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Rough Trade – Vision: Color, Light & Space

Freed from the necessity of having to make narrow choices (as painters did) about what images were worth contemplating, because of the rapidity with which cameras recorded anything, photographers made seeing into a new kind of project: as if seeing itself, pursued with sufficient avidity and single-mindedness, could indeed reconcile the claims of truth and the need to find the world beautiful. Once an object of wonder because of its capacity to render reality faithfully as well as despised at first for its base accuracy, the camera has ended by effecting a tremendous promotion of the value of appearances. Appearances as the camera records them. Photographs do not simply render reality – realistically. It is reality which is scrutinized, and evaluated, for its fidelity to photographs. “In my view,” the foremost ideologue of literary realism, Zola, declared in 1901 after fifteen years of amateur picture-taking, “you cannot claim to have really seen something until you have photographed it.” Instead of just recording reality, photographs have become the norm for the way things appear to us, thereby changing the very idea of reality, and of realism.
Susan Sontag The Heroism of Vision

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In our 21st Century Postmodern world EVERYTHING is seen and understood through lenses. This experience has narrowed our visual focus so that we find truth and reality in those things and only those things that pass through that electronic shutter and appear on those electronic extensions. News, information, entertainment, scholarship, you name it, we all have to show up in the same place in order to obtain it, to “see it,” to participate in it. Never has so much “reality” been concentrated in one “center” in the history of mankind, and participation in any of the social, economic and cultural industries must be based on our access to that center. But there is another more subtle experience to this online electronic world. Participation in it requires that we exist in a different, inhuman, kind of way. Lens based programming is not physical, it is designed to remake fleshy memory into something else, something infinitely malleable. We can not grasp it, understand it or participate in it without extending our consciousness, without turning our insides out as McLuhan used to say. The nature of our participation and understanding of this reality has taken on a kind of religiousity, a kind of communion with an invisible, omnipresent Kingdom of Heaven, and like seers, priests, astrologers and clairvoyants, we sift through this electronic ether looking for answers. From all walks of life we can experience a sort of hyperactivated Neo-Medievalism as our populace is constantly communing with the unseen, unheard and untouched. Our extensions – cell phones, computers, Blackberrys, and iphones – allow us to communicate with this invisible world, receive answers and perceive solutions from an omnipresent source, a contrived reality. As we have come to exist in this world we locate more and more of our lives online. We replicate – uploading photos, videos, music, recordings, diaries, thoughts and feelings – we make copies of ourselves. We dematerialize our physical lives, we capture and immortalize our past with the lens and the program, and we seek to live forever in this immaterial world, just as we once did for the Book of Life. This electronic world is our new religion, and it is has brought with it a new age of supplication and transformative experience. It has become the greatest and most powerful religion ever. In another time we would have called ourselves Ecstatics, but in this electronic age we think of ourselves in a more grandiose way, we are more god-like, we are Avatars.

“We thought we saw the 20th Century on the news, film, and elsewhere, better than any previous century, although we could say we didn’t see it all – the camera did.” David Hockney Secret Knowledge

IN this Rough Trade – Vision post we will be discussing a different type of Light, Color & Space and how it adds to the solutions we’ve discussed in Form & Structure. Again I will say that these are my solutions to the Postmodern conundrum, and they may not resonate with you. When I first began I was looking for a different process in my work, a different way to paint, one that would allow me to make something of my own, something outside of Postmodern practice. Understand that I am not saying that my solutions are the only solutions. But I do not think we painters have done enough. We have not been thinking heretically, and if anything, I am hoping that these works and these posts may start to crack the Postmodern edifice. Let’s begin…

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A Brief History

From Impressionism through to Abstract Expressionism Color was systematically unfettered, unmoored, and ultimately, freed from the visual concepts of Form and Structure. And as color became more central to Modernist theoretics, the thought about what color could do, the type of experience it could relate, sort of splintered into two camps. The Southern School saw color as a vehicle of emotional expression. (“The chief function of color should be to serve expression.” Henri Matisse) The Northern School saw color as a spiritual encounter. (“Color provokes a psychic vibration. Color hides a power still unknown but real, which acts on every part of the human body.” Wassily Kandinsky) These dual theoretical applications carried on until color itself, the materiality of it, fused with the surface of Modernist physicality giving us the Monochrome, the Shaped Canvas, and the finality, the “thingness,” of an object installed on a wall. (Think of Stella’s extra hefty stretchers, Marden’s waxy surfaces or Judd’s wall-mounted Boxes.) Modernism at that moment had taken the history of Western Visual Culture to an endpoint. (“My painting is based on the fact that only what can be seen there is there. It really is an object… What you see is what you see.” Frank Stella.)

Postmodernism, beginning in 19 Sixty, used color in a different way. Color for the Postmodernist is neither emotional, spiritual, or even a thing in itself. Its value is found in its application. It is a decorative and descriptive type of color. But that’s not quite the whole story either. Postmodern color is used as the electronic media uses color, to entice, to create a desire FOR something. It is neither emotional nor spiritual in the Modernist sense. It isn’t used to create an experience of life within a viewer. Color is most often used as a sign rather than as a vehicle, as a way to elicit a type of behavior rather than as a means of expression. In Modernism color is designed to elicit meaning – in Postmodernism the application is designed to elicit a response. Color is simply part of the larger context, a way to extend the field, an optical inference – think of the way Steven Speilberg’s DOP Janusz Kaminski faded color out of many of the movies they worked on, or the way Jeff Koons saturates his collages of magazine photos, or the way marketers package and present consumer goods in advertisements. The program always sets up contexts outside of the thing in itself designed to elicit a kind of nostalgia, a type of insatiability, or an unconscious thematic desire for something more. You might think of the differences in this way – Modernist color is personal, idiosyncratic, intuitive. POMO color is public, psychological, manipulative. Modernism’s color is interior, expressive. POMO is exterior, surreptitious. You get the idea…

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Light & Space

I often ask myself – why are artists still bandying about outdated concepts like light and space, especially at this time, in this electronic age of projected light and electric hue? Light and Space are anachronisms of another time, of vision and painting – they no longer EXIST as a concern, they no longer define meaning as they once did for our culture. We’ll talk about this more in moment, but let’s backtrack a bit to the mid 19th Century when light and space did matter to painters, especially to the early Modernists. One might say that Light & Space were the first and only concern of early Modernism starting with the Impressionists’ zeal for the “effect” of light on color inplein air painting. By the turn of the century light & space had been supplanted by other concerns when flatness and surface turned Modernism away from visual perception. This path concluded with the repudiation of the visual when painters achieved physical flatness and a type of purity found in optical color. Part of the early liberation of painting in this fashion was technological – squeezable tubes of paint became available for the first time allowing painters to travel, to work in the light. The other part was theoretical – photography, suddenly, changed the nature of the game for painters. Color, Light & Space took on a new importance, seemingly overnight, for a group of experimental painters obsessed with those effects. And in describing this new light & space the idea of process took on a new importance as well. How one painted, how one defined the light & space in the illusion took on a greater importance. This idea of process along with flatness soon took the imaginations of artists into new directions. Volumetric illusion, atmospheric inference, the stuff of light and space in determining color modulations slowly diminished in their practice. Flatness became preeminent when light and space were completely excised from vision, from painting and especially from color itself. The flatter the surface became the more optical the color. It “pushed and pulled” instead of forming and structuring, it was definitive rather than defining. But even as Painters struggled to the surface they retained the old speech. The old school shop-talk of the transformative nature of light and space still hung in the air while Modernists proclaimed the new realities of flatness and purity on their canvases. I believe that this more than any other thing was the start of bad faith in Modernist painting.

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Postmodernism’s break from and reworking of the Modernists’ elimination of Light & Space starts with its relationship to media, to the lens. The collaged billboard doesn’t define space nor does it define light either – this is the endpoint of Modernist color. In Postmodern practice space and light are determined FOR the reproduction, the image – this sets it apart from the history of visual painting and puts us into the reality of the lens. In the replication we are meant to look at a thing, a product, a hyper-realized ideal of some banal reality. We look at it as we would a flat ground. We gather information as we would from a photograph, a movie or TV program. We see it as a product of a mediated reality, a thing on a flat surface. The images of light and space are constantly submerged by the ground, the screen, the lens. They are not meant to convey an experience of reality, they ARE the reality, the media IS the reality and the reality is the flatness, the SuperFlat world, the constant ground. Postmodern light and space are not linked to a representation of something, they do not absorb our vision – they are clones of a mediated event. To make this a bit clearer – Greenberg used to talk of paintings being pictures – and by that he meant pictures of experience, physical documents of higher, altered artistic involvement. Today there are no pictures – there are images, one after another, that rise to the surface of the ground and then fall away again. They are not seen, the do not illuminate, their meaning is connected to the ground itself. Light and space do not define the visual experience – they are used to replicate a kind of optical patterning. There are overlaid images, photos, drawings and colors – photoshopped, cropped, cut and pasted. Space and Light are never used to define this type of interaction, they are used to construct optical references, points of entry, or like a GPS, they map where you are. (Think of Warhol’s Portraits and how those images are patterned over abstracted color grounds or the way television news replicates an event endlessly through a broadcast cycle.) Color, Light and Space do not define what is seen, the program “lights up” what should be confirmed – you don’t see anything.

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“So far abstraction has struggled to get by without the associative spatial dynamics of figuration. It has been hardpressed to give us anything resembling what Picasso did in the Bather with a Beach Ball. But abstraction has not been without resources; it has gone so far as to give us painting whose pictorial drama is provided by what is not there. Malevich has given us two shades of white for figure and ground, and Mondrian has stretched landscape so taut across the painting surface that only pigmented traces of its structure remain. But brilliant as these manueverings have been, we feel that there is something lacking; flatness and materiality (that is, pigmentation for its own sake) still close up pictorial space. Volume and mass – things that seem so real, and things, not so incidentally, that seem so natural to sculpture, need to be rediscovered, reinvented or perhaps even reborn for abstract figuration. This is what Picasso said when he became a Post-Cubist painter.” Frank Stella Picasso – Working Space

To move away from the Cunundrum posed at the beginning of this century it is imperative to react and redefine what Light, Space and Color can do for abstraction. This has been a part of the difficult and complex issues that I was facing in my studio and the Masters of the late 20th Century were asking painters to understand. As time has gone on I have experienced a deep dissatisfaction with the way Postmodernism enveloped Modernism, with the way abstraction was reformatted as a critique rather than as a primary experience. I have come to see this Postmodern failure as an opportunity for painting. How one sees, how one experiences vision and color, light & space is an extremely personal thing. When confronted with the Postmodern I always felt that this connection to personal experience was not visible, at least not in the work or the things that I was encountering. Color always looked as if one were choosing, as one chooses things in a store or on a menu or on a program – the best examples of this sort of consumerist color are Richter’s giant abstract paintings that always wind up looking tasteful and beautiful in very nondescript and uninvolved ways – they are designed, deliberate and empty. I wanted color to be something a bit deeper, thicker and more personal. I am not a spiritual person and the Northern School of the Modernists never captured my imagination, but the Southern School with its emphasis on emotion has always been closer to my temperament. But in my affinity for the Southern School I also realized that it would be impossible to “go back” and reuse Modernism in their way, that my idea of color had to be mine, had to be connected to vision, to form & structure, and ultimately, to something personal and experienced. But here is the rub, I live, breathe and exist in the Postmodern color saturated world – a place so rich in optical color that none of it approaches being personal, none of it is mine and all of it is designed to constantly rev my engines and stoke my desire. Color in other words is not about passion which demands a physical involvement, but it is about context which demands only my passing interest. The best example of this kind techno-immersive opticality is to stand in Times Square and watch the screens and reflections of pure electrically enhanced hue being pumped into the atmosphere. This hyperactivated color, rich as it is in optical pleasure and economic desire, does not, can not speak with real personal emotion. It NEVER speaks for my interests, never for my small world. Ultimately this sort of color plays the Postmodern endgame of “push and pull” – flashing planes of desire, overlays of interest, immersing one in the thin electronic sheets of commercial optical surfaces. WE are seduced but never loved, teased but never satisfied and always left wanting something more, something real, something thicker.

A Solution

Now I don’t know how to do this any other way so I will write about my color in the way that I’ve relayed it to my friends. You may find this tedious, but it is the only true way I can discuss it. SO consider that you’ve been warned…

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When I understood that color was no longer mine, no longer a part of a kind of truth or singular experience, I began looking to create a different way, a different involvement in color. Here in the US we get smatterings of Western painting, usually second or third string paintings sold to rich collectors in back rooms. We don’t get the full experience of what History painting does or means because so many of the masterworks we’ve learned about do not leave the churches and museums where they are hung. We learn of these things through bad reproductions in slides, books, magazines and now through jpegs and video. In 1995 I was lucky enough to find myself in Venice for the first time – no money, really cheap hotel with a bathroom down the hall and 7 days to wander the alleyways and plazas as I saw fit. I sought out the Venetians with purpose in order to see color in a new light, so to speak. For years I had been reading about the Venetians and their color and this was my first real experience of it. Michelangelo lamented their drawing abilities while he praised their color to the heavens. Titian and Giorgioni were lauded for their subtle hues and values that made their visual world feel real and alive. Veronese and Tintoretto used color to transform the banal everyday gatherings of Venetians into grand soliloquies of powerful expression and rich association. Their color has a vibrancy and thickness modulated by the eye and enhanced by their history, their memory. It is everyday color seen and experienced in the flesh, so to speak, and it is rich with the heat of life. It is a color of memory, of touch and of pure passion transforming painting into something visually real and physically palpable.

What I was unprepared for was the space and the light. White and black, complimentary, secondary and tertiary colors are mixed into the hue modulating the tones with value. Space, particularly the tight interior space of figuration, is electrified when it is warmed or cooled and then molded by light. In fact the depiction of light effects plays an important role in how color is used to define form and structure in Venetian painting. It sets the scene, it opens the door for our entry into a real visual encounter. As I sat in the Scuola di San Rocco I began to understand the power of earthy color, light & space in a new way. Particularly in the way Tintoretto played with this idea in his compositions and figurations. In one painting he could move you in close, pull you back out, wrap you in light and swamp you in flesh. It is visually astounding. I felt that if I could combine this sort of Venetian visual richness of modulated, volumetric color with the expressive possibilities inherent in 20th Century color I might be able to enliven painted abstraction in a different way – in a way that Postmodernism’s color does not, can not do. It seems simple, but it isn’t, because as you know, the lens has changed HOW we see and UNDERSTAND these things. Everything is mediated through that goddamned lens, and as a painter, I had to come to terms with this idea and this reality. Simply put, ONE CAN NOT GO BACK – though one might be able to steal something and find a new use for it. And that’s where I thought I’d start.

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For me it boiled down to the Venetian primaries – yellow, red & blue. These are the colors that begin nearly every statement of fact in Venetian painting, but in today’s world they are also the colors of commerce, these are the simple tools of any marketing promotion. How one modulates them, how one “values” (and I mean this in both ways) color is how one hones them into a personal vision. Whenever I began with bright secondaries – greens, purples and oranges – suddenly I found myself in a Richter situation or worse a Paschke situation. Unmodulated tertiaries followed, and at one point I was using fluorescent backgrounds and high keyed complimentaries to create an optical jump in figure and ground. The Postmodern was extremely hard to push back against while trying to remain pictorially viable. The problem was always the space and the light, the modulated form and the volumetric spaces. Flatness, physicality, materiality and opticality have been the norm for so long we have forgotten that we might be able to SEE in a different way. Abstraction, my abstraction, would have to be thicker, more real in its way, and mostly, it would have to risk being misunderstood. And that misunderstanding is connected to HOW we see and the power that the lens has on our vision. With the lens we push in close and tight, we tend to feel our vision rather than see it. When we push in close without the lens we change our relationship to color, we make it physical. By using this idea and engaging the color, feeling the light and space we change the POMO game. We feel our spaces, we no longer have the distance of the Renaissance window or the interior depth of the camera obscura – we are in the scene, we are a part of the painting. At a distance, through the lens it remains flat, it remains on the surface and out of our reach. We can not participate in the visual, we can not involve our eyes in what we are feeling. It boils down to the fact that with a program driven lens based culture we know before we see, and we confirm what we know with our eyes. We are no longer visual individuals, but part of a larger optical collective. The ground rather than the rising subject is our focus. But when we refocus on our own experience, on our own color, light & space in the optical world we can find difference, we make a difference. We can develop a different sort of visual experience.

Which brings us to this last point about abstraction. So many painters equate space and the depiction of that space with landscape painting. This may be so, but the simple truth for me is I am not a landscape painter – I don’t have a feel for it, it’s not an interest. I prefer the spaces of human involvement – the interstitial spaces of touch. When I go into a museum I admire the color or the light in landscape paintings and I move on – quickly – to the history painting, the portraits and the mythologies. Modernism and Postmodernism seemed in one way or another to have embraced the idea of landscape for its spatial experimentation – things in a field, things on a field, or finally, the field (ground) itself. Picasso and Matisse were the last figurative experimenters, but their most influential work on the 20th Century was through their still lifes and their landscapes. In the history of Western Painting there was a strong visual involvement with the individual, the human encounter and the life before us. Figuration, the rising subject, the portrait – all that had been waylaid or set aside or had remained the province of the photographic, the reactionary or the rear guard. When I examine this idea of landscape I can understand the visual confrontation with Nature, the encounter with the sublime, but as an artist I value the relationship, the look of the other, the physical human encounter – I find those things just as sublime and just as powerful. I felt that this history had become an ignored practice of painters, especially abstract painters. And Stella’s Working Space raised this very specter of human visual involvement when I was beginning to question painting. This was my start, this is what led me to color, light & space. These things have guided my fascination and formulation for a different kind of abstraction. I’ve raised a lot of points in these two posts about the basics of abstraction after Postmodernism. I believe there are many painters who are equally unsatisfied with the direction and aims of current abstract painting. So it’s up to us to change it, to make ourselves known and to challenge the academy at every turn. Live, Think, Paint!

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One Comment

  1. Carla wrote:

    Some of this makes clearer sense to me in the broader terms of electronic media, than in specifically lens-based seeing.

    “Photographs do not simply render reality – realistically. It is reality which is scrutinized, and evaluated, for its fidelity to photographs.”

    I find myself editing from my reality those bits which will play well on facebook. I understand it being the same thing as lens editing, but that’s just so difficult to grasp. As you indicate, the lens-based viewing has so deeply infiltrated.

    I really enjoyed the Venetian background, and reading about your intentions in this work. Very interesting to view these with that in mind.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 7:03 PM | Permalink

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