Saturday, 30 October 2004

The Dream of Painting and Angela Leach's Thirty-Two Colours*

*Ivory, Buff White, Buff Medium, Buff, Tan, Coral, Pumpkin, Salmon, Red, Wine, Grape, Purple, Deep Periwinkle, Indigo Periwinkle, Indigo, Blue, Aqua II, Aqua, Mint, Mint Light, Lime, Lime Light, Lemon, Lemon Light, Leaf, Olive, Khaki, Forest, Ebony, Oak, Walnut and Mink

Once, while looking at a painting by Angela Leach, it occurred to me that what I really wanted to do was to jump inside it. Not normally given over to wild physical expressions of enthusiasm for an artist's work, and naturally prevented by the limitations of the medium, I instead remained standing before it. The feeling, however, was rare enough to remark upon. How often do I encounter paintings that are visually thrilling? How often do I encounter a painting whose presence is so physically pleasurable, that I want to get inside it and roll around?

* * *

In the mid-nineteen-eighties, Angela Leach studied at the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto and at Sheridan College's School of Crafts and Design in Oakville, Ontario. Having been introduced to the discipline of painting at OCAD and to textile design at Sheridan College, Leach eventually found her way to a marriage of the two. In nineteen ninety-two, around the same time as she began working as a commercial hand weaver, she started working on a series of paintings called Abstract Repeat. Nineteen ninety-seven marked the beginning of her signature Abstract Repeat Wave series, whose basic linear formula - the intersection of repeated horizontal simple waves with vertically repeated sine waves - has continued to the present. With the intersection of these two waves at critical points Leach creates the illusion of linear perspective. Each successive sine wave moving across the surface of the painting appears to taper and thicken in proximity to the next wave. This attenuation leaves the impression of a spatial recession characterized by a rolling wave. Leach then applies to these drawings a restricted colour palette of thirty-two colours that she organizes in complex repeating patterns. By repeating a sequence of colour placed in order from dark to light, for example, following the placement of the four darkest colours, she can complete a painting as a series of logical next steps.  By altering the sequence or the colour key, Leach can create an almost infinite variety of unique colour patterns.  

Most observers of Leach's work, however, have tended to focus on the optical illusions generated by her drawing and compare her to the British Op artist Bridget Riley. While Riley uses elements of graphic design and colour theory to achieve her optical effects, Leach's images are arrived at as intellectually conceived complex repeating patterns. Colour rarely plays an illusory role in Leach's work. It is simply there. In thirty-two infinitely varying parts.

* * *

There is a dream about painting that it is a pure thing, and that the act of painting can magically connect directly to feeling - not needing or using language or symbols. Colour and mark-making in this dream don't signify or describe ideas and feelings - they are ideas and feeling that, through magic or the genius of the artist, and with the requisite labour pains, may be born as pure uncorrupted feeling on canvas, as painting, and as art.

That's the dream, anyway. Unfortunately (or fortunately), artists are not mood rings that simply emote colour. Pure painting exists only in the world of dreams because during the process of painting, consciousness asserts itself. The artist must choose colour. Colour must be mixed - the quality of the hue, tone, opacity or translucency must be considered. It must be applied with the correct consistency, and dry with the appropriate gloss or matte surface. If it is wrong, the artist removes it and tries again, or the canvas is discarded and another is started.

Consciousness asserts itself in the viewer as well. Colours and marks can generate lateral associations and trigger unintended responses in the viewer. References may awaken the memory of other works of art, to other times and places, and to mundane things. Any colour may recall not only a similar colour in some other painting, but also the colour of a dinner napkin, a piece of commercial packaging, or perhaps an article of clothing. That little drip of paint can start to look uncomfortably like some other artist's little drips, and that spot of yellow may look too much like the yellow on that box of laundry detergent that just went out in the recycling this morning. All of which is okay if that is the ride the artist wants to take you on. An X-Ray of the artist's soul, however, it most probably is not.

Which brings me to Angela Leach's colour charts, the sheets of paper filled with tiny hand printed colour names, which she brings out when asked about her preliminary sketches. Leach doesn't make colour renderings per se, she makes lists of colours, columns of colour names, maybe a page or a page and half of colour names for each painting. Colour, for Leach, is a game where all possible combinations and outcomes exist only to be explored. She doesn't make an emotional investment in any one colour or set of colours. She has only a vague idea what a painting will look like when she begins, how its dominant colouration might appear. In her system of charts and lists, colours change - spectrally from warm to cool and back again. They skip and repeat in predetermined sequences. She is interested in how colour mutates, how it can start out as one thing and become its opposite. Leach's thirty-two colours may be analogous to the musical twelve-tone scale, where all notes on the scale are given equal value - the closest comparator perhaps being the rhythmic polytonal repeating patterns of Phillip Glass's compositions.

In the end, her colour patterns resist logical or sequential apprehension. They actively push back when you try to understand them in relationship to each other. Her patterns may coalesce into a virtual waterfall of shifting colour values or fragment into seemingly infinitely variegated and contrasting groupings. But I can't figure it. Every time I think I have found the key to one of her colour schemes, it starts to come undone. The repeating pattern changes - the colour I anticipate should be there, isn't. And maybe that's as it should be.

* * *

I stand before these paintings and I am enthralled, as I observe how the artist has been able to construct from the same box of colours both gentle spectral shifts, and vibrating complementary contrasts. Enigmatic highlights appear to shine, and curious dark spaces appear to recede. Tonal areas and patterns at times seem to levitate above the surface, spontaneously and unexplainably, like the appearance of crop circles or mirages. Having failed to enter these paintings both physically and syntactically, I have returned to the surface, where I am seduced by appearance, and where Angela Leach's paintings gently toss and roll, hover and settle, sparkle, vibrate and shimmer.

Gordon Hatt, 2003

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