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“Anachromisms” 26, 29, 30 & 31

“Anachromisms”, paintings 2007 – 2015 by G R Thomson, are excerpted from the treatise of painting that has occupied the past thirty years of the artist’s anti-career. The essay that follows was written to accompany their current outing (12.09.15 – 04.10.15.) at The Mercus Barn, 24 rue Gabriel Péri, 09400 Mercus, France.

All paintings are acrylic co-polymer emulsion on acrylic printed linen.

All photographs of “Anachromisms” were taken in the exhibition space. No artificial illumination was used.

Now, I have no barney with the most recent phase of Peter Joseph’s work. At a time in a long career when many a painter settles for a mannered revisiting of tried and tested routines, his painting continues to break new ground. Cause for unqualified celebration.

However, the phase in Joseph’s oeuvre that interests us here is that which lasted around thirty years, during which each painting entertains the same, formally reductive, pictorial device: a single, centrally placed rectangle, framed by another. These are among the finest colour paintings you are ever likely to encounter. Repetition draws attention to differences, within each painting and from one to the next. These differences, and the differences between them, are registered in exquisitely calibrated chromatic and tonal orders. Executed with ‘airy severity’, artless artfulness, each testifies to painstaking research, fine judgment, wit and learning.

Although Joseph ceased to work this seam around ten years ago, paintings from it continue to haunt me, remain with me, in me, always.

Another, more striking coincidence. By an entirely different path – in my case, through figuration – I had arrived at the same framed/framing pictorial device repetitively deployed, to striking effect, by Joseph. But if his and my pictorial means were once strikingly similar, they supported strikingly different outlooks.

And another. Just as he breaks out of the frame of the framed/framing, anti-compositional device, I retain it, even as I rupture with the square format of canvasses retained by “Anachromisms” since 1984. From 2007 onwards, each study in the ensemble will feature two, root-2 (√2) rectangular format canvasses, hung in portrait orientation.

One thing is certain. Colour is difficult. Singularly and severally, “Anachromisms” obstinately, repeatedly, beg the question of the conditions under which the study of the work, or play, of colours, shades, tints . . . in reductive, formally ordered, non-mimetic paintings, might constitute the object of a science. Chromatology? A study conducted by, through and in the text(ure) of painting, the materiality of the sign (seme) clothed in the matter of stretchers, canvas, priming and paint.

Seldom seen. Seldom sighted. Seldom sited. Seldom cited.

“Anachromisms” featured in a number of solo and group shows in the context of “Exhibiting Space”, London. This collective-collaborative public intervention, co-initiated by Thomson in 1983, successfully articulated theoretical, social, political and aesthetic dimensions of systematic constructive art practice. The project retained his close involvement in the day-to-day running of its public phase until 1989. In a field of cultural production notoriously hostile to collective-collaborative action, “Exhibiting Space”, remains unique, having achieved all of its publicly stated goals, and more. Nothing to touch it had been essayed before, still less since.

Since those days of intense interdisciplinary and social engagement, Thomson’s artistic explorations have been studio-bound, pursued in near-total isolation. (Which is not to claim that the spaces of studio or workshop or gallery are any less spaces of social and political activity.)

Chromatology was never going to be the gayest of sciences. Yet, for any materialist practice worthy of the name, rupturing decisively with the idealist outlook that corrals colour as the province of purely subjective experience, remains necessary work. Necessary, essential work, undertaken in the knowledge that there are no clean breaks, no once-and-for-alls, no final solutions, no pures, no simples. And in painting too, no pure and simple transcendental order of the One, the Whole . . .

The moment of each numbered “Anachromism” is thus two-faced. Each is split, cut down the middle. Each is in bits. Double. Beside itself. The model here is the hyphen, the non-phonetic signifier of simultaneous linking (suture) and separating (coupure). Temporalising and spatialising. Each dramatises, plays for all it’s worth, the complications of coupure and suture. Splitting is considered the condition of possibility of a ‘moment’ of unity, the makings of a restricted economy, if you will. It also signals its impossibility in terms of the general economy that it is at once a part of and apart from. Cause for celebration? Cause for concern? Joy or rage? Neither? You decide.

They are the material traces of events, findings, traces of traces, assembled in a kind of formal notation, non-phonetic writings-paintings. Runes. Runes of the ruins of the day. The kinship of the writing-painting here is with other types of non-phonetic writing: musical, mathematical, choreography, computer programming notation.

But these texts in remembrance of things past are also a looking forward. They look forward to being read by respondents other than their first respondent, their so-called author. (Now and then, I welcome one or more of my two dozen or so reader-respondents to my workshop-barn. Unread paintings are the undead, not texts but a storage issue.)

Clearly, the reading strategies proposed by the re-framing sketched above challenge those whose interpretive power insists on the centrality of the individual-subject to the so-called creative process. On the place of the subject in the making of works of art, I suspect, although I do not know, that my studies and those of Joseph might reach a fork in the road, a point of rupture.

To return to our subject, the work, or play, of colour and impersonal form within and between “Anachromisms” takes place within a restricted, highly regulated economy. The laws or rules inscribed in the ‘legislating matrix’ by which the play of elements making up the restricted economy in question is limited, are collectively, socially elaborated, agreed and in the public domain. There are no inaccessible, privatised symbolic orders here, linguistic, chromatic, tonal…ultimately arbitrated by the more or less knowing or whimsical I-eye of any individual-subject-author.

In the last instance, the play of difference, linking and sundering each and every painting framed as “Anachromisms” takes place within an economy regulated by non-hierarchical, like-for-like, exchange. Here we recall the salutary reminder of the French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser that “the lonely hour of the last instance never comes”. For all the legislating matrix’s legs – legal, legislative, legible – the Economy never appears ‘as itself’. Just as structural linguistics has no place in the transcendental Signified, there is no Economy, ‘as such’. Whatever the impression to the contrary conveyed above, the means of production, distribution and exchange of “Anachromisms” are fashioned out of the material resources of painting. The legislating matrix has cognisance, in the judicial sense, of the materiality of painting. To that extent, it is not a pre-constituted, abstract, pre-scription, imposed on matter from a legendary ‘outside’.

Abstraction figures, of course. Strict mathematical calculation of the area of one chromatic-tonal field finds itself involved in a border dispute with another, whose condition and effect border on the incalculable. For all that geometry and mathematics play in their construction, “Anachromisms” have nothing to do with the quasi-transcendentalism of ‘geometrical abstraction’, still less with the formal prescriptions of  ‘systems’ junkies. Beyond simply using, using up, the colour-stuff, under what rarefied order of necessity might ‘geometrical abstraction’ find itself obliged to incorporate, and hence account for, the play of colour?

In practice, all the claims advanced in the name of ‘scientific socialism’ proved bogus. The enlightened revolutionary rhetoric acted as cover for forms of reactionary political and social practices. Any hint of emancipatory dissent from the existing order of power was systematically choked off by the administration of narcotising doses of rational terror.

The ‘scientific socialist’ antidote turned out to be infinitely more enslaving than anything cooked up by the system of which it purported to be the most rigorous ‘critique’. The contribution the extreme left wing of SCAP’s establishment to class politics in the field of cultural production included robust attempts to wreck a learning project initiated by an unestablished novitiate. Genius.

The discourse of European Modernity continues to fall apart. The scientific, rational, political, legal, moral . . . legs, that once supported its claim to absolute legitimacy, no longer do so. Its stuttering progress has become a shadow of its once confident stride. Recognition of this does not imply any deviation on the royal road to ‘anything goes’, ‘relativistic’, ‘nihilistic’, ‘fascistic’, etc., oblivion.

“Anachromisms”, for better or worse, are the tracings of my stuttering, on and off, stop-start, sometimes almost legless, always less than therapeutic, steps at restorative practice. A returning, which is not the same as a domestication, of chromatology, a science almost lost, had it not been for my teaching job in a big London college of further education. There, my so-called ‘low-level’ adult literacy and maths students, mainly black and people of colour, extended to me, supposedly a colourless person, generosity and humanity beyond reason. Unknown to them, they gave me reason to go on, where the school of rational ‘scientific socialism’ recounted above delivered only an object lesson in failure.

‘Scientific socialism’ as a discourse of change, progress, predicated on what doesn’t change. Change, in the name of the eternal return of The Same, expressed in the pure and simple beautiful, terrible, abstract, universalising certainties of Mathematics. Change precipitated by immobility hardly stands to reason. Must be a contradiction. Well, yes and no. It’s what Althusser would have called a ‘symptomatic absence’; a blind spot or aporia that permits ‘system’ to become imbued with shades of chimerical coherence. ‘System’ becomes a symptom of what it purports to explain.

Where is Marx in all this? What about that scandalous Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach: ‘The philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.’? Surely that’s a spur to change, to practice making things otherwise. But the discourse in question here had, somewhat unscientifically and irrationally it must be admitted, lost sight of this. Divine all-seeing vision admits of no blind spots. Nothing could be allowed to stand in the way of the race to reproduce The Same. Any teachings of Marx deemed inconvenient to the defence of immobilism were simply added to the casualty list, erased, airbrushed out of the picture. Materialist? Scientific? Rational? Revolutionary? Progressive? Emancipatory? Don’t think so.

Chromatology refuses the consensual union between idealist and materialist that colour is the Other of Structure. It refuses the move that names ‘system’ as the originating subject author occupant of the hole at the centre of structure vacated by God. Let us not forget that such a move is a betrayal of the Enlightenment’s systematic, rational, scientific, materialist displacement of God, indeed of all forms of religious superstition. While we’re at it, let’s not forget that mathematics is a black art, whose origins lie somewhere in the Great Rift Valley, sinking terrain of the birthplace of the next ocean.

A discourse in which ‘system’ is, purely and simply, another name for the originating subject author, allegedly the centrepiece of ‘bourgeois’ notions of artistic creation, reinforces what it purports to critique. Only the name of the core ordering principle is altered, leaving the idealist construct of expressive totality intact. In this model, ‘system’ performs the role of master code, under which all other codes are subsumed. It functions as the guarantor of watertight structural coherence, in which colour has little part to play.

“Anachromisms” 25 & 26 (Salmon Leap)

The origins of the 2008 financial crisis are traceable to the so-called ‘Big Bang’ de-regulation and move to electronic trading in financial markets by the London Stock Exchange in 1983. This opened the way for the development, by capitalism’s finest algorithm jockeys, of the complex, esoteric financial trading instruments that threatened to bring the system to its knees.

The invitation by “Anachromism” to ‘read otherwise’ is hence not an invitation to slouch into some kind of abject chromophilia in which all sense of propriety is sacrificed to ‘anything goes’ textual nihilism. “Anachromisms” do not announce the abandonment of legislating order. Any suggestion that they do is, strictly speaking, unthinkable. They fully subscribe to the radical anti-theologising power of mathematics, but do not offer the reassuring mathematical certainties of so-called ‘systems art’.

Rather, they represent an attempt, however stuttering, to construct a mathematically-ordered pictorial space that restores to colour, out of the exigencies of ‘system’, the gift of the slow-fast release of its inexhaustible power, emancipated from the value of its ab-use.

Writing-painting, an economy of repetition and difference, scoring the dance of light . . .


Further reading . . .

Acknowledgments & Dedication

In addition to the writings of Louis Althusser, my scribblings above are heavily indebted to those of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930 – 2004).

Note well, however, that I am self-taught in the disciplines of painting and philosophy. My reflections, in verbal and visual registers, are offered without imprimatur, for you to mobilise in whatever way you think appropriate.  

I am also indebted to the English constructive artist, teacher, writer and egalitarian feminist Jean Spencer (1942 – 1998) for the concept of ‘legislative matrix’. For me, it economically cross-dresses the patriarchal order of profane and ecclesiastical Law (a load of men in frocks), mathematical array or grid, and womb, as world’s workshop. I punt it above in preference to ‘system’, which, for me, bears the trait and taint of rational terror.

I am honoured that one of Jean’s paintings accepted the invitation of mine to put in a guest appearance.

Finally, I dedicate the reflections above to Martine Lignon, partner of 35 summers, who has supported my labours through thin and thin, guided me out of dependency on spectrum colours into browns and greys and, most importantly, the teaching of adults.

“Anachromisms” – qu’est-ce que c’est?

By some coincidences, warps in the texture of separate histories, the body of work executed in my barn over the past ten years shows up in a barn just vacated by that of a much-respected and influential precursor.

“Anachromisms” have, on occasion, featured in the odd solo and group outing in continental Europe. Some have enjoyed a modicum of critical acclaim. More rarely, some have met with a degree of commercial success. In the UK, the hand of recognition has not been extended.

Hardly surprising. From the outlook of the culture in power, the unruly work, or play, of colour in painting remains the last refuge of idealist, anti-scientific, abject subjectivism. Within the culture in power, any hint of colour’s working to rule is liable to provoke an industrial relations crisis. Amongst the power-brokers of the culture in question, a shiver looks in vain for a spine to run down.

For the above, the scientific study of the conditions under which chromatic and tonal relationships might be formally ordered, mathematicised, systematised, in the construction of non-mimetic pictorial space, was never going to elicit universal cheer. For the culture in power, the work, or play, of colour in painting is the very instantiation of a de-regulated economy. Colour is, purely and simply, the Other of System.

“Anachromisms” 24, 2004-2007

In the globalised economy of late capitalism, much cultural production in the metropolitan north is underwritten by the anonymous labour of perhaps billions of black, brown and yellow hands. This fact struck me with the force of the blindingly obvious in the current exhibition of paintings by Agnes Martin, not a few of which are gleaming white. (Tate Modern, London, until 11 October.) Obviously, it applies with equal force to those cultural artefacts designated as knowledge. The reading we are attempting to circumscribe here re-sites, recites the visual artist as a knowledge worker. The symbolic consequences of the salutary facts cited above would therefore have to be taken into any materialist account of the place of the individual subject in the making of paintings. One such consequence would be to call into question the still-powerful cultural investment in the individual-subject-as-originating-author, the imperialism of the artistic I-eye.

“Anachromisms”26 (Saute Saumon), 1984 - 2009

Politics? Once upon a time in the early ’80s, I briefly enrolled in the ‘scientific socialist’ school of systematic constructive art practice (SCAP). Articulated by the odd established practice elder, it claimed to be founded on rational principles, forged during the Enlightenment and underlying the discourse of European Modernity. It claimed that the scientific knowledge underlying such principles would sweep away the myths of ‘bourgeois ideology’. It claimed that this debunking would pave the way for revolutionary, emancipatory social change. It claimed that because systematic constructive art was ‘scientific’ and opposed ‘bourgeois ideology’ in the field of the visual arts, it was in solidarity with such emancipatory movements.

“Exhibiting Space”, to whose work I devoted six years of my life, was in some respects an attempt by younger, unestablished practitioners, to acquire the skills to put some of the above claims into practice. It was systematically attacked for its pains, most strenuously by the very ‘scientific socialists’ who’d most powerfully advanced those claims.

“Anachromisms” 28 & 27, 2009 - 2010

“Anachromisms” 29, 2009 - 2010

Those, like myself, who continued to believe in some kind of rational ‘scientific socialist’ model of practice, were left to ponder whether our reading of it was simply a gross misreading. The stark choice was to abandon the whole field ‘tout court’ or comb the wreckage in the hope of finding anything that might be salvageable in constructing a different practice of reading, a materialist practice of ‘reading otherwise’.

Such a reading would have to rupture with models of theoretical, political and social practice that had clearly fallen into pre-scientific disrepair. For me, this rupture was a necessary step in restoring materialist credibility to what had lapsed into a version of puritanical methodological formalism, of a kind that repetitively writes cheques that cannot be cashed.

“Anachromisms” 31, (Portrush),1989 - 2012

Events or processes that change a subject for the better are sometimes spoken of as the ‘making of’ that subject. In this sense, the teaching of and by my students was the ‘making of’ me as a subject. More learned, better equipped to bear the responsibility of restoring my virtually abandoned practice as a painter.

Science remains the model and mathematics the model of science. Not therefore the mathematical model to which I immodestly declined to sign up. This model had nothing to do with science. This was mathematics systematically purged of the radical scientific moment it opens. Mathematics ab-used in the pre-scientific erasure of differences, enlisted in the maintenance and reproduction of the closed order of The Same.

“Anachromisms” 32 (Portrush - Seathrift), 2012 - 2013

The absence of colour aids the reduction of the practice of reading to a form of tunnel vision, directed to cracking the master code, the one-liner, the no-longer-even-funny punchline that ‘explains’ the painting.

Beautiful? Certainly can be. Austerity, in the construction of pictorial space, is not without aesthetic attraction, even for those who dissent from the scary politics of a certain enframing verbal discourse. Marketable? In a word, yes. Funny thing. After the shock and awe of capitalism’s near-death experience comes a little ground-swell of interest in more formally austere examples of ‘systems art’. Art of the kind that, back in the day, fancied its mathematical certainties in the vanguard of scientific socialism’s critique of ‘anything goes’ capitalist ideology, becomes commodifiable, collectable. Austerity of certain order of certainty could even be read as a kind cultural comfort blanket. Certainty in an uncertain world. In any case, austerity was never likely to chasten an art-buying clientele that has remained largely immune from its more brutal economic consequences. All of which is to forget the obvious. The crisis was, to an extent yet to be recognised, precipitated by mathematics.

“Anachromisms” 33 & 34

“Anachromisms” 36, 2014

In 1984, “Exhibiting Space” opened its doors just the other side of a cobbled street that marked the boundary of London’s old East End and the City, with its brave new world of de-regulated financial markets. No doubt it is entirely responsible for the 2007-8 crash. Truly, the culture of late capitalism moves in mysterious ways. Anything goes indeed. Quick, round up the usual suspects.

The backward-looking, crepuscular, Janus gaze of “Anachromisms” paintings, non-phonetic writings, notations, also looks forward to reading, de-notating, in the light of day, the fluctuating illumination, chromatic temperature, a certain tone and temper of the architectural, social and political spaces in which they will be read and responded to.

“Anachromisms” 37, 2013 - 2015

The most recent “Anachromisms” represent another step in the process of restoring to the practice of formally ordered colour painting some of the radical, scientific purport of non-phonetic notation.

This process, necessarily, is in solidarity with the emancipation of colour, in its materiality, from its subordination to the achromatic, or even chromophobic, exigencies of some abstract order. Despite the privileges bestowed upon it by various norms of idealism, the model of reading from abstraction is not a universal panacea. Nor is it a pathological aberration. It is a necessary reading but not the whole nine yards.

“Anachromisms” 38 (Titanium), 2015

Photo and other credits

All “Anachromisms” were digitally photographed in The Mercus Barn by Justin Jones, who also lightly LightRoomed the files. The guest work by Jean Spencer was photographed by David Saunders.

Version two of the calculating engine used to determine the dimensions of the framed element in “Anachromisms” was built to the artist’s specifications in MS Excel, by Winston Scotland. Version one, in ClarisWorks, an application long abandoned by Apple, was the work of Adam Cichon.

G R Thomson, London, Mercus, Fraïssé-des-Corbières, Port-la-Nouvelle, September 2015

Jean Spencer

Peter Joseph, 1998

This reading is also a kind of writing, a making, a scouring, a scoring, as in a music score. Maybe even a scoring through, as the notes in a musical score stave off sonorous presence, a kind of effacement, in, through, by the materiality of the sign, a cut, a wound, a scarring of the legislating matrix that assigns it its place.

Strictly regulated deployment of tonal keys, tuned luminosity of chromatic signatures, dominant and modulating hues, saturations, secondary, tertiary, quaternary subtractive mixing regimes, concentrations, dispersions, migrations, shades, tints . . .

The formal constraints of the legislative matrix (‘system’, if we must) can certainly be understood as inscribed in the making and application of colour – mixing, matching, swatching. Brushing it on.

The more rigorous role now played by such constraints in the making of colours may be down to the making, or re-making of me, by my students, as a subject better able to take responsibility for mixing and matching. How much the lesson learned from them is responsible for the making of a subject more capable of discriminating between rigour and rigor mortis is, of course, speculation, but not entirely to be brushed off.

Whatever, the present subject of colour no longer uses colour in the service of some achromatic other of colour. As the legislating matrix of “Anachromisms” has evolved, it has taken more and more cognisance of the material instititution of painting, in, by and through the making of colour.