To create his rectangular paintings of luminous color, the Los Angeles-based artist John Knuth collects hundreds of thousands of house flies, feeds them pigmented sugar and confines them to a space barely larger than the canvas.
In that sliver of space, the flies swarm and land, every so often regurgitating a bit of pigment onto the surface of the painting. The result is a sort of pointillist exercise in luminosity – Rothko by way of Seurat by way of “The Fly” – in which millions of tiny dots add up to a sweeping gradient of color.
Knuth’s “Stellar Dispersion,” a series of four panels created by about 500,000 of his buzzing minions, is on view through January in the University at Buffalo Art Gallery’s “Splitting Light,” a safe but refreshingly straightforward debut exhibition from associate curator Rachel Adams.
For the show, which explores the ways in which contemporary artists are using color not only as an ingredient in their work but as the main course, Adams has assembled a diverse collection of artists working in photography, painting, fabric and light.
As an artistic material, color comes in no purer form than pigment, which makes up the essence of Shiva Aliabadi’s “Traces III,” a minimalist installation created with high-grade plastic wrap and three bright hues of Holi powder – the kind used in Indian festivals. The piece creates a sense of three-dimensional velocity via two-dimensional means, with color seeming either to seep down onto the floor or soak up into the walls like a litmus strip.
In a nearby corner, Aliabadi has papered the wall and floor with reflective squares of gold foil, turning the space into an ad-hoc polygon of the sort you might see in a video game. Her work fractures reality so subtly and politely you hardly realize it’s happening.
For sheer sumptuous beauty, it would be hard to beat Gabriel Dawe’s “Gateway,” a visually overwhelming piece made of hundreds if not thousands of pieces of hanging thread. The thing looks like the poached hide of some otherworldly Snuffleupagus spread out as if to display the full range of its natural beauty. It is anchored by a central spine of deep purple threads, which give way on either side to ochre before tapering off to bright amber at the edges. It’s a successful attempt, as Adams writes in the succinct four-page broadsheet that accompanies the show, to materialize light “through texture and dense saturation.”
The photographer David Benjamin Sherry employs color developing techniques to his curiously composed and often disconcerting shots of natural landscape-format camera that allows for crisp and detailed prints. Sherry shows how easy it is to make something familiar seem foreign by confounding our brain’s expectations. A landscape of western rock formations, for example, shouldn’t have a candy-blue hue. Simply by applying one, he forces the viewer to register new details in an image they might otherwise have passed by without a second thought. It’s a big, blunt wrench, but inarguably effective.
There are areas where Adams blurs the otherwise tight focus of the show, including work by artists for whom color is merely one of several important components rather than a central conceit. These include Amanda Browder, whose tall collages of patterned fabric hang in the tall Lightwell Gallery, divorced from their original and highest function of adorning the exterior pieces of architecture. Compared to their earlier installation on the UB Anderson Gallery and the Center for the Arts, the piece’s power as an architectural adornment is greatly diminished, even in the vertiginous space where it now hangs.
One of Adams’ most inspired selections is Hap Tivey, an artist of lesser renown but no less vision than light art pioneers Robert Irwin or James Turrell. Several of his projections and LED-accentuated paintings are on view in a dedicated room. The paintings are simple constructions – acrylic canvases encased in screens evocative of flat-screen televisions and illuminated by LED lights – that seem to extend deep into the wall. Or maybe into some other dimension.
Tivey’s geometric wall projections use lengths of shadow-casting string as dividing lines between two fields of constantly shifting color, demonstrating how simple it is to add a sense of structure to something as intangible as light. This work adds an element of the ethereal to the other artists’ concrete, not to say old-fashioned, employment of color in their work.
On a campus where issues of perceived race are currently front and center in the wake of a controversial art project by a UB graduate student, this exhibition also contributes unintentionally to that ongoing conversation.
In its way, it demonstrates that color is a fiction resulting from accidents of perception mixed with cultural associations. It is merely the fracturing of the visible spectrum into things we call “purple” or “orange” or “blue” or “black.”
What meaning it has is imposed from without – by those seeking to maintain old divisions, or, much more promisingly, by artists attempting to stretch our perceptions in new directions in order to render those divisions absurd.