Corrosive Beauty, Benign Repugnance: The Buzz of Contemporary Colour
I came to this line of inquiry from my research into the opponent-process theory of colour perception based on the magenta/green square experiment from my Ignite presentation. I tried to recall when this phenomenon happened the most; was it while I was out in nature? No, it happened when I was looking at screens in interior spaces or civic signs in the built environment ie. street lines, stop lights, etc. This made me think more about the aesthetic qualities of contemporary colour and how there seems to be a common instance of “retina burn” in this aesthetic.
If we stop and take a look around us, we will soon notice how our homes and interior spaces, domestic objects, work tools, clothing, etc., have all been designed by someone. In Western culture, everything from the bowl you eat soup from to the car you drive to work has been designed. This is an inherent fact in a consumer culture but we are so accustomed to it that we take it for granted. Even our toothbrush was thoughtfully shaped and manufactured for our comfort. This is also true of the colour choices of our objects and our living spaces. Even if we paint our living room to our own specifications, the colours we choose are dictated by the colour charts of our local hardware stores. It was someone’s job to define what Eggshell White is in order to make a consistent product. These ideas of standardizing colour are the results of experiments in architecture and design by groups like the Bauhaus in the early 20th century. Their research into colour yielded some advancements in colour therapy and civic signage systems and despite the subjective and emotive qualities of colour, which are individualistic and hard to quantify, they developed and reinforced the use of the colour chart over the traditional colour wheel. The colour chart is a codified system of organizing colours so if you choose Pantone 281, you can expect a consistent blue hue for various practical uses; such as logos, signage, textile designs, etc. The colour swatches in a chart exist without any reference to the outside world (aided by using a numbering system to identify them), but they also exist on the chart without relating to each other. You don’t notice how Pantone 281 relates to Pantone 103 because they exist autonomously. Thus they are also stripped of any emotional association making the colour chart a pragmatic choice.
The colour chart system has now become the main force behind contemporary colour. No longer do artists slave over figuring out the Newtonian colour wheel, mixing their own blues and yellows to make greens, instead, artists can pick and choose from an unprecedented variety of hues to construct their colour palettes. This shift is part of a slow development with ties back to the cross-pollination of low and high art in art movements like Pop Art but it even has a precedent in the work of Pablo Picasso whose work took on “the shine of Ripolin paint. Ripolin, a commercial enamel manufactured for use on wood, plaster, and metal.” (Ann Temkin, Color Chart: Reinventing Color, 1950 to Today, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2008, 21) and in the work of Abstract Expressionists like Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock, and Willem DeKooning.
Why was Kline so enamoured with house paint? Because it’s cheap, because it’s kind of crass, because it’s kind of consumerist, because it’s not Fine Art. All of those are on the table. (Museum of Modern Art, “How To Paint Like Franz Kline,” YouTube video, 3.53, Posted October 24, 2010, 0.45-0.55)
Some of the fruits of consumer culture are the availability of industrial grade paints and advancements in pigmentation technology. Neons, fluorescents, Day-Glo, petrochemical, and reflective paints are easily accessible to the artist. In terms of traditional oil paints, neons and synthetic pigments have taken centre stage on many artist’s palettes, kicking aside the expensive cadmiums, cobalts, and lead whites of the 19th century (not to mention the inherent toxicity in some of those paints). Phthalocyanine and quinacridone colours alongside the many synthetic hues produced by today’s paint manufacturers reflect the desire to not only compete with but also evoke the screen; film, TV, and computer.
The shift to the colour chart has been embraced by digital colour systems whose interfaces mimic the swatch grid system of the paint chip section in the hardware store. The proliferation of the computer, imaging software, the internet, and mobile devices has created a standardization of colour based on the technology needed to reproduce these colours ie. code and postscript language. One could argue the merits of a global standardization of digital colour but it has undeniably taken hold. “Photoshop and Epson have joined, if not sidelined, Winsor and Newton, Crayola, and Color-aid as names immediately associated with colour. These changes parallel a historical trajectory in which colour has come to be identified less with nature than with culture.” (Ann Temkin, 26)
So what does this mean for the contemporary painter? “Yet, far from acting as a constraint, a ready-made approach to colour has opened the way to new opportunities.” (24) The easy access and availability of all these electrifying hues offers an unlimited variety of colour palettes and is possibly the reason it is so problematic to define a contemporary colour theory system. The artist Amy Sillman said in a talk at the Whitney:
“In the end, we put our colours in buckets and cups, any which way we wanted to, rejecting colour theory altogether . . . We had Pearl Paint [an iconic art supply store in New York] and 1970s theory . . . colour is the name given to forces that allow us to confront the uneasy task of marking difference . . . colour marks: value, regionalism, gender, pathology, lust, shame, humour, camp, excess, vulgarity, and bad taste. There was no colour theory, but there were productive misunderstandings.” (Whitney Museum of American Art, “Seminars with Artists: Amy Sillman,” YouTube video, 39.56, Posted November 12, 2014, 22.38-23.22)
So although artists of her generation were given foundations in colour theory based on the colour wheel, they rejected it in favour of systems that appealed to their personal visions and art-making sensibilities.
Speaking from personal experience, I’m shocked at how many of my classmates don’t mix their colours when painting; they use them straight from the tube. Where I have experimented with Impressionist and Post-impressionist colour theory and am learning the subtleties of tones and character that each hue provides, they do not know a world where you can make your own hues, their palettes are dictated by the brand of paint they buy. This might be due to lack of a thorough foundation in painting techniques but this makes for garish colour contrasts with an unrefined appearance. But maybe that’s what contemporary colour is? Perhaps “corrosive beauty and benign repugnance” (Ann Temkin, 34) are what we see in our world? Or perhaps this is a reflection of how “colour-chart colour works in several registers at once: new and old, industrial and archaic, single and multiple, technological and infantile.” (37)
So what does this mean for a viewer of contemporary painting? Amy Sillman describes how a certain hue of yellow-green she used in her work would not reproduce properly once documented by photography; it was beyond the colour gamut that photo-developers could achieve. Since artbooks, magazines, and the internet are largely the most common sources for viewers to experience artworks, “it boils down to . . . a system of optimistic predictions” (Whitney Museum of American Art, 22.13). It relies on the limitations of CMYK printing and uncalibrated monitors. My point is that viewers of contemporary painting never get an accurate perception of an artist’s work until they see it in person.
The only remedy for this is to go see the paintings in person and this is where I feel like painting is triumphant over digital media; it is phenomenological. The viewer has to see the painting in person to really experience the painting; to step away from the screen, from their task-driven life to have an experience that is a catalyst for introspective contemplation (and hopefully not just an opportunity to take a selfie).
But what does a viewer see, for instance, in the work of Ben Jones? A riot of neon fluorescent hues arranged in compositions that make reference to video games or virtual spaces. The bright hues elicit optic effects and his patterns produce a kind of retina burn and subsequent disorientation that comes from staring at your computer monitor too closely and for too long without blinking. One may qualify the aesthetic experience as being high arousal but displeasurable in terms of valence; an apt metaphor used by the artist to express feelings about globalization and consumer culture.
Or the light-based paintings of Angela Bullock? She creates illuminated “pixel boxes” whose hues shift over a given time period to represent the 256 colours in the algorithms of the OS 9 Macintosh software (which was cutting edge back in 2004 compared to the “billions” of colours available now). She contemplates the standardization/globalisation of digital colour and its utopic/dystopic ramifications. Her work has a less urgent effect on the viewer, however, it does challenge the notion of what a painting is.
Or the work of Kim Dorland, whose thick impasto oil paintings of scenes of rural British Columbia and Alberta are given an acidic quality. He evokes a sense of anxiety, of the apocalyptic in a tradition of Canadian painting that often portrays the landscape in idealized terms. For instance, his painting The Loner, where the red hues in the sky shift to a fluorescent pink, heighten the complementary contrast to the greens of the cedar trees. This creates a disorienting optical effect (also retina burn) tying the work to Dorland’s ideas of the sublime and also recalls the vastly destructive forest fires which have become the “norm” during the summer in Canada.
So how does contemporary colour affect the viewer’s perception of painting? According to the perceptual model we used this semester, contemporary paintings continue to do the same things they’ve done to viewers as they have since cave paintings. I would hypothesize that the only variable is where perceptual processing (resonance) or cognitive processing (mastering) creates emotions; predominantly of anxiety and frenetic energy. I am, of course, simplifying this for the sake of argument, but there is also the problem of how a contemporary painting functions in our culture. It has to compete with media and movies so it needs to have a high arousal to get a viewer’s attention; nevermind the task of getting a viewer to spend more than six seconds with a painting. But one thing I’m sure that never crosses a viewer’s mind these days is “how did they get that colour?” Unlike the scroll paintings of the Tang Dynasty where they were revered partly due to the richness and exclusivity of the materials, viewers assume that painters have access to every hue under the sun, without a second thought; we take this for granted. How much does this affect a reading of a painting? I’m not sure, but it would be an interesting art project in itself.
Art is invariably tied to its cultural environment and the time period in which it was made. Our Western culture is still trying to work out its relationship to analog versus digital colour with our artists always on the cusp; testing out the limits of each. This tension between the two modes of colour has a created a jarring mix of synthetic and organic juxtapositions not only in our paintings but throughout all of today’s art. When I say my paintings look contemporary, it is because I cannot escape my time or paint manufacturer. My paintings evoke a shared feeling that things aren’t certain and I attempt to seduce you with high chroma pigments and contrasts to draw you in. How does this affect a viewer’s perception of colour in a contemporary painting? They might see that “chemical beauty is a disturbing and uncertain beauty, a visual beauty graspable in an abstracted image, while also sublime in that it carries the unbearable realities of environmental destruction.” (Carolyn L. Kane, Chromatic Algorithms: Synthetic Color, Computer Art, and Aesthetics after Code, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2014, 274) Hopefully, at the very least, the viewer might take a moment or two to think about colour as reflected light, as they perceive it in the world around them, leading them to have a richer daily life.
Kane, Carolyn L., Chromatic Algorithms: Synthetic Color, Computer Art, and Aesthetics after Code, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2014.
Temkin, Ann, Color Chart: Reinventing Color, 1950 to Today, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2008.
Woody, Russell O. Jr, Painting With Synthetic Media, Reinhold Publishing Corporation, New York, 1965.
Museum of Modern Art, “How To Paint Like Franz Kline,” YouTube video, 3.53, Posted October 24, 2010. www.youtube.com/watch?v=1xQTlp0hscs&list=PLfYVzk0sNiGEZXlIltPP7Yy_s5gTM7hf8&index=13.
Whitney Museum of American Art, “Seminars with Artists: Amy Sillman,” YouTube video, 39.56, Posted November 12, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Stk38nsVyos.