In black and white: the making of grey

Saturday 7 June 2008

The more you look at things the more new things seem to appear, and the more you try to unpack art the more complex it becomes… I’ve never consciously referenced other artists’ methodologies in the making of my work but recently my new paintings were described as Rothkoic… maybe my work does resonate on the scale of objective, non-representational painting, somewhere between the sombre hues of late Rothko and Robert Ryman’s squares.

In an interview on Color, Surface and Meaning Ryman describes the neutrality of white being reactive to the surroundings, unrestrained by a deliberate narrative, the viewer making the physical connections within the space.


Robert Ryman, No Title Required 2006; Jasper Johns, Flag 1958; Mark Rothko, Untitled (black on grey), 1970.

The square is the perfect embodiment of a neutral starting space which brings physical emphasis to the juxtaposition and pairing of surfaces. I too work within a square for its impartiality, with only a rough idea of an image, and of the colours I want to use, the reaction of materials creating the ensuing narrative or symbolism; quoting directly from Ryman, it’s not representing anything else [it is what it is], that is, we will either see something in it or see nothing at all. Ryman is reticent, ambiguous (like his work), revealing very little beyond the basic premise of his work, he leaves it to us to formalise the ideas and create deeper meaning from their context.

Another artist who comes to mind when thinking of objectivity is Jasper Johns and his use of the non-colour grey, as a recent retrospective of his monochromatic works called simply Gray was shown at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. In an interview, he said that the absence of color made the work more physical, the paring down of painting to its substance, a real object. All artists feel a particular intensity about things, such as a colour, texture or form, but not everyone will share this personal vision. However, Rothko, wrongly defined as a colour field painter, remarked that he was not interested in the relationship of color or form or anything else, only in expressing basic human emotions, something akin to a religious or revelatory experience. In his later works 1969-70 a profusion of browns,violets, blacks and greys dominated his paintings, all containing horizontal bands of colour within a portrait format. The painting Untitled (Black on Grey) in the Guggenheim collection, seems one of many with sombre dark, grey tones, and similar to these two works on paper which were up for auction in late 2007 (subsequently selling for $10.75 and $9.5 million).

I’ve heard that painting is dead in the water, very old school, worn down by its shiny new rivals, installation and new media art. I’ve been contemplating of late what justification I can give to pursuing painting in a post-modern art world. In the end, it’s about resonance and connectedness within the work, the visceral as opposed to the political. Yes, contemporary artist, we depend on our senses, and we breathe, communicate and think, and either explicitly (as through video or performance art) or perhaps more subtly through the mediums of painting or sculpture we explore the most fundamental existential themes of life and death… as an artist, it is those grey areas that I find most interesting…