WORK ASSAULTS THE SENSES
" In our own day comparatively few painters are worrying about the latest discoveries of physiology concerning sight and of physics concerning colours. Even though they could understand them, artists would find these discoveries practically irrelevant to ther own problems, for the simple reason that the colours of the physicist have little in common with those used by painters...
Etienne Gilson wrote that in his book Painting and Reality. The French philosopher was making a point about the difference between optics and aesthetics, and it remains as valid today as it was in 1957.
Most painters, most artists in any medium, have little interest in the hard science that underlies the way their works are physically apprehended by their viewers. It may be fascinating but simply isn't all that relevant.
However state a general rule and there's bound to be exceptions. Candori, the new exhibition at Gallery Connexion is just such a phenomenon.
Montreal Painter Mark Mullin is interested in the science of seeing, and in the implications, physical and philosophical of new developments in physics.
Now, don't get the wrong idea. The 11 paintings in Candori aren't scientific treatises by any stretch of the imagination. Rather, through these canvases Mullin explores ideas about how light and the eye work to create colour.
"Someone asked me if the effect they were seeing was in the painting, or in the eye," Mullin said during his artist's talk at the exhibition opening. "Well, what's the difference?"
What, indeed? After all, physically sight happens inside our heads. We don't see actual things, but reflection of things, carried to our eyes by light bouncing off them. Which is all well and good but is it really an illustration of Gilson's point: it's irrelevant to how we live our lives.
That's also partly Mullin's point, although he;s intent on disrupting our habitual ways of seeing. His paintings are disruptivre, the more you look for coherent pattern the more the work seems to shift. Mullin's paintings are in two sizes: six feet square and approximately 18 feet square.
There are six large paintings and five smaller ones, displayed in Gallery Connexion's two exhibition spaces.
The larger paintings initially seem almost pure colour fields, ranges of yellows with suggestions of bubbles or at least as somewhat more dense agglomerations of colour.
It's a little like staring into clouds of coloured smoke or looking long and hard at thick, coloured liquid: honey, say, or syrup. The large expanses of yellow are initially quite off putting. The works seem almost like a physical assault on the eye.
Wassily Kandinsky, generally credited as the originator of abstract painting, said this about a certain yellow: "Keen, lemon yellow hurts the eye in time as a prolonged and shrill trumpet-note the ear..."
Kandinsky was no slouch when it came to describing the effects of colours and many of the yellows in Mullin's paintaings are indeed shrill.
At first it's like staring into a bright light and one isn't sure if the sopts one is seeing are in the painting or not. But they are on the canvas - little flecks of cooler colours (greys, ivories, blues, greens) that pull the eye to them, both in search of relief and for something to focus on.
Focusing on these, one is able to see further layers in the paintings, a series of dots laid out in a grid over the surface. For all their seeming ethereal qualities, there is a lot going on in these canvases.
The small paintings, which feature thicker painting application, a recognizable grid composition, and a wider colour range, also serve as a refuge for the eye. But to treat the large paintings as merely something to be endured briefly is to do a disservice to these works.
These paintings are meditative, one can't focus on them long enough. The eye is constamtly pulled from one part of the large canvas to another, bouncing around like a rubber ball on the surface.
No mantra these, they are more like a brisk workout, a burst of dazzling colour that clears the cobwebs from the brain.
The large room is particularly effective this way, as the three large works in this room are all of particularly strong shades of yellow or yellow-orange.
There are also four small paintings in this room, setting up an interesting dialogue between the two scales of work.
It's as if there is a factor of magnification at work. Perhaps the smaller paintings are blow-ups of the coloured flecks in the larger works or, conversely, the larger paintings are blow-ups of the elipses that are the major compositional elements of the small works.
It really doesn't matter; however you think of the paintings Candori provides lots to think about.
These are very strong, meaty paintings; there's lots to see and lots to feel while you're seeing them. More than merely science, light also carries much in the way of spiritual connotations.
Mullin's titles allude to that tradition, with the names such as "Empyrean" and "Hyperion".
Empyrean is the name Dante gave to the highest level of Heaven, while Hyperion was the name of a titan in Greek mythology. It later came to denote Apollo, the Greek sun god.
The exhibition title Candori, is drawn from Dante's Inferno, where "candori" refers to the shades of the dead.
Mullin said in his artists talk that he has alsways been fascinated with large open spaces, a function of his Prarie childhood perhaps.
Whatever its source, that fascination has led, in this body of works, to an attempt to depict light itself, rather than the things dilineated by light.
By: Ray Cronin
2000 The Daily Gleaner (Fredericton), August