Mixed-media work by Angela Conant explores the subjectivity and tactility of color

City Paper

Josef Albers called color “the most relative medium in art.” How we perceive color is determined by multiple factors: the light illuminating the color, the surrounding hues, the physical makeup of our eyes and brain, as well as the emotional, psychological, and symbolic associations we adhere to different colors.

For an exhibition about color, “Deuteranope,” a show of painting, sculpture, video, and installation work by Angela Conant at Gallery CA in collaboration with ICA Baltimore, is relatively colorless. Conant’s paintings use a calculated, limited color palette and take up little space on the gallery’s white walls. It’s not chroma-porn, like an exhibition of Fauvist or color-field paintings might be to the color enthusiast. Nearly half of the paintings in the exhibition contain only colors visible to deuteranopes—people with red-green color-blindness who are insensitive to green light. To the average eye, the muted colors in these paintings appear sepia toned, a monochromatic scheme of dull ochres and browns.

Each of these “color-blind” paintings is paired with a twin version in normal color. Aside from the color scheme, the paintings appear almost identical down to the brush stroke. Side by side, they look like two different Photoshop filters. While that feels gimmicky at first, the abstract content of the paintings creates a more complex color narrative. The ‘Human Gesture’ paintings, one of the two painting series in the exhibition, depict carefully rendered but unfamiliar mucoid forms, so “normal color” may not actually be the best way to identify the more vivid versions. Because the forms do not appear to represent real objects (at first), there is no point of reference for what the “normal color” should be—unlike a painting of, say, a bowl of fruit, where we can identify the subject and define what is or is not “normal color.”

However, our perception of the unrecognizable objects Conant renders in the ‘Human Gesture’ paintings changes completely when we enter the “minigallery” built in the center of the room. Inside, pin-size holes emitting light from outside dot the crumpled black paper ceiling. Red and green lights illuminate four small plaster and sand sculptures—the forms represented in the paintings—mounted onto the velvety matte black walls. The ridges and curves of the bloblike, abstract forms reflect stripes of red and green, like short squirts of tri-color mint toothpaste. One droops downward in a viscous cascade, another swerves in a contracted wave, and another bends sideways—fluid motion challenged by the grisly texture of the sand and the visible weight of the material. The forms, which Conant created by casting plaster in spaces she clawed into sand, evoke sharp, sweeping movements of the artist’s hand, like three-dimensional action paintings. The color from the red and green lights highlight the inviting tactility of the ridges, lumps, and crevices. Here, color generates a visual sense of touch.

The fourth sculpture, a cluster of smooth, sharp pebbles, feels like a blown-up reproduction of the sand particles in the other three forms, or floating asteroids amid a space of alien forms.

Each sculpture is mirrored by the corresponding diptych paintings hanging directly on the other side of the minigallery walls—with the exception of the driplike sculpture, which has only one twin painting in full color. In the paintings, Conant recreates the sculptures as they appear illuminated under the red and green lights through Seurat-esque pointillist brushwork, though the heavily calculated marks feel more like pixels than impressionism. The forms hover over solid matte grounds, some in the color of the green screen or the deep black of the minigallery’s interior.

The clarity of the ‘Human Gesture’ paintings does not occur in the ‘Deuteranope’ paintings, which are even more abstract and have no corresponding objects as points of reference.

Rather than rendering isolated forms, the fluid brushwork covers the entire panel in ambiguous, mossy textures. Again, each full-color painting is paired with a color-blind version. The full-color paintings are barely any more saturated than the colorblind ones; instead of ochre and blue tones, they contain pink and green hues. More striking than the color of the paintings is the tactility of the brushwork, the way the pronounced marks weave together to create intricate textures.

Five stacks of colored copy paper—which viewers are invited to take—sit in a row at the foot of a wall. Beautifully poetic texts written in Arabic by Yasmeen Sudairy (who also appears as a newscaster in the video projected on the wall behind the stacks of paper) describe associations made with different colors, followed by English translations. The color described differs from the color of the paper each passage is printed on. “I want that green, which helps to balance the nervous system,” one reads, printed on yellow paper. “Look at the ferns! It’s one of the oldest colors on the globe: Dollar color, the color of the riyal. The color of our committee. The color of jealousy, The Color Green Book.”

The video (‘Color Cast’) projected onto the wall shows shots of four different people posing as newscasters as they talk about color: the science of the perception of color, how animals see color, associations they make with certain colors—statements similar to the ideas on the paper, but inherently less poetic as they sound from the mouths of newscasters. “This just in: yellow” one newscaster announces. The volume of the audio shifts between speakers and is frequently inaudible. Through a green-screen effect, the texture of red plaster coils mask, envelope, and pan over the video. Next to the arresting simplicity of the printed texts, the video feels excessive, almost a nuisance. But the way that it waters down the visual and existential value of color—through the weak projection and the dryness of the newscasters’ delivery—evokes the frequently ineffective objectivity of news media.

The most immediately striking source of color in the gallery is not a piece in itself: It’s a green screen for visitors to stand in front of and view themselves in the small television screen just feet away—an installation titled ‘Weather Man.’ The plaster coils that appear in ‘Color Cast’ are mounted to the screen, forming a small face and two broken, outstretched limbs. On the television, the green screen disappears only partially: in the fuzzed-out center of the screen a large hand turns over and back behind the vague plaster figure and meta-selfie-snapping viewers.

The video camera recording the installation is actually hidden within a separate sculpture called ‘Hands / Night Sky,’ sitting on a pedestal several feet in front of the green screen. Tiny pinholes emanate dots of celestial light from within a prism made of crumpled black paper, repeating the texture on the ceiling of the minigallery. Two hands are molded into the paper surface of the sculpture while two white plaster hands—which appear to be cast from paper sculptures—climb up opposite sides of the pedestal.

The presence of hands throughout the gallery—obvious in ‘Weather Man’ and ‘Hands / Night Sky’ and subtle in the ‘Human Gesture Series’ of sculptures—draws compelling connections between touch and color. Conant’s work explores both the scientific and abstract subjectivity of the senses. While touch informs the blind of shape, texture, and form, nothing but sight can perceive color. Color itself can invoke tactility: the warmth of a red-orange, the crispness of a clear blue. Touch seems like a more objective sense than sight, but through the relativity of color, tactility too becomes subjective. 

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