to discover a deeper, thicker color. Postmodern artists continue to remain mute about personal ideas, visions and experiences even as they ground us with their fields of hue. They paint without personality, without conviction, without specificity. What I’m suggesting is that these artists takes no personal visual stance about life, art history or theoretics, but instead they rely on appropriation, pandering and flattery. Sure those colors might put someone’s teeth on edge, but the abstract imagery is all about one’s interpretation and one’s taste, and in these kinds of abstractions color, form & structure remain separate and distanced. Postmodern painting in this sense is an art that makes everyone an “artist” and every chromophobe a color coordinator.

Death of Sardanapalus

Above is hot visual interaction painted by Delacroix. I believe this sort of picture scares the living daylights out of most artists today. Why? This is risky painting and color at its best. This won’t sit on a living room wall and add to the surroundings. It isn’t a conversation piece because one goes mute in front of it. This picture spills out into our space, makes its color and light our color and light. It demands more of us visually and doesn’t pander to our surroundings, our 21st Century appropriations or our endless refusal to become involved in what we see. We have to come to it, we have to attempt to see in the artist’s private visual language, it is insistent. Our Postmodern contextual world can find no context for this painting. It doesn’t work for us – there’s too much information, too much color at stake. We take it in slices – this grouping here or that grouping there. We look for the making of it rather than the experience of it. It’s as if Delacroix, acting the wild man, has said or done something unforgivably rude at our POMO dinner party – and wouldn’t it be better for the rest of us if he just left already (for chrissake Margaret – why’d you invite HIM?) But look at the wild composition of color. Every action is unified with that red and scarlet, the flesh is ignited in that heated light. The shadows fall into the deep blue-browns and burnished green-browns. That red is everywhere, theatrical, superconductive, OTT in both symbolism and thickness, and it bristles throughout the work. This isn’t just the erotic imagination of a 19th century dandy, this is visual acuity poured through the history of great painting. The warm light, white gold, cascades across the painting and every tortured movement, every twist and turn, every scene and treasure is illuminated and super heated – jumping out at us like water on a hot griddle. For our cool sensibilities this is just too much visual information, too much involvement. Is it any wonder that Delacroix inspired the color of the Impressionists? If you look you can see once again the spaces of Tintoretto’s Venetian hospital and Caravaggio’s mourning room – only here that color has exploded and the world has become a place of pure moving light, hue and deep contrasting values. There is no chromophobia here, no fear of color’s meaning, only the visual involvement in what color can accomplish when our eyes find “lived” painting experience. Rather than an optical game of chance or a contrived contextual extended field, Delacroix paints for our eyes in a way that made Duchamp clamp tight (“Painting is washed up.”) and Picasso shake his head in despair (“That Bastard.”) It is the difference between a chromophobe and a chromophile.

Color will continue…

Color: Modernism

matisse_satyr_nymph

We are a million miles from Tintoretto’s hospital. In fact we’ve stripped off and we’re stomping through a glade of flat secondary colors and collapsing space. Don’t be confused – Matisse’s secondaries and tertiaries are not the same as those in Yuskavage’s glade of optical indifference. What’s at stake here is something tremendous. Matisse was fighting for the life of his painting. We are watching him tear away centuries of stagnating space and grappling with the imperious lens machinery that was choking the life out of painters’ imaginations. All this in order to find emotion in the color and form in the flatness. It was no easy task for a Northerner in the Southern climes. That acidy green and the slick turquoise are nearly the same value collapsing the space between the land and the lake. The flattened world behind those meaty figures, sketched out by the pale pinks, warming oranges and heated reds, pushes them into our vision, raising them in our consciousness. Later we would come to know this sort of effect as the “push pull” theory of color – how the vibrancy of a hue can create an illusion of space and/or feeling when laid next to another color.

So what happened to Tintoretto’s original space, light and color. In his own time it was overwhelmed by Mannerism. What followed in the ensuing decades were short periods of reform and innovation like Caravaggio’s space and light, but by and large, painting tended to the reclamation of older forgotten styles (the 40 year rule?) and endless stilted permutations of comfortable ideas within the academy – Neo-Classicism being the prevalent form brought back time and time again – much like the chinos and jeans at your local GAP store. By the mid 19th Century painting had become so institutionalized that a few new painters taking cues from the more risky master painters of the preceding generation began to question what a painting should look like. I won’t bore you with the histories, many of you know these things. The rebellion started with the Impressionists as they reacted against the traditional verisimilitude, stilted color and empty light taught by the academy. They needed to discover a new way to use color, light and space. In their work these discontented artists were reacting to the speeding up of their society through it’s extensions – trains, gas, lights, communications, electricity and the proliferation of Daguerre’s new process of fixing lens based images. Impressionism began to deconstruct the stale and cramped studio light and space of the Salon in favor of a more expansive landscape light and space. These painters also began to explore and present the processes of mark making in a new exacting way. Most importantly they began to present themselves, their visions, as a part of the life of their times. They worked in the fields and streets like the citizenry. They translated the world around them into quick strokes and dabs that mimicked the quickening gaze of civilization as life gained a new velocity, a new touch and a new vision.

On your left is is a very cool customer from 1879 – about the same time that Monet painted his dead wife and an ignored Cezanne trudged through the French country side. Considering the “hot” subject matter this image is very “cool” indeed. Which is probably part of the point. Every color in this painting is valued with blue and formed by a crisp even white light. The blacks and browns, the shadows are all cooled with blues and greens. All the values move to the light and the pale. This beautiful woman is not the warm and vivacious Southern Venus formed in Titian’s Venetian light. No, this is the Venus of the lens and the studio of the mid 19th Century, cold, distant, obtuse, and yet filling us with a strange desire to look but never touch. This is the color, light and space of the Northern School. It is a spiritual, crisp, distinct, nonphysical world of optical conceptualism rather than visual experience. In our last post on color we discussed Lisa Yuskavage’s Postmodern Venus in the Grass (that’s not the title, but I like it.) This is her ancestor.

When following a painter’s intention look to the light. There isn’t any one source, except for the main figure’s pure clarity  – the light comes from everywhere and nowhere. Sex is a matter of gender and allegory. (And unlike Yuskavage’s hirsute Venus, this one’s been to Brazil.) She is a neo-classical statue, tarted up with a bit of Pre-Raphaelite insouciance, formed in pale tones and cold as the marble from where she was appropriated. She harkens back to ancient Greece, the Roman Empire and the very crispy Boticelli.

Part of the fun of this painting is the replication. Venus, according to Bouguereau’s mirror and lens, is busy making out with every swarthy sea creature around while maintaining her chastity. In the back she’s got her hair tied up while she’s tied up in the arms of the manly bearded sea satyr – her shapely pale backside turned our way (Cubism before Picasso.) There she is again (twice) sandwiching a very tanned and happy satyr who is blowing his own horn, loudly, partly because he’s the insignificant part of a manage a trois, and partly because he’s obviously a braggart. A couple of Cupids ride a “sea horse” and I’ll let you come to your own allusion for that one. All of the characters pay heed to – well who else? – the chaste Venus (dead-center,) who is either stretching after a slumber or she’s trying to channel Madonna’s 1980’s pit fetish video. In the icy clouds above we have the fecund promise that seems to follow every Venus, and because she’s not just a goddess but the goddess, that promise amounts to an entire kindergarten class (what a woman!) As ridiculous as this mise en abyme may seem the color and space of the painting have been designed to engage our more refined thoughts. It is a high concept allegory of love embodied in a popular and trite image of beauty. This ice princess is beyond emotional entanglements – she remains nothing more than a machine for desire – she is an idea, a concept. And like any good conceptual image that relies on contextual meaning, the entire painting is composed for our endless entertainment rather than for our physical involvement. Desire over passion.

The avant garde were trying to find something more “real” in paint. They thought that this sort of work was absolutely ridiculous. There was nothing real, nothing experienced here. There are no frayed edges, no heft or weight. The avant garde were left unsatisfied by an encounter with this sort of work and demanded a new form of expression. Artists were experimenting with different ideas about color, form and technique in order to find deeper expressions. By the time Matisse came to his breaking point Post-Impressionism was the thing to build on and to react against. In addition he had that rare gift of understanding his own temperament, and he began his work with the idea that his emotion, the feeling that he experienced when looking at the world should lead to a reality through color and value.

In Matisse’s painting above nothing is expected and yet everything is deliberate. The flatness, the design, the color, the value and even the mark making are there to push your ideas of how color can work and provide a new foundation for expression and painterly touch. For instance the brush work in the green areas creates value and tension in the materiality of the color – those  grounds flow and surround the figures rather than open and recede. They flatten right against the picture plane. In this world everything is at stake, everything is foregrounded. The blue overlays the green, translucent in parts, creating a smart play between the secondary and tertiary hues, flattened values and the materiality of the workmanship. Finally the starkness of the figures is made more so by the fact that they emerge in slabs against and in spite of the flat ground. The menace is palpable in the space between the figures and in the way the figures have been painted. The Satyr is heated and the Venus has been cooled – except for the hard reds and pinks delineating her sex and the source of his desire. There is no promise of a fecund communion in this painting only the reality of an acidy green world that opens itself to this sort of drama. Passion over desire.

Today our color, light and space has little of either the cool allegory or the heated emotion. We have a media color – it is intense and high keyed in value. It isn’t designed for contemplation, but it’s designed for maximum optical impact. Above is the trailer for Speed Racer a movie that I recently caught on one of the subscription cable channels. I wasn’t expecting much – a bit of nostalgia from my childhood, but I was immediately taken with the stunning use of color. In fact the movie is nothing but color. Part of this has to do with the fact that the imagery is fast. In fact it’s so fast that the only way to register the imagery is through the color and the light. There isn’t a subtle use of value like in Matisse’s color or an all over value like in Bouguereau’s work or even a direct value like that used in Caravaggio’s work. No, this is a world of color stripped of visual value and intensified into a kind of overall kinetic optical velocity. Yes, I realize that the movie is called Speed Racer and what the fuck was I thinking, but the Wachowski Brothers, the same of Matrix fame, have taken color to a new and different level of intensity. First, they simplify the thematic color schemes. Speed and his family remain in the primaries – red, blue and yellow, along with white and black. For the rest of the world, particularly the evil doers, life is a melange of secondary and tertiary colors highly keyed and deeply valued against black grounds and sheets of intense, optical hue. Light is everywhere in the movie but it isn’t reflected light like we see in the real world, it is the light of projection – light that emanates from flat screens and electronic billboards. This is a kind of hyper-color that is the real first character in the movie. Nothing in these kind of hues achieves the optical stasis that we saw in Yuskavage’s Venus. But there is a menace in the color like Matisse’s Satyr. Color is both fearful and exhilarating in this world. This is the kind of color we are coming to expect from our culture. It is so unreal that it remains beyond our actual reach in the physical Postmodern world. POMO painters in an attempt to confront this type of hue have relied exclusively on the static optical mind games like we see in Bouguereau, or for an example of a more contemporary painter, Eric Fischl. What they miss is the eye. They rely on the lens to translate the color, light and space when in actuality it should be the emotional impact of the color that comes through. This is the difference between mind and body, desire and passion. This is the lesson of Matisse, that we can feel this hyper-color and find new ways to experience what it can do for our painting.

Color will continue…

Color: 16th Century

Rocco_1

Why is my verse so barren of new pride,
So far from variation or quick change?
Why with the time do I not glance aside
To new-found methods, and to compounds strange?
Why write I still all one, ever the same,
And keep invention in a noted weed,
That every word doth almost tell my name,
Showing their birth, and where they did proceed?
O! know sweet love I always write of you,
And you and love are still my argument;
So all my best is dressing old words new,
Spending again what is already spent:
For as the sun is daily new and old,
So is my love still telling what is told.

Shakespeare Sonnet 76

This is Venetian Mannerism. For painters Michelangelo had changed the game, Titian had livened the color, and oil painting, so disparaged by Michele and loved by the Venetians, was ramping up into something truly exciting. Tintoretto understood what was at stake when he formulated his attack – the drawing  of Michelangelo, the color and drama of Venice. When I first saw this painting in Chiesa di San Rocco I was struck by its visual innovations. Tintoretto basically has composed a wide screen Technicolor drama. He laid out various vignettes across and within the larger composition. Maybe Tintoretto actually experienced sights like this in the 1540s of Venice. Plagues came and ravaged the population over and over. There were “hospitals” all across the city that acted as little more than cemetary anterooms for the sick and dying. San Rocco was built to provide a refuge for those who contracted these plagues. But in truth there were no cures. If you wound up here your number was up and divine intervention was your last and only hope. For Tintoretto this painting is about death, life and redemption, and if we take it further, it is about the saving grace of painting itself.

To discover that redemption we’ll look at some of the fundamentals of this painting – how it’s made. On the left is a row of Figures, almost like statues, coming to life in the light that follows Rocco. He has passed by those figures already, and they are stirring, revealing the signs of their illnesses as they heal in the light. The woman in red and blue holds a bandage that won’t be used, the man on the bed has gotten to his feet, the blonde woman looks incredulously at Rocco as the man at her feet rolls on to his supporting arm. In the center a man raises his left leg to be healed in the light that flashes over him. Further right, those who are sick and dying, are lifted to see what is happening. What is wonderful is the use of chiaroscuro in the work – how the light is powerful, direct, a major character in this visual story. Tintoretto chooses what to illuminate and what to form – what exactly to heal with his color and value. Visually it feels real, and yet, it isn’t – nothing  really follows. Shadows don’t necessarily fall where they should, ambiguities of scale are in and out, and Tintoretto is intent on staying close to the basics, the primaries – red, blue and yellow. This is a hard realism based on earthy color, divine light and ambiguous space; warped and shaped to create a first person visual dialog about redemption.

For the Venetians color is molded and realized by value. Together they form the action, create the rising subject. In this hospital we are pressed against the “fourth wall” looking up into the room. The light is pouring in from above on our right – a window? Rich blacks and browns warmed by reds push the illuminated subjects forward. The light here is not cool, not clear or crisp. There is a heat in it and it sinks into the things it reveals. That heat tempers our connection with touch forging a hard visual reality within the scene. We feel the unwashed bed sheets, the weight of damp clothing and bandages, and the clear air that follows the light into the heavy room. We POMOs are used to the lite versions of this kind of painting. We keep looking for the irony in the color and light, but it’s not there. There is nothing outside of the painting, not even us. The only way out of this room is through that light.

As another example of this kind of value and hue think of that rich, thick red that Caravaggio would use in his dark paintings. How the heat in his light would ignite his reds – an incendiary light. Look at that fully evolved red of the drape overhead: it’s heavy, stiff and unwieldy. It pulls our vision across and down, but more than that, the red drape moves us, linking the space above to the figures below, crashing us into the sea of mourners, a blood red wave. Look how he’s painted it – the direct light forms the folds, the reflected light catches the underside and the dark blacks push us into the thickness of the material. We hold that curtain with our eyes, our fingertips itching at the sight of the fabric.

The virgin below is illuminated, but there is no shadow cast on her torso by the crying man standing over her. The light is slightly off. He falls into darkness as she rises into view. Again the light, the volume, and the space are heated and formed with primaries and valued with the warmed blacks and browns. Even the secondary green forming the standing man behind the virgin and the orange of the mourning woman are warmed with those darker values. These are the same tricks that Tintoretto had formulated in Venice, but with Caravaggio we move in much closer, tightening the visual touch, making it more personal. You’re not against Tintoretto’s wall any longer – you’re in the scene, a part of it, straight away.

This is the power of the emotional color of the Southern School. By forming the hues with warm values painting creates a visual physical involvement, an empathic connection to the rising subject. This visual contact with color is a foreign experience to us. How one “sees” touch and experiences that in paint can be a troubling thing, because most often we tend to get it wrong. When we want to appear serious about color we fall back on DeKooning’s witticism about oil paint and flesh and hope that gets it right. Or we rely totally on the lens to compose and transform our realities. But to paint emotion requires us to do more than rely on the material qualities of paint or the precision of the lens machine. Painters have to understand what’s at stake visually. We must rely on our physical memory, on our own touch. Caravaggio was able to create a feeling for the physical vulnerability of what he painted, and he was able to impart that visual connection to us. In many of his paintings he concentrates on the necklines of his subjects. Look at the neck and upper back of the woman collapsed into her own lap, and then, look at the neck of the Virgin. Both are painted in such a tender way that you feel the sway and roundness, vulnerability and softness of that flesh. The values in those painted colors create visual cues within us. How Caravaggio valued those colors makes those visions real.

Can our Postmodern painting do this? It’s difficult because we use hue and value in a different way. Maybe it has to do with the fact that Modernism took color out of the mix – released it from visual experience in favor of optical inference. In Postmodern painting one doesn’t feel color through one’s eyes, one recognizes its context. For example, in Lisa Yuskavage’s painting the color is heightened, it is a kind of color that we don’t see in life, not reflected in the things around us. Intead these are hyperactivated colors of projected light flashing from our flat screens and printed on our consumer products. For instance the secondary and tertiary colors are lit up from within, cool and impersonal. They are the light source in this painting. But unlike the “warm” light in Venice this light doesn’t play across the figure, it doesn’t illuminate or color the flesh. Instead it eminates like a neon sign and forms a context for the sex of the figure. Yuskavage has also wrapped the figure’s legs in the yellow-green of the grass and the yellow-orange of the pubic hair. The context for the color is self referential – the light bursting through the grass doubles for the sex revealed in her bush – so to speak. In the background is the green shadow of a fecund promise, a darkly valued rug rat. These colored allusions comment on optical desire and the distance that must be maintained to hold that desire. It is the difference between looking and touching.

The patterning of the composition is complete, and like a Josef Albers painting, we move from color band to color band. It is a witty play of image, slang and hue, light and value all of which are designed to play with the recent history of painting, photography, pop culture and pornography. Yuskavage is not interested in any emotional involvement in what we’re seeing. It is about the program, about hyperactivating our common understanding of “contemporary culture” and reclaiming a feminist critique by appropriating  post-feminist imagery. She is sending us up by hyping us up with color while enervating her composition with “casual” sex. It’s done with the same kind of sign language we experience almost daily in magazine illustrations or advertising campaigns –  a combination of Rockwell, Hefner, Albers, Saatchi & Saatchi and Foucault.

Irony plays strongly today in every aspect of painting. Even those painters who claim they are not being ironic use the tools of irony to make their works. In truth nearly every method and practice of painting has been compromised. The paint strokes, the drips, the imagery, the replication, the reproduction, the so-called “reality” of the photograph – Christ the list goes on and on. We painters find that we must practice through these last 40 years with every action we take because we refuse to reformulate our practices, we refuse to rebel. That sort of pressure in our studios has created the Provisional Painting that we see nearly everywhere we go these days. This is the reason that we no longer understand what’s going on in Tintoretto’s Room. We don’t think that color, light or space can be personal or real. Hue is simply done for us, outside of us – “always already” for our use. The painter David Reed often talked of artists developing a personal color, a color connected to things and honed by value and tone. But that idea of color is now programmed by the rhetoric of commerce and the institutions that create that commerce. Colors and Values in our media world are now called Tints and Shades. It’s nothing personal…

In Tintoretto’s healing hospital or Caravaggio’s mourning room color and value have a stake in our physical experience – we are complicit in those visions. In the ironic world we replicate the references and contexts of the reproduction – we comment rather than create. The action is always outside of the picture and that keeps us entertained rather than involved. As Postmoderns we prefer to frolic in Yuskavage’s glade of optical calculation because it assures us that we are the center of its attention, that the image is all about us. For the POMO painter nothing should be personal, nothing should be at stake and EVERYTHING is open for business – the business of culture, the business of rhetoric and the business of art. We keep expecting that our ironic histories will reveal something deeper about who we are. We keep plying the same theoretical practices in bigger and brighter upgraded packaging substituting optical slickness for visual heft. There is no longer any irony in our irony – so we believe we must actually be sincere. We can imagine ourselves staring at the middle distances between the green and the gold, between the secondary colors of commerce, and we believe that our eyes will open to some unsettling pinkish truth – that this surface of things may actually be our visual salvation, our L’Origine du monde. Yet we only have to look to the color, space and light of Tintoretto or Caravaggio to know something is amiss with our reasoning – that we haven’t considered all the possibilities.

Color will continue…