In a somewhat questionable marketing endeavour, the Eastern Cape Region has been sign posted, ‘Frontier Country’ and indeed this is what it is. Historically it is the site of the 9 Frontier Wars and much brutal conflict and living here presently can still seem the edge of nowhere by comparison to many major South African metropols. With Grahamstown at the heart of it, it is also a cosmopolitan space not without vestiges of past pain but - like many colonial outposts in a post-colonial time - it is no longer a satellite to an absent motherland, a mere microcosm of elsewhere, but also a world unto itself.

A potential space of intellectual, debate rather than military conflict – geographically isolated from metropolitan trends – a melting pot of many places, a crucible. In more recent history, this frontier space has been a site of culture, of experiment. Home to an annual arts festival, how is it that Grahamstown with a population of just under 140 000 can command so much creative imagination in novels, plays, poetry and art? Frontier, Border, at the end of the world but not about to fall off – merely at a vantage point to observe a view to come.
- Rat Western

DISCHARGE 2012             COLOUR COLLOQUIUM 2010             SYNTHETIC DIRT 2011

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Mark Hipper: A Shifting Discolour: Chromatic Grey

Luc Tuymans, Der diagnostische
Blick IV, 1992, oil on canvas, 57 x 38cm
Luc Tuymans is well known for his reduced, greyed and etiolated palette. In his 1992 painting Der diagnostische Blick 4 the immediate focus of our gaze are the intense blue eyes that gaze back at us. The blue of these eyes is incongruous for being chromatically purer and more intense than the rest of this face, elaborated in subdued and broken greys. This blue is disturbing, even disconcerting. The chromatic relations established by this dissonance are deliberately ambiguated and complex. Here,blue, that most calming and pacific of colours, has become creepy, cold, mineral, inhuman amongst the wan chromatic greys surrounding it.

Is it the uncanny blue eyes that are disturbing, or is it the otherwise reduced chromatic palette of the face? I would suggest that it is both these elements, the interface of these unexpected and unlikely chromatic relations that unsettle and mark our interaction with this painting. Drawn from a series of paintings titled Der diagnostische Blick (“the diagnostic gaze”), this is however not an otherwise monochromatic painting. Instead Tuymans has mixed these greys from any number of hues available to him and in different areas of this painting these greys tend toward ochre, and even maroon of the lips. In an interview the artist said of this series of paintings: “Sickness should appear in the way the painting is made, and have that sickness thrown back at the viewer… The title is very important because it’s about diagnosing an image” (p.22).

Of another painting, entitled Resentment (1995),Tuymans remarked: “It is based on photography. In the 1970s there was this trend to combine nature and human faces, it was a sort of romantic thing. In this painting I just show the eyes, not the whole face. It’s very cinematic because it looks as if it is fading away” (p.10). What interests me in this reference to cinema is not the idea of a shift of scene in the fade-out, but more precisely how the idea of cinema as image in motion suggests the flux and shifts of colour particular to the painter’s palette. Tuymans clearly works from photographic imagery, a static, fixed image, but he discusses his work in relation to the idea of reality as mediated through images and at the same time as something mimetic, something distorted and altered through memory, always in flux, moving – light not arrested but continually mutating and altering. Tuymans palette of chromatic greys and their subtle shifts towards a variety of chromatic keys seems an eloquent tool to elaborate these ideas in.

In his 2001 painting Pigeons, Tuymans allows more chromatic diversity to enter towards the foreground of the image, while the further reaches of the image tend towards the more monochromatic space of shadow and tonal shifts. There are parallels between Tuymans’s work and many of the paintings produced by Gerhard Richter. Richter’s early black, white and grey paintings are based on a variety of print media and similarly refer to a world mediated by images in newspapers and other black and white print media. The banality of these earlier paintings are, however, far more ironic than the charged images by Tuymans, and they are less acidic and searing for their relative lack of chromatic variation. Instead we are used to these tonal greys and the deadpan dullness of their reference.

What I have always found extraordinary in perusing some of the literature available on colour theory is that it appears to have been long accepted that the tonal scale between black and white is a single linear series and that all greys are merely admixtures of black and white. At least that is the case for all colour wheels, handbooks and industrial standards in use that I have come across. Black and white photography translates the hues of our perceived world into a tonal scale and we are inclined to believe that scale is pure, that tonality is separable from hue, but even the silver oxide of the photographic paper varies and can be warm or cold, or lean towards sepia.

Grey is, we think, monochromatic, dull, colourless – the world of colour etiolated and reduced to a tonal scale. Reduced, that is, to a gradation of tone between white and black. This understanding of grey, however, is an artificial construct, a scale of measurement for the purpose of classification and order within a theory of light and colour, and the industries that need standardised products. There are indeed greys such as these that are dead, synthetic, plastic, chemical and inert. But even charcoal, charred willow, is never monochromatic, but instead offers the user unexpected warm brown and ochre tones, burnt oxides and chemical residues that have charred to a variety of brown and grey tones that are never black or uniform.

Robert Hodgins, Clubmen of
America: Wall Street, 2001, oil on
canvas, 91 x 122 cm
Using complimentary colours such as red and green or yellow and purple and adding white most readily mixes a chromatic grey. These chromatic greys are not as inert as a grey mixed from black and white and will shift in chromatic key in relation to the colours alongside them.

To remind you all of this I made an effort at reproducing this phenomenon. It is a failed effort, yet interesting for this failure. The computer screen and projected light and colour react quite differently from refracted light. And it seems a worthwhile point to remind ourselves that colour wheels do not really offer the artist/painter a reliable palette to work with. The pigments available to us are always – even with today’s synthetically designed pigments – limited. I presume we all know how a grey mixed from black and white differs from a grey that is simply a thinned black. It is precisely these differences of chromatic register that Tuymans continuously explores in ways that disrupt the viewer’s sense of chromatic coherence or tone, for want of a better word.

Derek Jarman says of brown that it confuses theorists and that it is conspicuous by its absence in colour books. He quotes Wittgenstein, who said: “There are no physical stimuli for brown – no brown light. Brown is not in the spectrum. There is no such thing as a clear brown, only a muddy one” (Jarman, p.79). This observation might also have been made in regard to chromatic greys. Both browns and greys have the common characteristic of reflecting at the same time a complex variety of hues, that is light waves, and for this reason these ‘colours’ are complex, dense and rich in ways that the colours of the spectrum are not. Browns and greys are polychromatic, that is, they reflect more than one wavelength of light at the same time. And because of this complex mixture of coloured light that defines these ranges of colours, they are both associated with the ‘muddying’ of light. And it is this impurity, this muddied yet complex chroma that is the subject of this paper.
Zola Toyi, Landscape, 2000,
gouache on paper, 51 x 73cm.
Photo: Mark Hipper
Zola Toyi is a local painter who I sponsored many years ago by not only providing him with a studio but also with paper and imported gouache paints with which to work. Within a week or two of receiving these large tubs of beautifully hued paints Toyi had filled the wall-to-wall shelving of his studio with glass bottles and jars of prepared mixtures. All the primary and secondary colours, all the intense and vivid colours that he had been given had been mixed into barely distinguishable variations of browns and greys.

I was a little dismayed by this irreverence in regard to the expensive cadmium reds and yellows and the luminous blues and greens that had summarily been reduced to these earthen tones, until he proceeded to show me some of the paintings that he had finished. And what revealed itself here was deliberation,even obsession in this initially perceived madness. This was Toyi’s palette: warm, rich, subdued and muted. A reduced chromatic scale that belied or denied the European palette of the artist quality paints from which he had mixed them and which instead elaborated harmonies and subtleties that were extraordinarily sophisticated, rich, refined and complex.

In a clearly reduced palette, Toyi painted an Eastern Cape landscape, grey euphorbia against a vaguely pinkish brown, modulated only by the brushstroke with which he has applied the paint, thinned here and there into smeared washes. If there are hills in his image then there is also a sky and that sky is of the same hue as the hills and earth. I am wary of asking Toyi questions regarding his paintings – his language is colour. He does not speak English, and his Xhosa is barely comprehensible, and only to those that have been close to him (his now deceased father, a brother and Nyaniso Lindi, a friend and fellow artist). It is a barren, stark image for this reduced palette, as though he has whittled away all but the bare forms of a landscape familiar to him. The many portraits and township scenes he painted have a more heightened chromatic richness,including muddied blues, orange, maroon and greens.

Toyi also painted a domestic cat. There is a richness in the shifts in chromatic values that come with thinning a grey to a wash, and a sensitivity to the modulations of a chromatic grey that appears variably greenish, yellowish or mauve (or maroon). It is a register of hues that is not naturalistic, but is nonetheless of observed local colour, colours noticed in the environment Toyi lives in, transposed and manipulated into his images.

Grey, as part of the chromatic field, is far more interestingly the mixture of all colours into something quite other and far more subtle, complex and ambiguous. Chromatic greys are made up of all colours and ascribing to them a singular chromatic identity is confounded by the shifting reflection, and suggestion, of hue that marks them. They are translucent, opaque, ambivalent, dense and rich with the echoes and reduced properties of all the colours of the spectrum.

Mixing all the colours on a palette together will give one some form of brown or grey. Each hue is broken by the others and the light reflected by this dulled mixture is reduced and conflicted by the other hues that form its component parts. At the end of a days painting I used to scrape together all the left over blobs of paint on my palette, and adding a little white and derived some pleasure in mixing these colours into the richness of a gleaming grey which on occasion offered a useful complimentary contrast to areas of the painting in progress.

My own most recent paintings have been in a grey palette. This grey is mixed from browns, black and white to invoke or suggest the grime, dirt and dust that collect on un-wiped surfaces. The matter that Duchamp made use of in his The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) (1915-23), the residue and sediment of time that dulls the clarity and purity of colour, and the contrast of black and white that etiolates and removes the image from our immediate frame of reference. The grey ash from a charcoal fire mixed with water will turn a warm brown, like that of wilted leaves and flowers; it is a chromatic resting point, a residue.

All colours, particularly in a painting, are modified by those around it and a chromatic grey, like a chromatic scale in music, offers a richness that is unbounded by our usual understanding and recognition of colour. As a palette it is colour mediated and removed from the immediate sensory experience of the world. A shadow is never black; a shadow is the greying of light, a subdued or reduced reflection of the light. In a shadow there is always reflected light, muted light, and therefore colours that are now muddied and greyed and less brilliant for the reduction of light. Herein lies the magic, a world of hues and chromatic subtlety that in our age of chromatic intensity is rarely acknowledged or perceived.

One of the greatest colourists and painters of recent times, Robert Hodgins also, once in a while, reduced his palette to a chromatic range of greys and black and white, as in his painting, Clubmen of America: Wall Street (2001). His greys sing to me like any other colour can.

Mark Hipper was an artist and senior lecturer in the Department of Fine Art at Rhodes University.  Mark passed away in August 2010.

Roald Nasgaard, Gerhard Richter: Paintings (London: Thames
and Hudson, 1988).
Derek Jarman, Chroma: A Book of Colour (London: Overlook
TP, 1996).
Ulrich Loock, Luc Tuymans (New York: Phaidon Press, 1996).
Robert Hodgins, Robert Hodgins (Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2002).

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