Colour as Material

This talk is about the way that colour is used in painting as a material presence. 
I am suggesting TOUCH and INTENTION as an alternative set of terms for artists rather than simply talking about form and content. I am suggesting in this way that touch is a material presence in colour no matter what the form and that intention is what painters perform and engage with very often,  well before content establishes itself.

Paint offers always itself primarily as material and it is the presentation of its materiality that informs the meaning and significance of the colour. I am interested in the way we read touch through marks and what that aspect of touch can signify.
There is tendency to consume art mediated through the screen via websites or in reproduction. This homogenises the surface and the sense of touch is lost.
The painters mark is created by what we call gesture.

That gesture may be a very small event created by a size 0 sable brush using a measured amount of paint at a very particularly mixed consistency  or it can be brash pushing the bristles with a heavy movement, paint overladen , consistency runny and out of control. It can be any amount of these variations and always controlled particularly when it is out of control.

As it,the gesture, meets the material called paint. this combination or event can be created in a million different ways and this impacts on the reception of the recording of that colour.
A strong gesture may be received as theatrical or merely a precisely made but quick removal of what lies underneath.

James Elkins described something about this in his book “What Painting Is” He related making paintings to alchemy..     In Chicago when this book came out , all the artists I met were excited by Elkins book because here was someone talking about the substance .  As I see it, this art of knowing substance is also, importantly, something we all are continually involved with whether we are making a piece of knitting or laying a wall .......perhaps particularly when we are laying a wall without the benefit of a spirit level. When you are balancing the bricks one on top of another. From this very basic but important task of engaging with substance we have the possibility to imagine and to intuitively work with the material.

There is an impulse to connect with the material intuitively as we become familiar with our task and from that intuitive link we can begin to build a very different relationship . For some it is enough to enjoy the rhythm of a set piece. A pattern that may be enjoyed again and again. And even from that banal rhythm new events can begin to happen if it interests you to see them. A part of that connection seems to be a very particular relationship with the material you select no matter what : wool, steel, ceramic or paint.

to make art you also have to be a good viewer.

We invent ways of thinking about the world. We call what we think are the best of these ways, art. With each art form we consume not only the object or event itself but the way it is made. The context.

With theatre we are aware of the rehearsals and discipline involved we get involved in who the actor is how she uses a difference or similarity to the character, we are interested in the way the film is made, the context or inspiration of the music we like, we are in a continual state of researching, building our own set of references.

As viewers we are in a continual state of building, making and replacing.

In his book  The Craftsman Richard Sennett talks about the time in theatre when a division occurred between the spectator and the performer. At one time people would step up to the front and dance or sing or play for others and then step back to watch the next person. By the time of Aristotle actors and dancers had become a separate caste. Sennett refers to Myles Burnyeat’s theory of “seeing with THE MINDS EYE” understanding seperated from doing. As an audience we develop skills of interpretation Sennett says the craftsman engaged with materials does not suffer the divide of seeing with the minds eye  he says:

“His or her arousal is complete.”
The term arousal like sensation is allied to feelings or the experiential.

This thinking through doing is referred to time and again by artists.
For Matisse it is about submission to the spirit of the picture.

He says:
“Suppose I have to paint an interior: I have before me a cupboard; it gives me a sensation of a vivid red, and I set down a red which satisfies me. A relationship is established between this red and the white of the canvas. Whether I put a green near the red or render the parquet by a yellow, there will be relationships between the green or the yellow and the white of the canvas which will satisfy me. But these different tones mutually diminish one another. It is necessary that the various signs I employ be balanced in such a way that they do not destroy one another. To do this I must order my thinking; the relationship between the tones will be such that it will sustain rather than weaken them.”

From the slide we get a very different sensation than in front of the work. And what is annoying is when the work is protected by perspex or glass. It is the difference between looking through the window of the car and getting out and seeing .

Donald Judd is more hands off but working with the same problem he says:
 “….Colour is so unknown it would have to start with a spot. How large is it? Is it on a flat surface? How large is that? What colour is that? What colour is the spot? Red. If a second spot is placed on the surface what colour is it?Black?What if both spots were red, or black?How far away is the black from the red spot? Enough for these to be two discrete spots , one red and one black? Or near enough for there to be a pair of spots red and black? Or apart enough for this to be uncertain?...” He goes on at length
What one engages with when you are faced with a Judd is its material presence. Whether it is plywood, chrome or perspex.

The first exhibition in this gallery was Building with Colour  Dr Malcolm Gee in his catalogue essay uses the following description as a way to describe abstract works
 “.....the result of procedures and strategies through which artists have invented fresh aesthetic systems – clusters of signs- drawing on their knowledge ,experience, interests and instincts. An effective work is one that engages the viewer sensually and/or intellectually, consciously or unconsciously to interiorise the process by which the artist has turned raw material into a structured whole engaging with representing their feeling and knowledge of the world.”

It is a good description and I would say that one of the most vital elements within that cluster of signs that the viewer claims to read is touch.
In painting we have perhaps the most basic of art forms, the child is often made as a reference point for bad art “A child could do that” we dont use that comparison with other art forms so much.  The material we use sometimes becomes the poetic but paint always remains material, what Mark Rothko referred to as coloured dirt. We read it as we read all material from the moment we put our finger into soil.

David Batchelor has written about chromophobia . The desire to turn away from the subjective , the desire to remain free of the messy love of colour and keep art clean , cool and monochrome.
Like many contemporary artists who engage with colour Batchelors work is nevertheless presented through the cool materials of mass media, light boxes and  more recently cheap plastic items found in pound shops.

In my short essay in the catalogue Building with Colour , I touched on the interest of contemporary artists who wanted to revisit the colour and patterns of the 60's and 70,s and think about the way it was made. Some are remaking them but maybe slicker with shiney and efficient materials or with old fashioned egg tempera instead of acrylic. Mary Heilman led us into the possibility of letting go with the paint. This engagement with material seems to be answering a need to touch the real. It is not necessarily connected to the thick existential mass of paint squeezed out in Auerbachs work. Nor is it necessarily a need to know each pigment and its characteristics . But it is certainly evidenced by an interest in the possibilities offered by traditional materials and working methods as well as new ones. IMAGE FOR PUCCI
For myself it has been important for me to look at the traditional ways of making a gesso ground as well as looking at the possibilities of turning the wall that holds the image inside out. Through challenging my own presumptions about the materials and methods I use I can begin to refer to the fragile state of our production , our social order, our impulse to remake the world in our own image.

So much for Touch what about intention ?
I said that intention is what painters perform and engage with before content establishes itself. It can lead us into the creation of works that are significant to us because they help us to find purpose. Its a funny thing to be doing. Most of the time we dont know why we are doing it. The two videos I showed earlier were these kind of touchstones. They point to something that cannot necessarily be articulated literally within other work.

So intention can be found through looking at our experience of the world it can also be found in our experience of our art or craft. What we think of the way things are being said or made or thought about within the medium of painting. Modernism and Postmodernism were termed to name an attitude to the way things are understood in art but that reviewing of how things are understood continues beyond those terms. Without that reflection on the way art itself is made we become sterile and what Greenberg termed kitsch.

As we all know the unique mark, the painters touch can be as insignificant and devoid of meaning as the mass produced. It is also the case that the mass produced mark can become as uniquely interesting as the crafted.
The crafted mark can be made deliberately banal

The cliché can become interesting.

Why is Heilmans runny sort of modernism interesting?

Every year for the last ten years I have given a talk to new students at BALTIC and I always use a quote by DeKooning that Painting is a space and as painters we fill that space with attitude. The reason I use this quote is because it encompasses that description of Dr Malcolm Gees
The invention of:   “ fresh aesthetic systems – clusters of signs- drawing on their knowledge ,experience, interests and instincts.”

knowledge ,experience, interests and instincts create attitude and this attitude we detect particularly in the young and the old in different ways. The experience of youth is reactive experimental sometimes gloriously ill informed and enthusiastic this allows the young to find attitude.
The experience of age offers another side of the coin; that of challenge of working without a care for any authority but your own. Old age allowed Titian to use his touch, his brush and dilution, to find colour and form through the materiality of the paint.

Hb 2012

Helen Baker
April, 2012