Afraid to Look

[This essay was originally commissioned to accompany Tyler Hodgins’ installation, “Who’s Afraid of Red Yellow and Blue?” at the Stride Gallery, Calgary, in September of 2010.]

Afraid to Look

The title for this essay refers both to Barnett Newman’s 1966 painting “Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue” and to painter Philip Taaffe’s 1985 riff on the same, entitled “We Are Not Afraid.” Taaffe’s painting can be interpreted as a semantic maneuvering of Newman’s colour field from its existential origin (itself a reaction to Mondrian’s equivocal, geometric composing) to another outcome: frankly plastic, positively ornamental, but not less serious for surrendering abstract autonomy to decorative sociability. It is context that matters here, and the courage to shift the scale with which an iconic image is read from public to personal, even confessional that I would like to address to Tyler Hodgins’ choice of motifs and materials.

What exactly is being confessed? The ambivalence (not to say fear) inherent in Hodgins’ decision to offer his own colour blindness as an impetus to reading this work introduces several important questions. For one, the work potentially unites artist and viewer in perceptual uncertainty. As Hodgins’ piece progresses, its colours are potentially compromised, though just how thoroughly and at what rate remain variables. This slippage echoes the character of colour blindness itself, in many of its varieties scarcely detectible without testing. The confession is also an act of faith: the degradation of colour in Hodgins’ work sets in motion outcomes to which he himself would be challenged to bear reliable witness.

Hodgins’ personal history compounds this sense of confession.  Raised in a Christian Science household, he may have regarded his imperfect vision as something to greet with silent circumspection; the mystery represented by a crayon whose label had worn away was a singularity of personal doubt. Later, in art school, it was secret by default. 1 Colour in this anecdote stands for faith, but is defined by its absence within a continuum of undermining uncertainty; an endless, worldly dust.

Sculptor Gabriel Orozco’s defines just such a “confrontation of colour and dust,” defining dust as both “a negative pigment” and a “totalitarian surface”:

…Everything that gets dusty just becomes surface […] Painting tries to create an illusion, the illusion of volume, perspective or light. It promises a kind of enlightenment through colour […] but dust is the contrary force. 2

Orozco cites the special case of public sculptures, whose default state, he sees as “abandoned to dust.” Hodgins’ practice engages an ongoing involvement with public sculpture projects, underscoring the monumentality of the column-like ‘zips’ of Who’s Afraid. But they also resemble both Pop quotations of Newman’s forms, or their revision as Minimalist sculpture, and in extending the metaphor of dust as a ‘totalitarian’ leveler, we might conceive of the entropy of dust as relatable to other kinds of entropy, such as the inevitable debasement of monuments as enlightening commons to commercial or industrial spaces, kitsch or cliché. 3

The complexities of these quotations have already been mapped somewhat by artists like Taaffe and Peter Halley, who used similar strategies to relate Newman’s zips to decorative/architectonic/technological schematics; not a purist platonic geometry, but, as Halley describes it, “the soft geometries of interstate highways, computers, and electronic entertainment.” 4

Likewise, Hodgins’ vacuum cleaners have a precedent in Jeff Koons’ readymade New Hoover Convertibles (1981-86). Thinking of Koons’ ‘vacuums’ or even Warhol’s ‘Brillo’ boxes, the metaphor seems obvious, that readymade culture is a killer hygiene, destroying all other seminal gestures of meaning. Halley writes that Koons’ perfect vacuums propose a world of model realities, “a state of asepsis and weightlessness.” 5 That Hodgins’ robot vacuums not only clean the sand but (through bumping the columns) trigger more spillage is important. They imagine the underside of the readymade’s spiritualized sheen as a polluting of perception, a totalitarian leveling of the value of visible labour.

It is significant that invisible labour via institutional care completes the cycle of Hodgins’ work: the behind-the-scenes activity of gallery workers emptying vacuum cleaners back into the column-tubes at day’s end. It should be said though, that the work is not so much completed as protracted… The time it takes for hollow columns to retreat from their initial interactive vibrancy to become greyer, more obdurate things is impossible to measure, a collapsible eternity. Ultimately what makes ‘us’ Who’s Afraid is a more subtle, moral entropy, our own inability to track and discern with care over time. As Paul Valéry remarked, “It is almost as if the decline of the idea of eternity coincided with the increased aversion to sustained effort.” As every compulsive gambler knows, observing the operations of chance too closely for too long engenders a fatigue with the concept of destiny. Like the retinal fatigue that dismays Newman’s painted zips with juddering afterimages, attempts to track the serial overlap of Hodgins’ colours do not reveal their subject so much as dismay it, carrying our attraction to further and further back toward an increasingly unstable instance of material cause. Like Newman at his most integral, Hodgins is interested in marking a human scale, albeit one in time rather than space.

Endnotes

1. Conversation with the artist, August 28th, 2010.

2. Gabriel Orozco, “Gabriel Orozco in Conversation with Benjamin H.D. Buchloh (2004)” translated by Eileen Brockbank, October Files 9 Gabriel Orozco, Edited by Yve-Alain Bois (Cambridge: MIT, 2009) 114.

3. Yve-Alain Bois makes this equivocation in addressing the use of cliché in Edward Ruscha’s work, comparing the latter’s trompe l’oeil melting letters to the entropic undoing of articulation – both physical and semantic- in Ruscha’s use of ‘pop’ language. C.f. “Liquid Words,” Formless A User’s Guide, with Rosalind E. Krauss (New York: Zone Books, 1997) 124-129

4. Peter Halley, “The Crisis in Geometry,” Arts Magazine (New York, Vol. 58, No. 10, June 1984) http://www.peterhalley.com/.

5. Halley

6. Quoted in Walter Benjamin, “The Storyteller,” Illuminations, translated by Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken books, 1968) 93

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