Reinventing a Colour Wheel
Ryan Renshaw Gallery
137 Warry Street
9 -31 March, 2012
The Problem of a Colour Wheel
3a Glasshouse Road
7 -30 July, 2011
COLOUR SPACE, Scott Miles’ The problem of a colour wheel
In The problem of a colour wheel, Scott Miles presents exhibits a single frieze of small paintings, hung equidistantly around the gallery space. Miles’ initial premise is simple: to present, through painting, the spectrum of visible colour in a coherent, rationally organised way. The suite of 35 works creates a single ribbon of colour, morphing along two long gallery walls. In each painting, a single colour predominates. The works are ordered in such a way that the installation begins with a white painting, then steps evenly through tones of grey, black, blue, purple, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, pink, and finally back to white. The exhibition is the result of Miles subjecting his painting practice to a seemingly simple exercise – creating a colour wheel.
The colour wheel has been used as a reference tool for art and science since Isaac Newton’s first design, illustrating the relationship between different colours and their relationship in turn to musical notes and to planets. The musical and planetary aspects notwithstanding, Newton’s version of the colour wheel (from which we retain the basic red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet procession) has been further developed and used ever since as a means of ordering and explaining the way that colours interact.
The idea that all possible colours can be made from three primaries - blue, red and yellow - is one we accept happily from a young age. The particular order of the colours on a conventional colour wheel is familiar from earlier and more ‘natural’ childhood observances: rainbows, or Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. We also take it for granted that any colour we wish to reproduce in print can be made by layering dots of Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black (the registration marks on the margins of newspapers and cereal boxes are proof of that).
In creating a colour wheel, Miles acknowledges that the task he sets for himself is problematic, and that in order to achieve a functional or easily comprehensible model, a lot must be left out. The ‘truth’ of a colour wheel is that colour cannot be completely and precisely charted. Despite the invalid nature of this attempt to quantify colour, there are valid reasons for categorising and naming as many hues as it is possible to distinguish.
The problem in creating a model of a colour wheel is that in order to be functional, decisions must be made about what can and cannot be included. The issue is the same problem that befalls any totalising gesture: when a phenomenon is codified or classified, it is necessarily simplified and some part of it is excluded. Any logical system imposed upon a natural phenomenon will never explain quite as much as it promises to. As such, the colour wheel is not a failed system as much as a one that is, from its beginning, fallacious.
Pantone’s seductively tactile, if cumbersome swatches of printed colour have held a monopoly on ‘accurate’ colour for the printing industry, and paint manufacturers still use a similar system to enable customers to compare and choose from possible tint options. In the shift from analogue to digital technology, the colour wheel has been elaborately re-configured into detailed and mathematical form. In screen-based media, particular kinds of colour whose make-up is determined and identified by specific binary data allow us to specify an exact mix of hues so that colour appears to be identical across different screens. Domestic computing, especially in the forms of desktop publishing and social media, presents users with various ‘web-safe’ or HTML palettes. These are the ‘swatches’ that are available in Word documents, rich-text emails, webpage layouts and blog formats. Whenever a Mac is engaged in a processor-intensive activity, another kind of colour wheel appears – the spinning, infuriating, cursor ‘wheel of death’.
These user-driven formats have allowed us to again become familiar with way in which colour wheels (or in RGB and HTML models, colour ‘cubes’ and ‘cylinders’ respectively) function. But for all of the hex codes, RGB values and CMYK conversion charts available, the accuracy of pinpointing a single colour across multiple systems is, at best, approximate. Not only are there internal differences of various ‘colour spaces’ to contend with – for example, the on-screen transition from RGB colour to CMYK colour – but also those circumstances external to either system: the environment in which the colours which make up an image are viewed. Such shifts occur when an image is transposed from the screen, which is back-lit, to the printed page, which is a reflective surface.
Just as any colour appears to change when seen in different light, at different times of day, our interpretation of images alters according to the conditions in which they are read. As members of a pluralist culture, in the image-saturated age of digital reproduction, we read images in a sophisticated and charitable way: we understand implicitly that one image can hold myriad meanings and represent opposing beliefs. The advent of online photo albums such as Flickr and Picasa, and of ‘found image’ blogs (where disparate images are presented side by side, with no ‘curatorial’ rationale, enabled particularly by the Tumblr format), has validated the rapid scroll-through as a mode of reading, akin to skim-reading an image-heavy magazine. Images are posted and re-posted, their possible meanings being re-shaped and interpreted by the other images which come before and after, and by the brief comments made by friends, followers and forum dwellers who pause long enough to have an opinion.
Images from online news media undergo a similar process of de-contextualisation and re-presentation. With the increasingly common practice by news outlets of publishing user-submitted content, especially in the case of widely experienced and traumatic events such as natural disasters or acts of war, the distinction between professional journalism and personal photography becomes hazier. Set adrift from their original published location, reportage, supplied images and stock photography are returned unexpectedly in searches for terms which may seem only tenuously related; or are found alongside a host of internet flotsam in Google’s new ‘search by colour’ function. As a research tool, the internet is unsurpassed for containing, finding and sorting data - but it cannot interpret that data in any way that is meaningful for the user.
The uncertainty of the found image is important to Miles’ process of sourcing and translating imagery. For The problem of a colour wheel, Miles collected images with only a few criteria in mind, one being colour - each image to be transposed into paint must predominantly be one of those 35 colours which comprise the colour wheel of Miles’ own making. Each painting in the series begins as a layer of that particular colour across the entire board. In some works, parts of this solid underpainting remain visible. In others, it is obscured but has the effect of tinting any pigment that has been layered over it. The works are small: each roughly the same size, the scale of a computer screen or small television monitor. Each painting’s title simply describes its subject; the prefix of the series’ title serves to remind the viewer that each work exists as a part of the series, one colour among many in the spectrum. The floating nature of the internet-sourced images, without caption or context, remains a part of the finished painting.
Even when images with particular content or composition are not being actively sought, this kind of image-collecting allows certain patterns to emerge: each image is ‘newsworthy’, something which could still be very current. These are images the kind that we see frequently, images which should be memorable, images which seem to merge into the same as we flick through daily news media in its many formats. Most of the paintings in The problem of a colour wheel appear to follow a compositional structure – perhaps displaying a preference, rather than adherence to an explicit rule - where a single figure or figure group is positioned in the centre of the foreground, with only a shallow recession into space. A few others have the close-cropped, all-over focus of stock photography. Journalistic, like the photographers whose work he re-presents, Miles draws focus to a single object or event, in order to communicate the salient details.
Each completed for the most part in a single sitting, the works feel like ‘notes’, small studies toward something larger than each individual work itself. Each subject is handled with a quick brush: focused, without being laboured. There is no pretense toward photorealism, but a rendering of those details most important to the image, or those most interesting to the artist, in the process of ‘re-reading’ each picture. Miles often treats both figure and ground with the same degree of attention, the effect being a merging of figure and ground, and a sense of distance from the subject matter, as though Miles gives the image itself as much weight as what it is depicting. In Kingdom Protistaand Two Wrestlersthe solid underpainting and even surface treatment lean toward abstraction. In the more monochromatic works - Egyptian Mummy, Joseph Mpambara,andTwo Fighting Falcons– the restricted palette compresses and flattens the image into a surface, as the specifics of forms become absorbed into the material of the paint.
Across the suite of works presented as The problem of a colour wheel, there is a palpable pleasure in the way paint is applied. In Echinacea and Green Finger Protest, it is possible to read an enjoyment in the process of painting’s gestures and layers. Indeed there is a lot of ‘process’ involved in reading these works: the process of selecting colours for the initial colour wheel; the process of browsing, trawling for images; the process of editing the colour and form of the image in order to translate it into paint. At each point, there is decision-making at work. No matter how minimal or unthinking, Miles’ preferences for ‘what’ and ‘how’ become apparent across the series. However quietly, the artist assumes the role of an editor. For the viewer, the ‘system’ of the installation, like the colour wheels Miles works from, indicates that there is something that has been left out.
The disparate nature of the collection presented here reveals that Miles’ conception of colour is not simply visual. The historical and political nature of some the subject matter he selects to deal with display an interest in the symbolic cultural associations of colours as well as the formal - most overtly in Communists in the 21st centuryand Orange Revolution; perhaps more gently in Pigpenand Man as pig. There is no simple meaning advanced for any particular colour; rather Miles alludes to a variegation of belief systems in his range of images. By painting images that may initially indicate some public or personal tension, Miles also looks at the way images are coloured by their mediation; how they are imbued with a moral or ethical tone by the banners under which they are published.
Miles is implicit in the process of re-interpretation. While searching for and selecting images, looking for particular colours, Miles was also compiling images that contained a ‘problem’, a pictorial or political opposition. The works in The problem of a colour wheelrefer to some kind of tension; there is a dynamic of thesis and antithesis common to each of the paintings. Miles does not choose any particular sort of problem exclusively, but provides an open index of the kinds of opposition that can occur within an image, and within a painting – in colour, composition and in subject matter. Further, these oppositions also occur outside and between the works. Certain images resonate with or struggle against one another. Again, our interpretation of images is called into question, when we are prompted to consider together a number of unconnected images.
By addressing the problems encountered in using a colour wheel in this way, Miles asserts that the idea of the ‘problem’ itself as something worth inhabiting. Even if we know that such systems are constructed and inaccurate, we are still driven to classify, name and order. In The problem of a colour wheel, there is a tension within each painting, but also between paintings. It is uncertain to what degree each painting needs those around it; whether each stands as a full and rich work by itself, or whether it necessarily requires proximity to other works in order to be properly interpreted. This oscillation is perhaps analogous to Miles’ approach toward the act of painting on a broader scale. Without the rules of the system as a whole, there is little to frame the individual, no reference by which to gauge their success or understand them. But each work can, and does, have its own thesis, antithesis and synthesis – some kind of internal resolution or coherence. What is to be gained, then, from viewingeach individual colour within a wider spectrum is what they have in common. There is too much mediation for these images to ever be ‘correct’ or objective; but what does emerge from their commonality is a particular way of viewing the world. There is a rational explanation for the irrational following of a fallacious system: by putting into order the colours of our image-saturated visual world, we begin to put into order the slippery experience of art, and the messy experience of life.