In history, it has been the activity of painting that has brought the colour of the surrounding world – be it natural or urban – into an image format, into a frame, or into an interior. In the form of a painted image, the viewer could not only witness a dramatic likeness of the world, but could also gain a feeling for the connection that the artist had with the subject matter of that image – through the colours used, the artist was able to practice a form of language that went above written or spoken words. Colour operates on a level that is as abstract as empathy itself.
Just as there are countless applications for colour as a tool towards pictorial description, it also has an unspeakably diverse history as a means for the communication of social and cultural values. Colour itself stands as an icon of status. It has the ability to exist as a rich, diverse, political, emotional, intellectual and psychological symbol. All of which are abstract values when represented in the form of a colour.
Piet Mondrian used the term Plasticism to express the pure reality of colour. It occurred to Mondrian that >>the new reality was the reality of plastic expression, or the reality of forms and colours in painting<<. Following this realisation, he then in collaboration with Theo Van Doesburg went on to galvanise this theory of colour painting by developing Neo-Plasticism in 1920, which is the term generally applicable to the majority of work produced by the artists associated with the De Stijl movement.
These two artists focused upon colour in the purist sense. Following their radical distillation of the picture plane into geometric elements, they certainly revolutionised a number of understandings of colour, and they developed its presentation and application as a very important value of its own.
One particular level of appreciation for colour is in the form of the painted object. Through the application of paint to a sculptural material, that object could then embody colour as an entity with specific dimensions. In concept, that object would then become a concentrated mass of colour with internal volume. The colour could then become an integer, or a building block for artworks such as painting constructions, assemblages, wall reliefs and spatial models such as mobiles, stabiles, and much more recently, site-specific installations, where the volume of the work could become dispersed, decentred or intuitively located according to the ambient characteristics of differing sites.
Moving into the present tense, it often seems futile to draw lines between differing forms of the ‘Abstract’, ‘Concrete’, or ‘Plastic’ in contemporary art. Most of the time, it may be better to leave definitions like these behind, utterly dissolved as they have become.
To follow this idea of Neo-Plasticism and the painted object, there seems to be a vast array of contemporary Abstract Art practitioners developing an expanded variation of the De Stijl program. That is, not only do they appear to offer a purist view of colour, but they are also able to build a very abstract level of commentary into their work, so that they may focus upon some of the intricacies concerning themselves and their own ‘world view’.
One such artist might be the German-born, Brussels resident Tilman, whose use of colour and tone along with intuitive placement produces visually complex constructions of both fixed and site-specific nature.
Within Tilman’s work, careful juxtaposition of tonally moderated forms of colour derive their significance from outside themselves – their complex structure seems somehow closely related to the world that they are made from. Even given their clean nature, these informal and approachable arrangements of painted objects seem to reference imperfect qualities just as much as they exude notes of unity, complement and harmony.
The use of bright colour in 10.07 (stack) assists in a Concrete reading. 10.07 (stack) is a work consisting of painted objects. Each object has been treated individually with the knowledge that each element will in fact somehow become a composite part within a work. The order of the elements is unknown before the time of making. The final appearance of the work is unknown until finished. In fact, the orientation of the work may be completely under question until the finished arrangement of painted objects can be seen entirely. It therefore becomes a cluster of visual activity, including both seen and unseen areas of layered contact. As a chromatic body of sorts, a collection with object status and dimensional form.
Tilman’s works are experiments in colour. They test new boundaries in terms of placement and juxtaposition of colour and form. Perhaps the artist sees the inner spaces of his Stacks as being ideal spaces for new colour experiments. Could this be why we see a high degree of considered experimentation and careful intuition when it comes to examining the placement and juxtaposition of those elements within each of his works? Negative spaces offset intuitively slotted elements just as colour combinations jar as deliberately (and interestingly) as those that sit comfortably.
Here, by working through chromatic values such as pitch, saturation, tone, hue and contrast, Tilman presents the most abstract qualities of colour; those aspects of a colour that go beyond reference to anything and have no associative value.
This is the point from which these colours can begin to function in a ‘controlled environment’. In reaching this level of hermetic purity, works such as 10.07 (stack) and 24.06 (Val Duchesse) embody the specific colour interactions within themselves.
They are no longer a work about some kind of intangible association with the world.
These works are only (but not simply) about themselves.
To look a work such as 24.06 (Val Duchesse) requires the viewer to completely ignore vague interpretive assumptions concerning likeness or landscape. To actually see this work is to utterly ignore the whole idea of colour representing anything directly. Indeed, the very key into looking at the visual activity of 24.06 (Val Duchesse) is to forget the whole notion of colour as colour, and to begin by seeing the work as a mental manipulation, as a construction made from synthetic materials and values; the content of which are strictly specific to the work.
Within the visual activity of 24.06 (Val Duchesse), one cannot help but notice simultaneous occurrences, multi-layered interractions, gradual shifts of visual weight and changing points of balance. To see this multifarious phenomenae as a concept of an experience, and to consider these material events as being only unto themsleves…surely this is what it means to view the work as some kind of Plastic moment, where the work is centred in a purist perceptual space that becomes the context for the crystallization of inexplicable momentary realisations – concerning only the work and the viewer.
Perhaps the key imperative to the use of colour in Tilman’s work is that it is employed in the atmospheric sense. That way, colour becomes a device for experience and the purchase-point for the viewer to appreciate the form(s) of the work also, as both eventually become indivisible.
The artificiality of the materials used to construct each work seem to negate a connection to the earth or surrounds of any sort. Even the public activity within the museum that surrounds his work – rich with occurrences and interractions – seems to be organic in comparison. Maybe it is the viewer who forms the link from the work back to the world, through that viewer’s careful process of looking slowly then leaving…
As I have called them, the material and colour ‘values’ present within each work seem to operate in ways separate to the natural laws of gravity and optics. The effects of which are deferred and present at the same time also. Tilman’s works mirror processes concerned with physical activity. Importance lies in decisions relating to placement. Yet there also hangs over each work the idea of the process as an extended continuum, and an artist’s language being a string of works larger than any finished form.
The whole idea of the title for this essay, free colour, is one of wonderment – of what the result would be if colour were allowed to escape logical readings. To instead be allowed to exercise empathic effect in a way that may be as yet unconsidered. To successfully do this would perhaps allow Tilman’s use of colour ‘value’ the space to become an idea of colour, a slight revision of the process and interpretation of colour when coupled with form. This would however require the co-operation of a viewer, willing to look unfalteringly.
Maybe the biggest challenge here lies with the viewer.
Melbourne, May 2008