THE LIES OF LIGHT
Because we have for millennia made moral, aesthetic, religious demands on the world, looked upon it with blind desire, passion or fear, and abandoned ourselves to the bad habits of illogical thinking, this world has gradually become so marvelously variegated, frightful, meaningful, soulful, it has acquired colour – but we have been the colourists: it is the human intellect that has made appearances appear and transported its erroneous basic conceptions into things. (Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, 1878)
This notion of the becoming of colour in the world locates humanity’s conceit in seeing the world not as it truly is, but as we need it to appear in order to make sense of it. It also reveals the complexity of this everyday quality we call colour, laden and shaded over time in deeply subjective tones, which have combined to create a certain untruth within the image of art.
Our perception of colour has dramatically evolved over the millennia, not just physiologically through the cones and receptors that refract and interpret light into its identifiable hues, but in the choices and values we place upon colour itself.
With increasing speed, our associations to colour have transited and altered through every aspect of life: beginning with nature, survival and ritual; becoming symbols of religion, power and control; refining through application in architecture, art and design; and expanding through the knowledge of anatomy, optics and technology.
At each stage, in all its myriad shades, colour has arrived at the always-evolving point of destination — from refraction to reception, through the eye and into the mind of the individual, where the mode and the mood of this powerful phenomenon reflects upon itself at the speed of light.
Were we all to look at a random example of an identical colour, each of us would inevitably see something different — informed by personal associations that literally colour our perception of what we see and, more indirectly, what we feel. Since science has shown us that we perceive colour only through a sliver of the spectrum, with the ultraviolets and infrareds invisible to the unaided eye, we know that what we see is only part of the greater whole, we can only ever see a partial reality.
Underlying our experience of colour, in both its natural appearance and artificial reproduction, there is also an inescapable fact: colour can shift in the light, take on unexpected tones, or, when contrasted with a complementary or incompatible hue, alter altogether and fool the eye entirely. The perception of any object and its colour thus exists only in the mind of the observer, consumed and interpreted through the changing illumination of the immediate environment.
In this regard, we find there is in reality no truth to colour, at least not any epistemological form of truth. Colour is only ever an illusion of our own making and significance. Yet what would we be without colour? And for that matter, how can we trust what we feel, when we know that what we see is fallible?
Here at MADA Gallery, we find these questions explored in The Lies of Light through the prism of Pandarosa, and their curated group of artists from Australia, Italy and The Netherlands. Pandarosa, the duo Ariel Aguilera and Andrea Benyi, have long used colour in unexpected ways in their collaborative works that slip back and forth over the thin grey line that is drawn between art and design.
Pandarosa's application of colour, both in choice of hue and in its placement, has often been so at odds with what is deemed ‘on-trend’ that it would cause people to ask why the pair had chosen certain shades and combinations. Having given it some consideration, Pandarosa concluded that colour for them is always intuitive. And herein we have the crux of our common relationship to colour: it is both emotive and emotional, its causes and effects are often intangibly indescribable and yet deeply affecting and personal.
The MADA Gallery entrance here is wrapped and connected with Pandarosa’s treatment of a distended prism of light metrics. Extracted from a three-dimensional model and flattened into a two-dimensional colour field, this diagrammatic spectrum is something we could place within a history of abstract, suprematist, or minimalist practice, indeed any number of the modernist schools founded by practitioners who each obsessed in their own way with colour and light.
Perhaps this is all we can ever really deal with as the matter of art — without the container of colour that is light, we would have no colours and thus no art. In fact, we might well be nothing at all, for we are, as Carl Sagan so eloquently said, made of star-stuff, and so light and colour, and therefore we as beings, are always self-reflexive by nature. It is little wonder that humans worshipped the sun for so many eons, equating its seemingly eternal light to a creator, painting enlightened beings in luminous haloes, ruminating on the virtues and mysteries of light until science finally discovered optics.
The original prism invented by Isaac Newton marked the point at which the mysteries of the contents of light were opened up, as proof to the human eye, spilling out to revolutionise technology and bringing literal enlightenment to the world. Yet it would still leave the poet Keats to lament that philosophy would ‘conquer all mysteries by rule and line’ and ‘unweave a rainbow’.
The rainbow, if not unwoven, is ignited en masse in Stefano Pedrini’s vibrating paintings of layered colours seen here in the first gallery space. Beaming from a luminous centre with centrifugal force, the colours in Pedrini’s Somewhere in the 20th Century shimmer and shift in a symphonic palette. His strata of shades, heavily juxtaposed and contrasted, take us far beyond the simple appearances of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet and into a veritable explosion of hues, a deeply emotive extraction of white into a potentially infinite compass of colouration.
Pedrini here has split the rainbow, bringing us a kind of celestial vision, perhaps a little closer to the potential but unknowable truth of light, but at the very least revealing to us the transformative ingredients of his polychromatics that vibrate with internal harmonies and explode into the space beyond the canvas.
Ash Keating’s large-scale colour work, Painting the West Park Proposition, is also transformative of both geometric and environmental space, but on a monolithic scale. Keating takes for his canvas a massive tilt slab wall in a semi-rural industrial estate, an unintentional monument to progress, an object largely absent of colour.
The surrounding landscape informs the work, where the artist enacts his performance in painting endurance. The country setting, once grasslands, later pasturelands, and now a blight of industrial subdivisions, is unnaturally split by this vast blank concrete façade. It interrupts the horizon line with blind disregard for the ecological landscape that struggles for survival around it. Not a single window looks outside; the structure is deliberately artificial and closed to its environment, a constructed untruth with a cold palette of lime greys and steeled silvers.
Keating repaints the landscape across this wall of denial, recreating the warm colours of passing clouds and tall flowering grasses, in a lament to a landscape forever transformed. Keating’s painting tools are also carefully chosen, literally the stuff of emergencies, and so with buckets and fire extinguishers he paints a new colour field in sweeping arches and energetic splays, infusing a physical urgency that calls our attention to the environmental truth behind this layered illusion of development.
Rachel de Joode’s The Colour Me also takes a geometric base for its form, one that reimagines the surfaces of the artist’s own body in a painted abstraction. It is a representation that extrapolates the visible surface of the artist into a hypothetical body. Using a geometric form to represent something as organically supple as the human physique creates a switchback for the eye. This is not a portrait, not as we know it, nor is it any kind of figurative sculpture, and yet it is both — a metamorphosed conglomeration of impossible structures, a composite body that allows us to study the strangeness of skin, our everyday colour container.
The Colour Me replicates the average dimensions of the artist’s own body: 165cm high, 45cm wide, and 20cm deep. It is also an average of her skin colour. But what colour is skin really? The racially loaded names for skin tone remain contested, fragile and inflammatory notions, badly chosen colour labels that don’t come even close to any true tonal descriptions of our dermal surfaces.
Here de Joode looks more deeply for a truth of colour in her own skin, asking herself what colour she is. The result is a self-rendition, photographed, modified, fused, warped and digitally painted in an impossibly non-human form, where a surreal surface becomes the location to search for a truth in skin colour, revealing a superficial signifier that exists only in our perceptions.
The illusions of light are further distended in Ry David Bradley’s painted series that source everyday online images for the artist’s reprocessing, one that blurs the border between handmade and digital. These works are a continuation of his explorations into digital and technological painting as seen in his Painted, etc online project, where the simplest forms of RGB (red, green, blue) are transmuted in pixilation and a flatness that seeks dimensionality through painterly translations.
Once artists began to move into new media technologies — with painters such as David Hockney, who abandoned paintbrush and canvas to take up an iPad as his tool of choice — there was a significant shift in the way art was created, presented and reproduced online for mass consumption.
The artist’s interest here lies in the transfer of painting technologies into the digital realm, but also in the proliferation of online imagery, the effects on our vision, and ultimately our understanding of art. Bradley’s digital paintings, created from seemingly random online sources, point to a potential understanding of the illusory nature of the image in the 21st century.
It is perhaps in the curatorial division of the MADA Gallery where we can see the most basic physics of colour represented to full effect: one room white and full of light, containing all the colours, the other dark, an absence of colour, where technology is needed to bring illumination to the gloom. From the original questions posed around the untruth of colour, we have a series of further queries, opening up like the colours extracted from Pandarosa’s prism. And in the end, we might even ask the ultimate question about the untruth of light: what is colour in the dark?
Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, all too Human, R.J. Hollingdale (trans.), Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1986, p. 20