When I lived in Africa in the 1940s, I enjoyed observing the haze of the lifting dew, the clouds of smoke in the distance, the thick fog in the rainy season. I made watercolors trying to capture the haze that separated me from the objects, the haze that seemed to stack filters in layers of space. Watercolor was a great medium for this because you could apply films of color with a simple repeat of the brush stroke. My watercolors were intense observations of the sunlight filtering through layers in space and unveiling what is familiar but is not clearly defined or stable.
With time, I departed from illustrating the physical fact of the environment in the natural world. As an art student in the 1950s, I focused on the essentials of a shape, simplifying it to its basic geometry. This way I could explore more selectively the “see-through” aspect of my work. I would stack shapes with clean edges on top of each other with illusory space between them. I would energize the surfaces of the shapes with vertical thrusts or lineal breakups such as those in Unashamed of Change, 1968.
These lines could be of opposing wavelength or opposing values. They might clash, or they might fuse. Either way, they offered the visual mixing of colorants. I liked this interaction because I did not want to present a “matter of fact” situation. Rather, I wanted to offer a whisper, leaving the “what” and “where” of the shapes more mysterious.
To further make the shapes in my paintings more mysterious, I invited other elements into the surface readings, things like dots or lines, as can be seen in Tactile See-Through, 1974, and Accumulative, 1975. By altering the visual appearance of the surface, these dots, dashes, lines, etc. offered the illusion that the surface was alive, breathing in and out. Distributing these types of elements all over a surface causes it to shimmer, to become evanescent, to become elusive as to its position in space.
So while the flat canvas with its divisions of overlapping multiple folds is more or less in a stable position, the surface manipulation caused by the dots or lines forces the viewer to look through this—sometimes agitating—filter of surface activity. The logic of the daily experience of seeing and knowing is continuously undermined by the surface action and the inability to visually stabilize the image.
With certain paintings in the 1950s, I learned how to achieve minimal friction of the edges/boundaries of the shapes within the painting as well as how to achieve abrupt value change. By mixing two opposing colors and then inserting their middle value, the middle value would generate the illusion of the space between the shapes, locking them into a particular spatial position. Naturally, by continuing a contour line from one shape to embrace another shape, I could also join them in a particular spatial location.
I began to play with these different ways of establishing overlapping and/or joining. This conflict between making the viewer think he knows where the shapes are, but then negating that possibility by a different logic has occupied me through all my creative years. It gave me the power to animate space and to cause it to fluctuate. Depending on what I prioritized—the rhythm/beat, the color intermixing, or the lineal contour continuance—I could sculpt space or dissolve it into pictorial flatness.
As hinted at above, over time, as far as my surfaces are concerned, lines became dots, dots became squares, squares became “windows” (lines framing squares), and windows became line rhythms again. With each of these variations I could energize the surface and could do so in subtle and shifting ways, sometimes causing the viewer to focus attention, other times causing the viewer to relax attention. Because of our inborn drive to find psychological stability, we look for completion and understanding of pictorial relationships, and the edge of forms becomes imperative for locating those forms in space. I can make the edge of forms either active or passive, make them appear opaque or translucent—and, thereby, change where the form appears to be located in space—by switching the viewer’s attention from one element to the other or by switching the appearance of the edge from stable to hazy.
In paintings like Red Diffusion, 1977, I wanted to create an illusion of actual, tangible space. In this painting, the lines do not alternate with opposing colorants to generate optical mixing. Rather, the lines are used as accurate, controlled mixtures with black, a monochromatic mixture that holds its position in space without fluctuation. This creates a lineal rhythm of values in which shapes emerge with some edges that are sharp and others that are undefined, vanishing.
The power of the artist to direct this “dance” of shapes fascinated me. I challenged myself with acquiring accurate control over color mixing, because through color, dished out in the right proportion, I could locate my objects in space with constancy and control. I experimented with the boundaries of forms and with how to sometimes make their location in space clear and, at other times, less than clear. Through color, I could produce the appearance of colored filters that you have to see through to observe the underlying shapes. I could also direct the attention of the viewer, by making shapes stable, move, or fluctuate, bringing playfulness, reassurance or confusion into the viewer’s mind/perception, as can be seen in the difference between Spring Fold, 1973, and Mirrored, 1971.
In my paintings, I have also been torn between the organic forms of nature and the rational shapes of geometry. I have always been reluctant to accept pure geometric systems because of their lack of connection to nature and emotion. However, I was attracted to geometric forms because of their clarity of beauty and thought. I decided to incorporate both organic and geometric elements in my work and to use color as the element providing emotive power.
The simple vertical line can become very aggressive in its action. However, by using line to alter the proportional mixing of color, I undercut this aggression and found another way to create multiple overlapping planes. I became fascinated with this visual phenomenon, that by dishing out condensations of lines in three or four different measures of spacing, the eye would fuse these into different optical mixtures with particular spatial locations, as can be seen in Proportional Black, 2011 and Proportional Orange, 2011. I liked this economy of means: using only two colors, but giving the illusion of many colors due to how those two colors are used in proportion. The shapes in this situation become almost tangible, almost realistic, while at the same time dissolving into the activated lineal surface.
The viewer has a different psychic response to a painting where the illusion of transparency is created by proportional optical mixing/fusion (such as in Proportional Black, 2011) and one where the illusion is created by actual, physical mixing of paint/pigment (such as in Navaho’s Summer, 1971/73), and I use both of these methods in my work. This difference in psychic response is caused, in part, by the differences in the colorants used to achieve each type of painting. In the paintings that generate the illusion of transparency through optical mixing/fusion, the dominant color used is physically the same throughout the painting, but the perceived wavelength (the color seen) changes due to the different spacing of the line. Thus, in these paintings, the mind tries to reconcile the physical fact (that there are no color shifts in the painting) with the perceptual fact (that the color appears to be changing throughout the painting). In the paintings that generate the illusion of transparency through the use of physical mixing, I usually change not only the predominant color, but also the color of the dot or line that interacts with it. This shifting of both the predominant color and of the interacting dot or line occurs in almost all of these paintings, but it is more readily seen in some paintings—such as Tactile See-Through, 1974, and Fervent ll, 1972—than in others.
By using colors that are opposing in wavelength but equal in value, and by applying them in symbiotic step-by-step measures, I can sculpt convincing illusions of overlapping planes in space. Through the interaction of the two opposing colorants (the predominant color vs. the line/dot), the eye produces the visual appearance of a third color that lays over the surface like a haze, as can be seen in Out of The Blue, 1978.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I experimented with a different visual solution to my fascination with elusive overlapping. This phenomenon is mainly manifested through lines. In these paintings, the ground might consist of two opposing colors/wavelengths or black and white, which together offer the illusion of a “spongy” surface (i.e., one not easily locatable in space). Onto this activated surface I superimpose lines suggesting overlapping geometric shapes. These lineal enclosures tend to offer a sense of solid shapes or forms suspended in space. I play with the illusion of solidity by manipulating the lightness or intensity of the color progression within these lines, thereby presenting not just one, but many ways of reading these shapes in space. So, again, the logic of what the line describes is questioned by what we almost subconsciously react to in regards to our experience of lightness/brightness of spatial positioning. In these paintings, such as Pulsating Line l and Pulsating Line ll, 1988, and Measure ll, 1989, the boundary—the line—takes full responsibility for ascribing shapes in space.
In the last decade, I confronted myself with “constellations” of small panels grouped together to exist as one unit. A number of these constellations, including the first one I made, concentrated on the illusionary see-through of shapes overlapping in space, like transparent folding planes. Each panel is really an individual painting with an individual atmosphere that prompts the visual experience of seeing into and through veiled forms in space. However, by grouping them together, I produced a “visual sound” not unlike that of a symphony orchestra, where different sounds unite into one new experience of “sound color”. I liked that. I named the first constellation I made Windows to the Past (not exhibited) because the panels were reflections on my efforts of the past 50 years, variations on the theme of “see-throughs”. For example, individual panels in that first constellation painting referenced back to paintings such as Navaho’s Summer, 1971/73. I also was recognizing the fact that, although I had been an artist in the United States for 50 years, I was still somewhat outside, looking in as if through a window.
Now in my later years, I have challenged myself with a new experience of “see-throughs”, constellations with different sounds, moods and processes. The newest one is in this exhibition and is called One Color = 4, 2011. This is a strange name, but it describes exactly what is happening in this series of fifteen panels. I used one color as the background of each panel, but through three different proportional spacings of the black lines, I achieve four optical color mixings in each panel. Each of the fifteen sets of mixtures—from bright green over blues to purples and magenta—reveals simple three-fold overlappings by diminishing the perceived wavelength purity as it mixes with black. These panels do not produce the polyphonic sound of an orchestra so much as the mysterious snares of a drum.
From the beginning of my creative life, I searched for a particular vessel that would be compatible with my psyche and that would allow me to communicate my vision of the environment to others. Since I am awed by nature’s performance, daily unveiling the miracles of creation, I did not want to compete with her by directly copying or realistically depicting the external world. I chose to humbly accept her gifts. I also did not want to represent the pain of life as the motivation for my work. Rather, I chose to deal with the awe of each new day. What has been left for me to explore is geometry as a graphic container that I then fill with luxurious color experiences.
-- Julian Stanczak, June 17, 2011