Any one of the facets which has led to the consolidation of SPECTRUM would be worthwhile and thought provoking to discuss. The production of work has been accompanied by a series of in-depth conversations and critiques, an exhibition, and finally this reflective publication. With all its ins and outs, to and fros and ups and downs, SPECTRUM fundamentally centres on the artworks: works that are anything but understated.
Thomas Whittle’s cartoon-like imagery actively spin within the canvas at arm’s length from Sebastian Trend’s vivid, disfigured characters; a film by Adam Hogarth has puppets shouting increasingly aggressive profanities while in contrast, Mike Pratt’s abstract drawings hold an heir of serenity rigidly held in their frames part obscured by the reflections in the glass. SPECTRUM: WHITTLEHOGARTHPRATTTREND is an eclectic, electric and eccentric exhibition in which parallels between works are immediate. That said, as suggested in the exhibition’s title, the ideas involved in each of the artists’ works exhibit an array of conceptual, technical and stylistic difference. The following discourse is not therefore meant to suggest that concepts and approaches of the respective artists are identical, rather as an analysis of colour, imagery and process respectively, it reflects the coinciding concerns that have brought these artists together.
Through countless movements and disciplines (art, science, architecture, design etc.) colour has been manipulated, pulled apart, scrutinised and refined. Commenting on the aesthetic importance of colour, Donald Judd stated that ‘for one hundred years the most powerful aspect [of art] has been colour. The one hundred years of the primacy of colour is still only a beginning’. Philosophers such as Baudelaire and Benjamin have otherwise considered colour in terms of its spiritual significance. In SPECTRUM the role of colour is not at the point of question per se, but it is used so emphatically, that as a mode of expression it is arguably the defining feature of the viewing experience. In one sense, the use of colour in SPECTRUM could be construed as being sloppy or garish, but in another, it possesses a kind of child-like purity or innocence. Take for example Whittle’s, Picasso was My father’s Name – a nod to Martin Kippenberger and his playful parody on the legacy of Picasso as the unabated artist genius – the use of contradictory colours of blue and orange leap a comic unidentified figure from the centre of the painting. As with all of Whittle’s work, the palette is one that he is familiar with: prime colours used spontaneously in an effort to grasp pure, child-like expression.
As Pratt states, vivid and often ‘garish’ colours are utilised as a means of not ‘taking [the work] as seriously’. This perspective, which could be (to a greater or lesser degree) attributed to any of the SPECTRUM artists, allows a fun or child-like temperament to be injected into the art, releasing tensions that may otherwise result in stagnant, commonplace works. It is not, as it may appear, demeaning of the work, nor does it detail a lesser consideration of the process of production. Consider rainbows, toys or a child’s drawing in which the sky is inevitably blue, grass green and sun yellow. It is a pure idealism of colour, an attempt to tap in to the undeveloped, yet perfectly idyllic perspective of colour in the world. In SPECTRUM, whilst these child-like undertones are prevalent, an almost urban, street-art or 1980s punk culture aesthetic also creeps through the works: one that is trashy, garish or discordant.
The dichotomy between this punk-like side, and that which is pure or child-like is not however as confused or contradictory as it may seem. In fact these conflicting aspects are employed logically, and as a means of generating more complex forms of expression – ones that reflect concept more definitively. Consider that colour in itself provides an array of emotive responses and sensations due to its immediacy: it stimulates, excites, and, if nothing else, is eye catching. Both children’s drawings and street art, punk and fashion trends use colour, in part, for its eye-catching properties and fun appeal. The need for colour in these instances is instinctual and immediate; it is versatile, variable and can be bent or manipulated stylistically in order to project any number of different values or statements. Amidst this aesthetic ambiguity, there is a multi-layered experience that combines with form through line, imagery and text to create moods that enhance the conceptual strength of the works.
This combination of colour and form is, however, a complex issue in its own right. As recognised by Baudelaire, there is a difficulty in combining colour and form in such a way that is harmonious. In SPECTRUM many of the works both highlight and exploit these contradictions, and it is these contradictions that help elevate themes such as failure (Whittle), destruction (Hogarth), horror (Trend) and contradiction itself (Pratt). Form in this instance is, for the most part, dictated by imagery acquired from vast numbers of fragments, documents, photographs, objects, experiences, texts and so on. This imagery is then painted, manipulated, torn, reworked and reinvigorated, embraced in a cacophonous concoction of colour in order to animate the work. While this process of obtaining imagery may seem like fairly usual practice for artists, the selection and utilisation of imagery cannot be understated in this instance. Understand that for the SPECTRUM artists, everything is open to assimilation. In recognising that dynamic accumulation forces a wealth of stimulus to be fed into the artworks, the artists are able to imbue their works with individuality, developed directly from personal association and experience. This process is not one which is concerned with harmony or melody. It identifies with ever-changing, throwaway culture, or as Hogarth would have it, ‘a sea of shit’ appropriate to social networking, the media, internet and digital photography. Imagery therefore is combined with colour to emphasise concept and feeling in a way that is both intuitive and gripping. The works may appear aesthetically pleasing, yet it is important that harmony is for the most part removed, allowing inharmonious expression to come through with force.
Consider Trend’s Big Eye Small Eye, arguably one of the more harmonious pieces involved in SPECTRUM. The image is derived from a photograph (which Trend has manipulated with Bleach and other chemicals) and enlarged to wall size. From this backdrop of beautiful washes of blues, yellows, pinks and reds that flow through a magenta ground (the last colour to fade in a photograph) leaps a small oil painting on board. The painting, which has an almost luminous pink background, holds a girl in a bright blue dress. Standing back from the piece, the colours (excluding the small painting) appear, as Baudelaire states ‘melodious…and [have] already taken a place in our collection of memories’. Yet to observe the work in such a way is to overlook the form and consequently, key ideas and themes inherent in the work. The image is recognisably that of a school photograph. There is not one, out of the lines of faces which is accurately representative or discernable. All figurative aspects, including that of the attached painting, have been wildly distorted, leaving dark undertones provoked through misplaced nostalgia and horror movie reference. Albeit melodious in terms of colour, the work is in essence, contradictory, combining colour with frightening and comical imagery to sickening effect.
This sense of discord, aggression, and confusion is equally prevalent in Whittle’s child-like drawings and use of bold black lines, Hogarth’s crudely crafted papier mâché puppets or Pratt’s combination of bold line with detailed pattern. Such experimental and destructive methods are employed by the SPECTRUM artists as a means of cleansing, or creating through undoing and re-doing. In accordance with this process of change – constant covering, disintegrating or degrading – new possibilities are opened up, contributing to the elements of playfulness and immediacy inherent in the use of bright colour and animated imagery. Take as an example Pratt’s painting Pink, bold, vivid pink spiralling bush strokes cover a number of pre-established layers, including that of meticulous, dotted patterns. It is a Kippenbergeresque approach and Pratt’s process is unassuming and unforgiving; the finished article or ‘full stop’ as he puts it, occurring only once a layer exhausts the works possibilities.
In comparison, Hogarth’s fascination with Gustav Metzger’s auto-destructive art is more apparent. Unlike Metzger, Hogarth’s auto-destructive methods are not associated with shock tactic art directly, but are utilised as a means to unsettle and iconoclastically comment on the state of on-line culture, language and privacy through personal experience. His piece She Was So Excited She Nearly Squeezed Me To Death spells out its title in large text made entirely from chrysanthemums. Beginning life in pure white, the flowers gradually degrade, ending up in varied array of morbid browns and yellows. Reflective of the immediacy and impermanence of social networking and on-line forums, the work is both fleeting and temporary.
Whilst neither Pratt’s, nor Hogarth’s works feel aggressive in these instances, the use of destructive tendencies is nevertheless apparent. This is not to suggest that the methods employed by the SPECTRUM artists are not used to cause shock or disturbance – there is nothing particularly relaxing about Trend’s disfigured characters or Whittle’s violently claustrophobic sculptures Dypstych. However, it is important to recognise that the destructive processes involved in the formulation of the works functions mainly as a way of highlighting concept, which is necessarily concerned with colour and imagery also. It is in these tendencies that a constant level of vigour and excitement is maintained, complementing the fecundity and expansive array of ideas implicit in their practices. Judd claimed that ‘every other generation has a new idea of colour’ and Trend, Whittle, Hogarth and Pratt (as the first generation of SPECTRUM) have set out to establish this through audaciously combining colour with imagery and process.
Rory Biddulph, June 2011
Charles Baudelaire, ‘The Salon of 1846’, in David Batchelor (ed.) Colour (Documents in Contemporary Art), 2008, MIT Press.
Donald Judd, ‘Some Aspects Of Colour in General, And Red And Black in Particular’ originally published in ArtForum, 1994, in David Batchelor (ed.) Colour (Documents in Contemporary Art), 2008, MIT Press.
Installation view, Adam Hogarth She Was So Excited She Nearly Squeezed Me to Death Flowers, Oasis lettering 2011
Adam Hogarth Puppet Show Video 2011