Uneasiness of Colour

Catalogue essay by Filip Lipiński, 2009

← Back

“Colour is not an easy matter” rightly asserted Umberto Eco. Hence, to explore colour with so little “uneasiness”, the way Rebecca Partridge does, is quite a daring enterprise.

Colour has often been treated with a great deal of reserve. Aristotle believed its role was merely ornamental and supplementary to line, and Kant marginalized it as something harmless and graceful, but, again, which no substantial use or meaning. Hues in art have been associated with the feminine, subjective and emotional,  hence – from the patriarchal point of view – uncontrollable, elusive, but also threatening. Colour seems to embody the energy of the fantastic, imaginary or – just remember the 1960’s adventures with LSD – hallucinogenic. Colour, one can say, is dangerous and untrustworthy, because, instead of being thought – as Walter Benjamin put it – it must be seen. “The colour has not yet been named” wrote Jacques Derrida, splitting the context of this sentence with a suggestion of the elusive, arbitrary quality of capturing colours in words and impossibility of attaching specific meaning to values of colour. To name a colour precisely would mean to master it, deprive it of its energy, make it fade, as it were. For those who like to have things in control colour is a trouble-maker: it overflows, eludes, tricks and stupefies; potentially dangerous, leads to what David Batchelor called chromophobia –  a kind of colour angst. There have been different attempts to take control of this uneasy quality, get rid of its spiritual and expressive (Kandinsky) connotations. One of them was art inspired by a colour chart with its modernist grid structuring and “objectifying” colour as an industrial product. Chart-like works were produced for instance by Elsworth Kelly or, a little later, Gerhard Richter. Frank Stella, painting his geometrical canvases, wanted his paint to be as good as the one in a can. Another way of disciplining colour is science. However, the diversity of systematizations and little unanimity as for the criteria of the scientific approach to colour in art leaves, sometimes literally, this slippery and sticky matter an open field for further artistic investigation.

It is interesting, then, to look at Rebecca’s Partridge’s paintings as an attempt to take a stance on this uneasy issue. It seems the artist found her ways to handle colour by neither letting it go freely, nor reifying or straight-jacketing it in absolute, planar, geometrical structures. It is so because, in a sense, she paints light rather than colour or, more precisely, the mechanism of interaction between differently coloured light and not substantial pigments. Painting light requires choosing a “receptacle”, a form of its visibility, matter against which it refracts to become visible as form and colour. In these works the vehicle of light is a sumptuous constellation of intersecting and overlapping tetragonal units creating illusion of spatial vortices, which draw the viewer’s gaze into their centre: the black, non-colour, potentially saturated with all colours. These geometrical forms create a dynamic structure of overlapping colours which interact and mix, suggestive of being transparent, made of glass, as it were.

The visible identity of colour is paradoxical. It is a result of a clash between pigments of matter and wavelengths of light of certain frequency. The matter refracts wavelengths responsible for a given colour, which means, precisely, that, for example, the red colour is everything but red – its redness is the light, its redness is beyond the object: it is the light in the viewer’s eyes. However, these paintings are an attempt to grasp colour and light on two levels: catch the light “red handed” in the variety of colours used “as they are” on the canvas and spell out the working of coloured light at the expense of a “natural” interaction of paint as physical substance. Put differently, diverse colours of paint on the canvas renounce their relationships, “intimacy” between one another for the sake of the way coloured light behaves. And let me rephrase it once again: it is as if the colour of paint had to sacrifice its identity and play the role of the colour of light on the stage of the canvas.

Therefore colour in Partridge’s works is burdened with the task of re-presentation and not direct presentation. The effect of overlapping of colours must take place in the mind of the artist (and the viewer), dictated by the colour wheel (even if the decisions about individual colours are taken instinctively and spontaneously), conceptually, as it were – blindly. The artist tells the truth about the science of colour lying about the pigments. The undecidable dialectics of truth and lie takes place where the tetragons seem to overlap, which, again, is an elaborate illusion of the painting. The metaphorical lie and blindness are by no means anything negative: on the contrary, they give the painting a captivating conceptual and visual texture, tightly interweave different registers of looking and thinking about colour and light.

The coloured tetragons seem to be moving and create a vortex, like a whirlwind of colour which appears to be coming closer, opening up and finally to have the potential of sucking the viewer in. However, in the latest paintings one central vortex (featuring previous works) has been doubled or tripled and decentred. The canvas becomes an area for the vortices to coexist and interact in a way similar to the tetragons: they have to share the restricted space, “touch” one another, and the limitation of the surface of the canvas adds to their dynamics. They make the viewer more aware of his/her gaze rather than whole body (which was the case in individual, central compositions). They return it. This reciprocity exerts a different kind of pressure: one of being looked at while looking. What is constructed here, is another kind of interaction, now between the viewer and the object looking back. The source of the gaze in the picture is the negative, black, star-like eye, simultaneously the ground and void: no light, zero refraction. But the dynamics of the gaze directed towards the viewer in the painting consist in precisely the opposite – the whirl of light manifested by colour.

There is another way to approach the painting: through the close-up. When the viewer is standing closely in front of the canvas s/he loses the track of the spatial structure of the vortex (note: when looked at from certain distance one can tell the intricate system of the apparently random configuration of the coloured whirls).  Proximity to the canvas makes the viewer lose track of spatiality of forms and the patterns of colour reunite as flat, multicoloured surface. Forgetful of the laws of light and space, liberated of the scientific gaze the viewer experiences “a kind of bliss” as Roland Barthes once described colour. This is the moment where the colour is reconstituted as paint, with the additional sensation of its delicate texture enriching the experience of the painting with tactility.

Rebecca’s Partridge’s works seem to be about the tension between the attempt to discipline colour (and light) and joyfully play with it, spatialize it and render it flat, subordinate and liberate. In a unique way she lets the viewer experience colour in painting on different levels, without his/her getting dirty – neither physically nor visually, or emotionally.