Figuring Light

Colour and the Intangible, catalogue essay by Dr Richard Davey, 2008

← Back

The Fugitive Rainbow
Five billion years ago a molecular cloud wandered through the cold vacuum of space until it was brought into contact with a moment of gravitational instability, which caused its free floating atoms of hydrogen and helium to destabilize and form clusters of dense matter. As the cloud collapsed a star was born, its core of thermo-nuclear fusion radiating out waves of light and energy across the void.

On a clear night, gazing up at the sky, we might chance upon these invisible waves of light. Their particles enter our eyes, penetrating the boundaries of our body to form an intangible bridge that unites us with the stars, eliding the gap between past and present, near and far. As they impact on our retina they stimulate our brain to perceive their source as a distant pinprick of effervescent white; one amongst millions that bespatter the black canvas of the sky with a spectrum of whites tinted with the palest of blues, reds, and yellows. But this tint is frequently overlooked; passed over for the more obvious constellation patterns that give order to the night sky. Yet for scientists these colours are highly significant; contributing to our knowledge of realities that we will never see: a star’s age, composition, and distance from the earth.

However, by day this subtle palette of starlight disappears, obliterated by the intense luminosity of our own star – the Sun. As our brains interpret the evidence from light that is gathered by our eyes the world becomes clothed in an array of rich colours; a seemingly impenetrable skin that lends our experiences a sense of solidity. But whilst it may provide the world with form, substance, and infinite variety, colour is also subversive, allowing intimations of the intangible to enter this material reality.

Rainbows have long been associated with this incursion of otherness into the everyday, providing a moment of wonder that some have interpreted as a sign of divine covenant and promise. Others, however, have seen it as a natural phenomenon, and been inspired to analyse and understand it; to undertake experiments with water filled glass flasks and to sit in darkened rooms lit only by a narrow slit. In 1307 Theodoric of Freiberg, reflecting on his observations of dew-drops collected on a spiders’ web, traced the refracted path of light through the raindrop to the eye. And then, almost four hundred years later, Sir Isaac Newton’s experiments with prisms helped him to identify light as the source of colour sensation, and allowed him to propose the spectrum of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet that even now is used to tame the apparently continuous colours of the rainbow.

Newton’s Opticka, which contained the results of his study of light and colour, was published in 1704. Three hundred years later we now know light travels as electromagnetic waves and that the different primary colours of the spectrum are the result of the differing speeds of these wavelengths. We have also come to accept that an objects’ colour is determined by its ability to reflect, scatter, or absorb these different wavelengths, whilst biologists have identified the three types of colour sensitive receptors, or cones, in the eye that enable us to ‘see’ colour. And more recently, neuro-biologists have even begun to chart the neural processes that transpose the raw data received by these cells into our colour vision.

And yet the systematic theories of objective science cannot fully explain the actual, subjective experience of colour. Outside the laboratory, in the artist’s studio it frequently behaves in ways that contradict the expectations and principles proposed by theory and experiment. As Ludwig Wittgenstein demonstrated in his book, Remarks on Colour [1978], colour defies the limitations of language, and disrupts our desire for universal principals. To every claim, there is a counter claim; a different colour theory, an alternative colour wheel. It is as elusive, and fleeting as a kingfisher’s darting, iridescent flight; a presence that cannot be pinned down, as can be seen in the inconclusive discussions by scientists, artists, and philosophers that have surrounded the identification of the primaries; those pure colours from which all others can be potentially mixed.

There have been many subjective contributions to this debate but none has proved decisively conclusive. The Roman author Pliny identified four primary colours, whereas Newton’s spectrum contained seven. There are three colour receptors in the eye, which are sensitive to the three primary colours of light – red, green, and blue; these form an ‘additive’ triad which when mixed together equally become white. But then those who work with paint or dye replace the green with yellow, and these ‘subtractive’ primaries of red, yellow, and blue, or cyan, magenta and yellow, when equally mixed create a black or very dark, muddy brown. In the early twentieth century A.H.Munsell, Paul Klee and Johannes Itten each developed colour theories that proposed five primaries, whilst Kandinsky worked with six.

The arbitrary nature of our colour experience can be partially explained by the fluid nature of our environment, where the objective passage of light can be refracted and altered by the atmosphere through which it travels and the objects which may impede its path. What is produced as a result is the constantly changing world of colour that bedazzles our eyes. But it can also be explained by recent discoveries made by molecular biologists studying the amino acids in the eye that affect and influence colour vision. They have learnt that miniscule differences in these amino acids can occur between individuals, and as a consequence there is the potential for us all to perceive colour slightly differently. We can therefore never hope to reach a fixed consensus in our investigation of colour. For this we must look to that intangible space of light. It is here, in this invisible territory where colour awaits its birth, that we find the possibility of a universal and objective language.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century the poet John Keats fearfully lamented in his poem Lamia [1819], that

‘Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings, Conquer all mysteries by rule and line, Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine – Unweave a rainbow.’

At the time there was a firm belief that scientific investigation could and would unlock the secrets of the world, shining the bright light of reason and knowledge onto the dark shadows of wonder and mystery. But as we have seen, colour continues to defy our attempts to contain it, remaining an ineffable, elusive, and fleeting reality. It is a paradox that lies beyond the limits of human touch, existing both internally and externally, subjectively and objectively, contained within the invisible electro-magnetic particles of light that traverse space, and realised in the neural pathways of the brain.

Figuring Light
Because of its pervasive presence, and its illusory impression of solidity, we often overlook the fact that colour is a boundary through which we encounter the world; a liminal space that forms a bridge between the tangible and intangible, the subjective and objective. Most studies and discussions by artists, scientists, or philosophers, are concerned with describing and exploring the properties of its physical manifestation, and the processes by which this occurs. But the four artists brought together for this exhibition celebrate and investigate colour because, amongst other things, it allows them to look the other way, providing an intimation of the intangible – a figuring of light.

Throughout the history of human creativity, figuration has been one of the defining aspects of art. Artists have imitated observable realities, and given form to the unseen; to gods and goddesses, heroes and villains, virtues and vices, and a whole range of historical characters and events. Abstraction, on the other hand has been seen to be the very antithesis of figuration; an often self-reflexive exercise that is concerned with the phenomena of colour and pure forms, with the formal practices of art, and the evocation of essential ideas and emotions unsullied by association with particular contexts or identities.

The works in this exhibition by Duncan Bullen, Jane Bustin, Rebecca Partridge, and Richard Kenton Webb challenge such arbitrary distinctions. Although on the surface they are without an obvious subject or discernible narrative, and seem to make no concession towards imitation, this does not mean that they follow the ‘via negativa’ that dominates most forms and definitions of abstraction. For each of these images is in its own way a moment of figuration – an act of embodiment.

Colour is usually used by artists to describe and highlight something else; defining form or providing a works’ emotional and expressive key; a servant of ‘disegno’ that requires an allegorical body or external context for validation. But in these works colour is no-longer a secondary adjective or adverb in the language of art, it has become the subject itself. These canvases and squares of aluminium allow us to engage with it’s ‘qualia’, or intrinsic, ineffable experience, they also allow us to encounter it as a substance through which the intangible presence of light can emerge into the physicality of this world to become a potential source of knowledge, a moment of epistemological revelation.

In giving form to the unseen the process of figuring can be seen as an act of certainty, an attempt to undertake the impossible by fixing the never knowable. But here it is an act of uncertainty, a process of play and experiment, or figuring out; a speculative investigation that reaches out in trust beyond the reassuring solidity of the physical world to bring back shadowy glimpses of the essentially unknowable. And in their tentative, exploratory process of figuring out, of experiment, play, and visual discovery, Bullen, Bustin, Partridge, and Webb each make their own contribution to our knowledge of colour.

Colour and the Trans-immanent.
In 1816 Sir David Brewster invented the kaleidoscope, a simple tube containing mirrors and brightly coloured bead and glass fragments, which was originally intended as a scientific tool. However, it soon became a popular toy with both children and adults, entranced by the moment of magical transformation that occurs when the tube is twisted and the myriad shards of colour cascade and rearrange themselves into shimmering symmetrical patterns.

Despite their artificial and arbitrary origins, a kaleidoscope’s patterns frequently resemble those we find in nature; in tumbling grains of sand, or magnetised iron filings, in the fractal symmetry of a snowflake or fern, in the simple geometry of flower petals, or the playful, constantly changing forms made by the whirlpools and eddies of a fast flowing river; offering in the micro an image of the macro.

It was the Ancient Greeks who first conceived the concept of the microcosm/macrocosm continuum, remarking that the same traits, or patterns, could be observed in entities of different sizes. At its heart was the belief that there is an underlying, unifying principle that connects the whole of existence. Post-modernism, however, has called into question the possibility of transcendent meta-narratives with their promise of overarching universal theories. Instead it celebrates the immanent, focussing on the self and recognizing that we are each the author of our own subjective reality.

The transcendent in contrast is always out of reach, an intangible reality that can never be touched because it lies just beyond; in, or on the other side of, the gap that surrounds us, a gap which can no-longer be entered or crossed. In this void language falls silent, a victim of the inevitable misunderstanding that comes with its own fluidity.

In Rebecca Partridge’s bright, dynamic paintings, however, with their echo of a kaleidoscope’s symmetrical patterns, we find a graphic visualization of the relationship between transcendence and immanence, micro and macro, and ultimately a challenge to the inevitability of our contemporary imprisonment in immanence.

A sense of transcendence is evoked in star bursts of white light, which provide the silent birthplace for crystalline cities of colour. As these brightly coloured cubes and cones thrust out towards the viewer in a moment of swirling, explosive energy they provide a visual equivalence for the journey of light across the void, its’ photons spanning space with an invisible bridge of potential colour.

If the transcendent is always outside of us, then the dark ovals we also find offer an interior moment, an echo of the colour glimpsed inside our head, behind our closed eyelids, the black that momentarily hides the hypnotic whirlpool of coloured shapes that will greet our eye’s entrance into the world.

Transcendence and immanence, micro and macro, caught in apparently irresolvable difference. But light is not just the birth place of colour, it is also its end, the point to which they all return, and black is not the obliteration of our multicoloured world, but its complete integration. To see black, all the wavelengths of light must have been absorbed into the object, in what might be called a moment of ‘trans-immanence’, when our immanent physicality is completely entered by the intangible, transcendence of light. For light does not just bridge the gap, it dissolves it, penetrating the borders of our immanent solidity with invisible colour, so that the distinction between self and other disappears.

Colour as the Poetry of the Body and the Awareness of Otherness
Whether it is to be found in art or nature, our experience of colour is rarely pure. It is almost always mediated through form and contained within linear boundaries that offer their own defining context to our experience of it. When wrapped around the spherical form of its fruit, the colour orange becomes fragrant, sweet and juicy; whilst the gentleness of a powder pink can be overwhelmed by subtle overtones of threat and intimations of violence if it’s edges are jagged and sharp.

Both form and line provide a vital narrative context that allows us to locate ourselves within time and space. But the formless space of pure colour that confronts us in Jane Bustin’s paintings momentarily stops the familiarity of time’s linear narrative, containing it within the closed borders of a rectangular frame.

If we allow our eyes to travel across their surfaces in an attempt to read their narrative, we quickly find them slipping and sliding in a desperate search for a non-existent point of purchase. They cause us to stand on the edge of an abyss which has no discernible end, poised in a moment of visual vulnerability. It is only when we stop our eyes from reading the image, and we allow them to stand still that we find a point of entry, the ‘white rabbit’ hole that will take us into the ‘wonderland’ of pure colour; for although colour is the vehicle through which we enter into this world and into time, it also provides the means by which we can step outside of it.

In the different time zone of these paintings we find another way of looking. For when our eyes are rested, no longer having to chase the headlong rush of the world’s linear, temporal narrative the rest of us begins to slow down. Our breathing slows and we become more aware of our bodies, of our senses tingling in anticipation, waiting for the subtlest prompt. We then begin to look with our whole being. We start to taste colour, to smell it, to hear it, to feel it, and in doing so we are reminded that despite its apparent existence outside of ourselves, the process of seeing colour is in fact a physical one, taking place in our eyes and in the neural pathways of the brain and therefore connected to the whole of our being.

The slowed response that these paintings call for in the viewer echoes the slow reading demanded by poetic texts. Whilst we can gather an initial response by quickly scanning the page, it takes time to properly relish the flow and rhythm of each word and to unravel their layers of meaning. In the same way, these poems of pure colour call us to explore their depths rather than their surface, to revel in their beauty and unique character. As we lose time in them we become aware of the subtle effects, both physical and emotional, that they cause in us. And freed from the imposed readings of external forms and patterns we can begin to make our own associations, and to attach our own memories to the colours we find.

Yet even the simplest poem will contain some form of narrative, and this is also true of Bustin’s paintings, for the internal division that separates the two halves of the work with their different tones, surfaces, or materials creates a subtle emotional frisson. It is a moment of interaction that forms the simplest form of narrative – the narrative of difference – as the self becomes aware of the other, and in the process begins to see itself more clearly. Colour allows us to see difference, but as Partridge’s paintings remind us, colour is also to be found in the invisible bridge of rainbow light that spans the gap between the self and the other, and so whilst setting us apart it is also the means of our inter-connection.

The Form and Movement of Colour
For Bustin, the true identity of colour is only revealed when it is without form, separated from the influence of external, subjective narratives. Richard Webb, in contrast, thinks that it is only through form, through its physical essence, that the true nature of each colour can be discovered.

In our industrialized world most artists have become separated from the physical origins of the colours that they use. They come neatly packaged in tubes of an ever-increasing range of tones, only their names offering a hint of their origins. But before the development of mechanically produced, chemical colour, painters relied on the natural world for their palette, searching for precious lapis lazuli to produce the richest of blues, scraping verdigris from copper to find the vibrant green that has now faded to the autumnal brown that we find in the landscapes of Lorraine and many other Old Masters, or risking death to obtain red from mercury.

It is to these natural sources that Webb returns, creating his own pigments in order to truly know their individual identities. On the canvas these natural, pure, unmixed colours become a luscious, rich, physical presence, which when placed in juxtaposition with others of the same family allow the uniqueness of each red to be seen. The physicality of these colours seems reinforced by the forms which emerge, their patterns both familiar and strange; moulds and enclosures, chambers and propellers that seem to subtly evoke the natural landscape from which these pigments were born. But these physical forms are in reality the key to colour’s release from the limitations of its physical prison, providing a glimpse of what Webb believes to be its universal, invisible form.

At the beginning of the twentieth century both Itten and Kandinsky proposed that every colour has its own unique, unseen form, associating red with a square, yellow with a triangle, and blue with a circle. Webb’s forms are very different, however, for they are merely a subjective vehicle through which he ‘figures out’ the unique quality of movement that lies at their heart.

We may associate physical, visible colour with static forms, but contained within light, invisible colour travels on electromagnetic waves through space, each moving at its own unique speed, activating the atoms around them into a sympathetic rhythm, an imperceptible, distinct pulse that sends a constant shiver through the world.

Rhythm implies sound and music, and it is only natural therefore that for Webb these works should be seen as songs; improvisations and variations on the theme of red that are figured out in drawings, paintings, and sculptures which offer no definitive, or final authoritative form, only a gentle whisper. It is a whisper that reveals the rhythmic pulse at the heart of colour; the music and dance that causes it never to be static, but always dynamic and active, eluding our touch.

Colour and Wonder
When viewed from a distance the surfaces of Duncan Bullens’ drawings seem to move like wind rippled grass, or tide sculpted sand, shivering with luminous energy as they tease the eye with forms and colours that constantly fall in and out of focus – their proffered haloes of iridescence defying our attempts to grasp them. But stand in the artist’s space – at arms length to the gesso surface – and these nebulous, intriguing effects disappear. In their place we are confronted by something more tangible and physical – grids and chequer-boards of individually drawn dots that cover the subtly tinted gesso surface with a fine net of colour.

Each of these silverpoint and coloured pencil marks is a unique record of an individual, creative gesture; a coiled burst of residual physical energy. Each has its own distinctive quality, with some an authoritative full stop, others a more dynamic, circular flick. But, however fascinating and compelling these dots are, we are soon drawn to step back and find that tipping point of wonder where the physical mechanics of the work vanish into a mist of coloured light.

Like the eighteenth century cabinet of curiosities, these drawings are a contained space of wonder in which the mesh of coloured dots drag the ineffable, intangible presence of light into the physical reality of this world to playfully dance before our eyes. For Socrates and Descartes, wonder was the starting point for knowledge, the instigator of that analytical process by which the mysteries of the world can be understood and tamed by the human mind.

Usually the acquisition of knowledge leads to the loss of wonder, but when the starting point of wonder is colour the journey into knowledge need have no end, no moment of disenchantment. For as Bullen’s drawings remind us, even when we have uncovered its mechanics and discovered its physical properties, colour still brings us back to wander in wonder and marvel in mystery. The coloured marks that activate these gesso surfaces generate instances of the insubstantial, the inexplicable, the mysterious, and the marvellous as stable entities, the end product of knowledge rather than its starting point.

Einstein once said that,

‘The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion, which stands at the cradle of true art and science. Whoever does not know it can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed.’

Colour can keep us alive – for it brings into our experience of the ordinary and the everyday instances of wonder and mystery.

Colour is a persistent presence, a background harmony that helps to define our experience of the world. But beneath this apparent solidity is a hidden spectrum, one that beats with the world’s silent pulse, and crosses the space between us with a rainbow bridge, its quick silver wonder constantly evading our petrifying grasp. For in the substance of colour is a figuring of light, a drawing into our reality of those intangibles that otherwise elude us; a space of trans-immanence occupying the world’s boundaries, allowing us to reach beyond the limitations of our physical, subjective bodies to embark on a journey across time and space as an inter-connected part of the universe.