Two exhibitions at Melody Smith Gallery
For most artists colour was always a bit weird. It still is, especially if you are a painter. Some painters rejoice in the possibilities of colour, some, however, many find it a bit of an embarrassment. As it happens Melody Smith Gallery is having a bit each way with its two current exhibitions. The best of Matthew Jackson’s oil paintings are either grisaille or near monotone while Lauren McCartney’s Reflection Paintings are the latest in a thousand year long line of attempts by artists to separate colour from material substance, so as to get a firm grasp on the relation between paint and light.
They consist of large sheets of white paper with small openings cut into them in a grid pattern. A panel of paper tilts outward from each opening. The artist has painted the inside of each panel with a brightly coloured acrylic, which remains invisible to the viewer who can only see the reflection of the colour on the gallery wall behind the work. McCartney aims to ‘remediate’, (restore?) the material substance of paint to the ‘immaterial’ properties of colour.
This is bad metaphysics and worse science. These days, light and paint are equally material phenomena. Colour occurs only in the human brain. Western painters of all persuasions tend to find this difficult because of the Christian origins of everything they do in which light more or less equals God. Remember ‘Let there be light’ as the curtain up on creation. This set up the duality of light and material (paint). For the painter, paint itself acquired an ambivalent status. Just what was this stuff on the end of the brush?
One of the best demonstrations that colour occurs in the brain was provided by Edwin Land of Polaroid fame. Land photographed two transparencies of the same still life using highly precise yellow filters of differing wavelengths. He projected them precisely superimposed one over the other and produced a full colour image. This raises all sorts of problems, but makes it absolutely clear that colour is an artifact of perception.
There have been many attempts to work with coloured light independent of any reflection or material support. One of the most interesting was by the British abstract painter Brian Wynter. He spent three years 1963/65 making six electrically driven mobiles mounted before large concave mirrors in brightly lit cabinets. He called them IMOOS (Images Moving Out Onto Space). As the brightly painted panels of the mobiles rotated they produced large virtual images, panels of colour hanging in space before the viewer. Wynter’s primary interest was in abstraction. The mobiles were an experiment related to his interest in the role of colour in his painting.
The last successful formal expression of the metaphysical concept of colour was Goethe’s colour theory. It had considerable effect on the British romantics in a translation by Eastlake. In an endless series of brief watercolours, ‘colour beginnings’, Turner speculated on the origins of colour and substance of colour in relation to dawn and dusk and of course light, dark and the creation.
Later artworks that referenced the metaphysical notion of colour, such as those by the painter Kandinsky or the musician Scriabin, who used projected light with his symphonies, never found the same universal acceptance. Nowadays holography and various digital technologies make it possible to produce spheres, cones and any other shape in any size, any colour. Paradoxically perhaps, this material achievement has finally put an end to the metaphysical notion of colour. Colour may exist without a support but, as thousands of banal, self-deluded artists have demonstrated, it cannot exist without a shape or an outline.
Does all this history matter in relation to McCartney’s research project Reflection Paintings? Unfortunately it does. Her work has entertainment value. It is undoubtedly ingenious but there is no revelation, no thrill of discovery in it. The artist’s lack of awareness of the history of her subject has caused her to foreclose on curiosity and limit any opportunity to be original, to find something.
The painting of Matthew Jackson presents the other side of the colour coin. He has been a prolific and virtuosic painter, but in Unto each as unto an island he is looking for images of ‘the things that make us unremarkably human.‘ The best results from his search are undoubtedly the monochromes. The very best, beyond a doubt, are three grisailles, small symphonies in simple grey brushstrokes each featuring an image of femininity, icons of the obvious.
The absolute best, the surreal Spectre at the Feast shows a woman gazing at what appears to be a wooden carving of a bird, a toucan, laid sideways across the image. This is an ‘unremarkable’ image of mystery and sexual obsession, like an old-fashioned movie still, but ordinary life is just that like these days, after all. Sanguine and Enfolded extend the subject. Enfolded, is a neck to knees view of a woman wrapped in folds of what appears to be an old-fashioned sheath dress. Folded drapery has been a challenge to painters for a couple of thousand years. Jackson gives a good account of it in his broad, abbreviated brush marks. He is equally successful with the sun-filled clouds in Sanguine the semi naked woman standing on a balcony, hugging her dress like a misplaced martyr on the way to heaven.
When any painter chooses to work primarily with subject matter, rather than what is to be seen, colour becomes a separate, additional problem. It is always easier to narrow down the choices to make your point. Even Monet’s waterlily ponds are worked with a tight range of blues, greens and reds. The digital future might very well make it much harder to achieve this clarity of vision, especially if we forget the past.