Abstract Critical

Painting and the Colour World

Written by David Sweet

The following text consists of a catalogue essay for COLOUR/Boundary, an exhibition of paintings by Caroline de Lannoy, Sharon Hall, Clyde Hopkins, Mali Morris and myself, held at Gallery North, Newcastle during January and February 2014. I have added a postscript that attempts to relate the curatorial argument to the wider context of abstraction. D.S.

The 1979 film Apocalypse Now is regarded as of major importance in the development of cinema sound. It featured an effect that has become familiar to the modern moviegoer. The innovation, called ‘split surround sound’, caused the audience to hear noises apparently emanating from different points within, and even outside, the confines of the screen. The ‘sound designer’, Walter Murch and his team won an academy award for their efforts and established a new industry standard for the audible component of film that remains part of the structure of contemporary cinematic experience.

On the many occasions when we are made aware of the effect, it seems that what we see and what we hear in the cinema are not fused into a single, naturalistic whole. Under these conditions, our experience consists of an overlay of sight and sound perceived as two separate, almost independent fields or worlds. There is, of course, a precedent for this in the atavistic experience of ‘silent’ films, where the viewer would follow the movement of the visual narrative while listening to music which would have kept pace with the action and added an expressive dimension to the emotional rise and fall of the depicted events.

Though separable, the sight world and the sound world interact but, unlike our eyes and ears in everyday situations, they do not necessarily open onto the same reality: an explosion might be accompanied by a burst of orchestral music, or a landscape by a narrator’s voice. In the cinema we have no problem with this twinned sensory input. We understand how to simultaneously engage with both worlds and derive a compound pleasure from their joint contribution to the experience of film as a fully mature medium.

It’s true, of course, that the overlapping worlds that constitute modern cinema are accessed through two of the five senses. Film, ‘popular’ film at least, with its characteristically audio-visual address to the audience may therefore seem to be significantly dissimilar to the experience in front of the silent medium of painting, where the viewer has to rely on a single sense, on eyesight alone. But I want to use it as a starting point for a discussion of colour. This is because I want to argue that in painting in which colour features strongly, the colour creates a world, like the film sound world. The painting creates a separable world. The experience I’m trying to describe is one where, as with cinema, these worlds co-exist but do not seamlessly integrate. They do not necessarily open onto the same reality. 

This integration does happen of course in the many pictures, in what might be called the realist tradition, built around the ‘local colour’ of observed objects. But elsewhere, in Renaissance figure paintings for instance, the composition was often initially established in terms of light and shade, in grisaille, then tint, or transparent colour was added on top. The light and shade had to be consistent and ‘correct’, but the painter had greater licence in deciding what colours to put where. The tonal and chromatic worlds are distinct, as sound and vision in cinema, though both are accessible to the same sense. What’s seen is divided and re-combined to produce our experience of Renaissance art.

In some examples the interests of colour are strong enough to determine much of a painting’s character. The choice of myth as a subject in the 16th and 17th century for example permitted painters to produce, rather than reproduce, an antique world filled with a particular luminosity that another subject may not have suggested. It also lent itself to busy, eventful scenes, involving lots of figures, frozen in highly entertaining poses, as in Nicolas Poussin’s, Adoration of the Golden Calf, from a Biblical story but treated as a pagan Bacchanal. Poussin is clearly influenced by earlier Venetian painters like Titian, but he has a strong sense of order even when putting together a group of drunken revellers. Looking at the Adoration, and many of his other multi-figure compositions, one is very aware of what might be called the terrain, the rhythmic mass created by the entangled limbs and bodies of the participants. But equally visible in the painting is the chromatic system Poussin imposes on the scene, the sequence of distinctly coloured garments and flesh tones throughout the assembly, yellow, red, blue, white, picking out the individual and separating them from their neighbours. In his deployment of colour boundaries Poussin is like a geographer constructing a map.

Translating Poussin into geographical terms, one could say that there is something like a territory or terrain, a continuous landmass whose outline can be charted. This is what we would see from space. In any map, the outline of the terrain will persist, but what it contains varies depending on the data that is of interest to the cartographer. Physical maps might display annual rainfall or average temperature or elevation. Political maps show national frontiers or regional boundaries. Both types tend to feature colour. Those recording physical properties rely on tonal differences within a small number of hues while political boundaries are frequently shown by noticeable contrasts between assigned colours. This latter type seems to be comparable to Poussin.

I want to suggest that by constructing a map one is also producing a world, the world of temperature, of rainfall, of Europe, and so on, by using colour. It relates to the outline of the terrain, but it stands apart as a separable field. It’s like a third dimension, not the third dimension, but one that nevertheless contributes a sense of solidity and conviction to experience, like cinema sound. 

In the modern period, as one would expect, things become more unstable as painters were able to modify what I’ve been calling the terrain in order to sustain more intense chromatic sensations. The Impressionists heightened the tingle and fizz of non-earth pigments by applying them to white primed canvasses in short, stabbed brush marks. Instead of orientating their colour world to the lascivious goings-on of antiquity, they painted the French landscape under the glare of sunlight, when colour is at its brightest, choosing subjects associated with leisure and enjoyment. Fauvism started with a similar terrain to Impressionism but produced a different colour world by recalibrating the chromatic system, separating it from observed nature and making it more self-referential, thereby emphasising the optical relationships between hues identified as primary, secondary or complementary. But they also, notably in the person of Henri Matisse, developed the joined-up use of colour to cover a greater area, instead of the Impressionist points and stabs, so it could spread and flow through the drawing. With this development the terrain becomes more schematic, with flatter planes that can take a greater loading of colour.

As might be clear from what I have been saying about the cinema sound analogy, in Poussin, Impressionism and Fauvism, the terrain is also an active world. It might be simplified, as in Matisse, but we still recognise the walls, tables, windows, etc. which belong to the system of ordinary experience. However in this exhibition, many of the paintings might be described as ‘abstract’, so less defined by reference to ‘our’ world. The development of abstraction raises the possibility, often mentioned, that painting could eliminate the terrain and deal only in the values of the colour world, bringing it nearer to the condition of music with its notes, scales and chords. There are many examples of colour field painting built on this concept and, as every student painter finds out, it’s certainly possible to fill a canvas with overlapping irregular patches of different colours to create a sense of space out of chromatic tensions and interactions. The same colour, brushed all over the canvas to leave a ‘hand made’ finish will, through unavoidable imperfections, offer similar opportunities for the eye to read spatial signals.

But I began with the medium of cinema with its interrelated but separable, active worlds of moving image and split surround sound as a model experience. If we compare watching a film to listening to a radio drama, it’s clear that a purely audio medium can produce an entirely adequate platform for the kinds of stories we follow in the cinema. With nothing to see, we are able to summon up mental images of characters, actions and situations that occupy an imagined space in which we become immersed, just by listening. The ear gives access to that space in a way that the eye gives us access to the spatial invitation of the colour field painting described above. But it gives us access to only one world.

There are real pleasures in experiencing a single almost infinite world composed entirely of sound, and the fact that music is addressed overwhelmingly to a single sense does not seem to limit its appeal, power or cultural achievement. It may seem odd therefore to suggest that pictorial art should not aspire to the condition of music. The musical simile can seem a good way of explaining the operations of abstract painting, especially when colour is emphasised. However, I’m arguing that painting has traditionally offered the eye something like the audio-visual experience of the cinema rather than seeking to immerse the viewer in a single world. The world of the terrain and the colour world of the map are both active in the experience of painting; and by terrain I do not mean pattern.

Colour and decoration have always been able to form a comfortable alliance of mutual dependency. A two-dimensional structure can be designed and filled with any combination of hues whose chromatic relationships may be striking, discordant or harmonious. The pattern into which the colour fits will have its own visual characteristics. It may be florid or reserved, busy or minimalist, or anywhere in between. It can also be figurative or abstract, and as pattern is most often applied to a surface, the similarities with painting are inevitable. And painting hasn’t tried to avoid the comparison. It has employed stripes and grids, which are devices it shares with the visual language of pattern, and simplified objects into flat shapes before formally re-organising them to suit its own compositional purposes, which is a practice appropriated from the activities of the designer.

The distinction between pattern and painting is not glaringly obvious. I would say that it rests on the fact that the relationships between elements within a painting are ‘pictorial’ rather than ‘decorative’. This comparison often leads to a debate about the relative cultural value of the ‘decorative arts’, however, it might be more interesting to consider how the idea of ‘pictorial relationships’ can be interpreted in the context of the present discussion.

When I talk about the separable fields of vision and sound in cinema, or the territorial outline and codified colour in topography, I suggest they give rise to a certain solidity or density of experience, yet they do not necessarily open onto the same reality. In both cases two worlds are in play. Translated into pictorial art these are the worlds of painting and the colour world. Painters, working on a blank plane, have to produce a world. They do not have to reproduce one, as mirrors and cameras are compelled to by their physics. The world produced by the first painters that we know of was a world of animals, a population of bison, antelope, (but not reindeer) scratched into the cave wall. That was their terrain. Matisse’s equivalent world comprises flattened rooms and tipped up tablecloths to which he super-adds a second world of full and active colour.

The paintings in this exhibition displayed a similar structure. Each painter created an invented terrain, of geometry, both loose and tight, of complex interlocking shapes, of a woven space of gestural movement and stasis. On this world they have mapped another in which colour relationships become visible within chosen boundaries: The division of the monochrome, the contrasting material spectrum of earths and artificial pigments, the heraldic palette and the optical tingle of the worked surface, the push and pull of background and foreground, the border between the tonal and the chromatic.

The coexistence of two worlds produced in these paintings, as with the two worlds of vision and sound in the cinema, gives them a particular character. We do not experience them as we do patterns or music or radio or reproductions of the ‘real’ world. After all that, it might be an anti-climax to say to the viewer that they just have to be looked at, which seems too easy. But as well as being looked at, they have to be seen, and moreover, seen as paintings, which is of course, more difficult. 



 I have tried to figure out how colour seems to work in these paintings, but once they are on the gallery walls the issue of context seems more pressing. Outside the studio, on exhibition, they become part of contemporary culture and make a particular bid for attention. Here questions arise because the mode of viewing demanded by abstract painting, which all the artists in this show have internalised, has to be related to the range of viewing practices deployed by contemporary audience in the consumption of other visual material.  The painters know that there was a historical period when abstraction was mainstream and, while agreeing that state of affairs no longer exists, believe that it still can make a valid contribution to visual culture. But for it to matter, there has to be some general public interest in looking at abstract art, otherwise it will not transcend the fatally attractive status of a niche concern.

The public interest defence for abstract painting is that it offers a critique of habitual ways of seeing, ways that are blind to anything but narrative, messages, subject matter, reference, imagery and decoration. This is fine as far as it goes. In current circumstances however the relationship between viewer and painting, the critical distance that exists between them in the encounter, is also significant. It constitutes an alternative model of looking to that offered by many other examples of art that aim to collapse the difference, to bring the viewer closer to the action. The ‘theatricality’ discerned by Michael Fried in his analysis of minimalism has become an even more obvious feature of cultural production in the years since 1967, Carsten Holler’s slide installation at Tate Modern, Test site, 2006-7, being a vivid and easy to remember exemplar. One could call this work an example of ‘immersive art’, borrowing the term from the fairly recent phenomenon of ‘immersive theatre’, whose productions involve audience members directly in the drama. In encounters with immersive art, the spectator, instead of maintaining sovereign critical autonomy, has to convert into a participant as a precondition of gaining access to the gallery experience.

During the run of the exhibition Alfonso Cuarón’s film Gravity (2013), starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney won a number of BAFTA awards, including those for sound and musical score. Compared to Apocalypse Now, Gravity is far more technically sophisticated, using a system that allows the sound designer to place any note or noise at any point in the spherical field encompassing the cinemagoer. 3-D sound, together with the 3-D vision and the exaggerated and weightless back and forth action, places the viewer at the centre of events. Cuarón’s explicit brief given to the music’s composer, Stephen Price, was to create a sense of total immersion so that the cinemagoer ‘would feel like the third astronaut’, able to pass unimpeded through the picture plane of the screen into the fiction in front and behind the projection.

The immersive tendency, the drive to include the spectator in the spectacle, to recruit the audience as the third astronaut, to allow the public to vote on the X Factor contestant, does seem to amount to a social trend that should be critically evaluated and maybe contested. These are mass experiences of course and not likely to be wholly offset by looking at a few abstract paintings. But it is possible to claim that such paintings occupy and keep open an important cultural space and answer an unmet need for diversity and opposition. And if this sounds like a space for losers, it’s possible to interpret other recent cultural interventions as sharing the same critical position, making abstraction seem less isolated. The interventions to which I refer are the Nordic crime TV imports like The Killing or more pertinently, The Bridge.

To an English-speaking viewer The Bridge is systematically anti-immersive. Spread over ten, hour long episodes, the second series builds a particularly dense and functioning world of marriage, parents, children, bosses, colleagues, suspects, perpetrators, victims, urban and rural landscapes, hotel, home and office interiors, and police procedure. The protagonists, one who is clearly on the spectrum while the other is post-traumatic, communicate in two languages, both of which sound ugly and impenetrable. They carry out their investigations in an unappealing half-light and dreary weather, into baffling crimes committed out of uncommon motives by people we don’t recognise as standard villains. The typical UK audience member is not likely to feel part of this world, though the world itself is convincing and its inhabitants are in full possession of it. The viewer feels shut out, kept at bay by Saga Noren’s stare just as Victorine Meurant’s unabashed gaze shuts us out of the demimonde of Manet’s Olympia.

The relative popularity and critical success of these imported TV series suggest that the sense of being shut out is not negative. The experience of foreign-ness prompts the viewer to construct an adapted consciousness, outside the usual routines, in order to deal with a highly visible world to which they are not granted entry. Something similar might have happened in the early sixties when French New Wave cinema had such a strong influence on cultural attitudes and style. As English speakers we have privileged linguistic access to the vast universe of Hollywood and home produced movies and US as well as British TV productions, current and archived, good, bad or indifferent. Faced with the sheer weight of this available material we are maybe fatigued by its very accessibility, as painters in the 19th century got bored with the accessibility of pictorial space and started to put various hindrances in the viewer’s path. As technology makes interactivity and immersion more stunning, as the audience is encouraged to act out the role of the third astronaut, leaving their critical faculties and autonomy in abeyance, survival strategies around distance and estrangement, the sort I associate with abstraction (and The Bridge), may become increasingly useful.