Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Cyan is the Loneliest Color

NOTE: This piece ran originally at The Huffington Post. I apologize for discontinuities between my ordinary writing voice at this blog, and the way I write over there. I'm still tinkering with this issue.


Here and there, we eventually run into snippets of the history of painting reacting to photography:

Degas, reference photograph and painting, see image credits at end

Painters are still evaluating what photography means to their work. But the wheels of technology have rolled on. The television monitor and billboard updated the challenge to painting, and Andy Warhol, for one, responded noisily to this challenge. But even the unendingly modern, biblical-present glare of his fame is technologically obsolete. Today artists have got computers to deal with as well.

Let's look at three painters who are responding to the image-making qualities of the computer. It would have been possible to meaningfully say "computer" anytime in the past seventy years. But I'm not talking about a chattering mainframe heating up the third floor at Bell Labs. I'm talking about the computers you and I use: laptops equipped with Adobe software, high-speed internet connections, and crappy integral webcams. I'm talking about Skype.

Response to a medium involves an appreciation of the native capacities, aesthetics and themes of that medium. The responder may appropriate some of those qualities, or alter them, or reject them. The three artists we're looking at produce work which is formally similar, but which illustrates three distinct responses to Skype.

First on our survey is Charlie Hankin.

Charlie Hankin, Mickey, 2011, oil on panel, 16"x20"

Several elements of this image are broadly recognizable. We have here your basic bandana-wearing hipster in a post-collegiate apartment with a ceiling fan. You can almost sense the beige wall-to-wall carpeting. Our hipster has that distinctive pale blue light on his glasses lenses. He's looking at a computer monitor. This is a low angle image: the monitor is below him. It's the monitor of an opened laptop.

We look at this image, and we can make a good guess that he's Skyping. Skype was born in 2003. The long-anticipated science fiction scenario of video telephones has only been widely available for a few years. But in that time, it has become ubiquitous. It has its own distinct visual paradigm, and awareness of the paradigm has quietly settled, like so much other techno-cultural debris, into our consciousness: the random room background, the slightly off-axis gaze, the frontal reflected glow of the computer monitor.

Have another Hankin:

Charlie Hankin, Robin, 2011, oil and acrylic on panel, 5"x5"

Same deal. We see Hankin responding in a pictorial sense to the construction of space and depiction of figure in an emerging technology. But he's responding, in a startling way, at a deep procedural level as well. These paintings are painted in CMYK.

A little explanation: painters can and do mix colors any number of ways. Many start with the primaries you heard of in grade school, yellow, red, and blue, and throw in a white, brown, and black, and make all the colors they need by mixing those. Others depend on a red-heavy palette. Some have palettes with twelve colors, or thirty.

Computer printers, on the other hand, all work more or less the same way, by mixing various proportions of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black (acronymed as CMYK). Throw in the white of the underlying paper, and the printer has a complete color space on its hands:

via Wikipedia, links at end

In this image, a color photograph is broken down into the cyan, magenta, yellow, and black components which are combined in print to produce it.

Hankin has a background in mathematics, and the "long walk" of mixing colors for painting seemed counterintuitive to him when he began painting. It has extra steps; it's visceral and inexact. Printers do it much more sensibly - the computer figures out percentages of each of four inks for each dot, and boom: full spectrum. So he just decided to paint like that.

If you're a painter, you will understand how deeply bizarre this is. Trust me, folks, I've been to this guy's studio, and he literally has stripes of four paint colors right there on his palette. He mixes them carefully until he has the right browns, oranges, greens. He's not an automaton - the full spectrum of aesthetic choices informs exactly how he paints what he paints. Paint is subtler than Photoshop.

But the legitimacy of the mode does not efface the procedure:

Charlie Hankin, Hayden, 2011, oil on panel, 5"x5"

His colors do not look like normal painting colors. They are precise and clean; they are full, but cold. In fact, they have the icy crispness of the monitor. There is something deeply unnerving about a color universe without the messy warmth of your siennas, your umbers, your ochres. Hankin's work is not only about the impact of the computer on what we look at. It is also about how the computer forces us to see it. His work delves into the deep epistemology of the figure in the age of Skype.

Now we move on to Katy Diamond Hamer.

Katy Diamond Hamer, Stephanie (Aka Lady Gaga), 2010, Acrylic on canvas, 48"x48"

Hamer focuses here on a moment you will know, if you Skype - the moment the goddamn transmission falls apart. Often a moment of emotional intensity when it would really be better if you could keep communicating clearly.

I have a friend who once asked me if it were possible to make some kind of interesting, interpretive painting based on the JPEGiness of JPEG's. I said that I didn't think so, because to capture the quality that makes it JPEGy in the first place, you'd have to so mechanize the process that it would become boring. So anyhow, Hamer proved me wrong.

Katy Diamond Hamer, Paciunko (aka Igor), 2010, Acrylic on canvas, 48"x60"

Hamer takes JPEGiness as her inspiration here. The decomposition of parts of the image into rectilinear blocks is immediately recognizable, but not slavishly copied. She is riffing on the JPEG in the key of expressionism. She bends the qualities of the JPEG, and of the faulty data flow, to emotionally heighten a story. The story is the eerie double-facedness of overlapping partial frames. The emotions are confusion, separation, alienation. The story is specific to the Skype medium. There is an unbridgeable distance embedded in the medium itself. And it is always announced by that wretched cyan, the color of monitor reflection glow, the loneliest color.

Here's another:

Katy Diamond Hamer, Dark Conversation, 2010, Acrylic on canvas, 14"x18"

At last -- that distracting reverse view embedded in the Skype window. Hamer uses this composition as a shorthand for conversation, recognizable to any Skype user, and then uses the dominant elements to elaborate on what the nature of the conversation is. It is jarring, disturbing -- the viewer, mirrored in the embedded image, is normally lit; but the other party emerges from the darkness. His expression is not hostile, exactly, but his cyan-inflected context is ambiguous and menacing.

Contrast Hamer's work with Hankin's. Hankin's narratives are flattened, allowing him to foreground his inquiry into the most basic elements of perception. Hamer's technique is much simpler, serving as a rough-and-ready means of exploring narratives and attendant emotions. Their subject matter is nearly identical, but their approach is worlds apart.

Now throw a third painter into the mix. Paul Beel, recently featured in these pages [Huffington Post pages, that is], is an American living in Florence. He comes from a background of traditional highly-rendered figurative painting:

Paul Beel, Haresissi, 2009

For him, Skype as a perception medium has been liberating:

Paul Beel, untitled portrait, 2012

Unlike Hankin and Hamer, he is not working from screen-grabs. He paints his subjects live over Skype. Low-resolution and brief in duration, his encounters with his subjects force him to abandon his sophisticated brushwork and tidy draughtsmanship. His marks gain energy and his colors become simpler and bolder. He's only got a few minutes to get to the point.

Paul Beel, untitled portrait, 2012

Again, we see the cyan of the monitor, but the emotional tenor of the work is different from that of Hankin and Hamer. Painting live, Beel imports the emotional give and take of the physically present artist-model interaction into the Skype-painting process. Which is to say, Skype becomes transparent for him: rather than reinforcing distance, it collapses it. His models, in countries far from Italy, enter into company with him, and he uses the shared moment to evoke them as people. In a sense, his work is the most classical we have studied here: as if Braque or Matisse, for instance, had woken up one morning and found a webcam in their jar of brushes, shrugged an ineffably French shrug, and gotten down to work.

Paul Beel, untitled portrait, 2012

But without the webcam -- no work. This liberty, this connection, this modified form of the classic head-and-shoulders portrait, is unique to the age of digital telecommunication.

Consider these three again:

Charlie Hankin encounters Skype and asks - how does this adjust what I see and how I see it? His inquiry focuses on the fundamentals of perception. He calls his series Laptop Paintings.

Katy Diamond Hamer encounters Skype and sees it as a means by which people wall themselves off while pretending to come together. She seeks to tell a story of disruption and alienation. She calls the cluster of paintings Since You Left.

Paul Beel encounters Skype and sees it not as a reduction of interactions he would normally have in person, but a window through which he can have interactions otherwise impossible. For him, these interactions are not categorically different from physical company. He cheekily titles the body of work Live Tonight.

I find this very exciting, these three engaged responses to a shifting technological landscape. Looking at the Degas photograph and painting, you feel a little frisson of pleasure, seeing Art, so ancient, so eternal, contend with a Changing World, so new, so suddenly familiar. It is a story we have all learned. We've learned that it is one of the fundamental facets of human progress, the use of art to incorporate change into consciousness. What's exciting about looking at Hankin, Hamer, and Beel is that we find that this story is still going on. Bravo, you three.


Degas Photograph:
Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas (French, 1834 - 1917), After the Bath, Woman Drying Her Back, 1896, French Gelatin silver print, 6 1/2 x 4 11/16 in., Accession No. 84.XM.495.2, by kind permission of The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Degas Painting:
Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas (French, 1834 - 1917), After the Bath (Woman Drying Herself), Oil on canvas, c. 1896, 35 1/4 x 46 inches, purchased with funds from the estate of George D. Widener, 1980, by kind permission of The Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia

CMYK separate layers and combined image:
From Wikipedia:

All other artwork courtesy of the artists:
Charlie Hankin: http://charliehankin.com/
Katy Diamond Hamer: http://www.katyhamer.com/
Paul Beel: http://www.paulbeel.com/

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