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Ittenology: Marita Fraser and Nancy Milner at Rook & Raven,  22 January to 5 March 2016

A review by John Stephens

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

In its press release, Rook & Raven claims that it has drawn on Itten’s treatise The Elements of Colour to bring together the work of Marita Fraser and Nancy Milner, and that through their sculpture, collage and painting the two artists explore Itten’s theories. It is, however, difficult to see this relationship in the work of Marita Fraser, not least because Itten’s treatise is purely about colour (in painting) and Fraser’s work is essentially monochrome, without colour, with two of her major pieces in the show consisting of open wooden frames.  In my view, the curators have tried, unsuccessfully, to make a link between Fraser’s work and that of Milner - and thereby Itten - by appearing to frame some of Milner’s works with Fraser’s open-frame structures and by hanging one of them on one of the structures. You will perhaps therefore forgive me if I focus entirely on the work of Nancy Milner in responding to the challenge set by Itten’s treatise.

In his introduction, Itten asks:

“In the realm of aesthetics, are there general rules and laws of color for the artist, or is the aesthetic appreciation of colors governed solely by subjective opinion?”

His answer:

“If you, unknowing, are able to create masterpieces in colour, then un-knowledge is your way.  But if you are unable to create masterpieces in colour out of your un-knowledge, then you ought to look for knowledge”

And indeed, some scepticism might be justified in relation to knowledge about colour theories and their being no guarantee of making masterpieces or even, more modestly, good paintings.

Milner’s work has quite obviously had an intensive engagement with the teachings of Itten and she almost emphasises this focus on colour by avoiding titles; instead, her works are identified by number. They are characterised by arrangements of rectangles in horizontal bands, often with vertical divisions becoming apparent within them. As a result there is no particular focus within the arrangements, just an all-over design rather than composition.  These arrangements then allow Milner to focus on the colour relationships that she can orchestrate, and as might be expected, to deal with the problems that Itten identifies in his teachings, largely through contrast: complementary, warm/cold and dark/light contrasts.  

Nancy Milner, #13, 2016, Oil on canvas, 76.2 x 61 x 1.8cm. Photo by Tom Carter, courtesy Rook & Raven

Milner tends to use cobalt blue and orange with some frequency, but she also uses a fair amount of black, or what initially appears to be black, with yellow. This is particularly evident in No.13, a very satisfying work and almost a textbook application of Itten’s teachings, but which is also quite complex in its thinking.  Divided into narrow horizontal bands of changing colours, it starts on the left with variations of blue; cerulean and cobalt against variations of warm and cooler reds and oranges, then moves on to yellow and black, and then reverts back to the blue / orange relationship towards the right-hand edge. Although the painting is divided into clearly-defined horizontal bands (Milner uses masking tape meticulously) the paint is brushed across each band so that there is a slight diffuseness between one colour and the next, resulting in mixtures that occur between those contrasts.  In this way she establishes brief tertiary mixes of opposing colours, or opposing tonal contrasts.  

It is here that it becomes apparent that Milner is not using black, but rather an indigo, because the mixes with yellow briefly yield a deep green, and the mixes with the cooler reds, a violet.  The effect is of a painting that is seemingly organised with horizontal bands but also has strong vertical definition.  And within this there is a rather fascinating colour syncopation at work.

(L) Nancy Milner, #10, #6, #11, installation shot by Tom Carter, courtesy Rook & Raven

The curators admitted to me that they had faced a challenge in how to hang paintings No.10, No. 6 and No. 11.  Each painting is identical in size, each is identical in the way the colours are immaculately distributed, but each has a different colour proposition.  The curators ultimately opted for a close hanging of the three in that order, from left to right.  And in doing so, they have achieved an effect similar to that of No.13, with a diffuse vertical division of colours in each painting and a physical division of only a couple of centimetres between each painting.  Again, Milner uses a range of contrasts, warm/cold, dark/light, in the horizontal arrangement of the colour, but in their vertical arrangements the colours (apart from the centre panel) appear less strident.  The horizontal bands of colour are again created between taped edges with the paint applied across the band, and with blurred transitions between the combinations of colour within each band.

In No. 10, the left-hand panel, Milner uses what appears to be her favourite combination, cobalt and vermilion, but here alternated with green and a deep violet.  She then alternates the left/right relationship to create various vertical relationships that seem to depend on comparisons of hue.  So, there is green with blue of a similar chromatic value, contrasted with cobalt, then vermilion against deep violet and violet against cobalt.  The right-hand panel, No. 11, plays with similar values although the palette is different; again with two sets of horizontal relationships, of black and orange and of green and deep violet, alternating left to right. The vertical relationships cause the eye to engage in a hopscotch-like scanning, up and down the paintings, as it shifts between the arrangements of shades and hues.  The centre panel, No. 6, has the brightest and darkest-toned colours.  And this time, the horizontal bands alternate between close hues of red; warm and cold, one tending to pink, the other to orange in one band, and the strongly-contrasted black and yellow in another creates an in-out spatial shift. It also creates an interesting vertical arrangement running through various combinations of black, vermilion, yellow, pink. Another effect that this close hanging achieves is the jump of colours across the narrow gap between the three paintings. It is at this point that the combinations start to expand on Itten’s ‘rules’ to create relationships between orange and yellow, pink and green, orange and black.  Again, this is a quite complex set of paintings that has benefited from the curators’ hanging, to read as one work, and it demonstrates a creatively intelligent interpretation of Itten’s teachings.

Nancy Milner, #1, 2015, Oil on canvas, 130 x 115 x 2 cm. Photo by Tom Carter, courtesy Rook & Raven

I would not want to suggest that complexity in itself is an over-riding virtue, and the paintings No. 1 and No. 2 are for me the most daring paintings in the show - they are much simpler in concept as well as in their initial colour relationships.  These two paintings are larger than the others in the show, but at 130 by 115 centimetres, they are by no means ‘large’.  Nevertheless, their size allows Milner to be somewhat more generous with her brushwork and with colour effects.

No. 1 consists entirely of the juxtaposition that I have already mentioned, and which appears to be Milner’s favourite colour combination: cobalt blue with vermilion.  The two colours are arranged in a two-by-four grid, forming a vertical division down the middle. The effect is that the proximity of these these two colours causes them to jockey, chromatically, for attention, almost creating a pulsing sensation. The more you look, the more aware you become of the fact that the painting consists of a set of very subtle close-hued variations of cobalt and vermilion, which offer different readings when they are set against their chromatic opposite.  The darker cobalt occupies two rectangles, diagonally, in the centre area of the painting, while the corresponding rectangles are occupied by two versions of vermilion.  The top and bottom sections of the painting have a light cobalt, which vies with a light vermilion at the top and with a darker vermilion at the bottom.  So within what appears to be chromatic simplicity, what you get, in fact, are a number of ways in which to read the painting, making relationships between the diagonal arrangements of the dark and light hues of each colour as well as the variants in the warm / cold contrast.

Nancy Milner, #2, 2015, Oil on canvas, 130 x 115 x 2 cm. Photo by Tom Carter, courtesy Rook & Raven

And finally, to my favourite painting in the show: No. 2.  Here, Milner has used the same strategy as in No. 1; that of single contrasts, but this time using the tonality of black against a set of tonally-lighter red derivatives, ranging from a cadmium red to pink.  There is, however, a difference in approach. This is a more painterly resolution, albeit within a similar grid arrangement as No. 1. This time Milner has not adhered meticulously to the taped-off edges; she has instead deliberately painted over some of them, blurring the boundaries between black and pink. In some divisions she has painted wet on wet: black over red results in shades of red with, in one instance, what might originally have been a cadmium becoming a moody russet, and in another, what was a pink assuming a sombre mauve-grey.  Here in particular, the size of the canvas has allowed Milner to use much freer brushwork, and this, together with the shifts from sombre tertiary colours to pure hues and the tonality of pure black, makes for a painting that’s emotionally highly charged.  And it is here too that Milner confidently addresses Itten’s challenge about colour knowledge, reassuring us that in adopting a set of rules about painting, artists do not necessarily become dogmatic.  Indeed, rules, if that is what they are, are there to be broken.

Ittenology: Marita Fraser & Nancy Milner. Installation shot by Tom Carter, courtesy Rook & Raven

Ittenology: Marita Fraser & Nancy Milner. Installation shot by Tom Carter, courtesy Rook & Raven