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…