Scott Lyall, Susan Hobbs, Toronto, October 16 – November 22, 2014
Susan Hobbs, Toronto, October 16 – November 22, 2014
Images made through digital techniques often explicitly reference mass production, authorship or commercial processes, yet Scott Lyall's recent exhibition at Susan Hobbs is marked by a very human touch. Despite the detached and technical way in which the paintings are made, the exhibition evokes a soft, ethereal, even romantic, atmosphere. The ghostly gradients and deep, translucent blacks of the paintings are specifically the result of UV wide-print technology. A range of colour is sourced as compressed information from a digital profile, then printed with ink that is vaporized and applied at high heat to canvas or glass. The profile is a vector graph that interprets colour as a mathematical rule, producing a shifting tonerather than a block of specific hue. The result is a kind of evidence of technique, or perhaps a demonstration of the logic inherent in the technological processes employed. But in contrast to the works of Cory Arcangel or Xie Molin, the technology is not what comes to the fore. Instead the paintings have a closer relationship to colour field painting, or the near hallucinatory works of James Turrell. Inasmuch as technology is pushed to a limit, so is our perception.
Strangely enough, walking into the well-lit gallery is reminiscent of entering a dark room it takes time for the eyes to adjust before one begins to perceive the subtle shifts in each painting. Initially, one simply sees four stark, black, rectangular paintings, a white canvas, and a golden glass pane leaning against the wall with a bouquet of flowers laid loosely beneath it. It is only with careful looking that one begins to notice faint changes in colour and tone. The black works, each titled Black Glass, are not all the same intensity or tone of black, but the differences are so slight that we might begin to question our own perceptions. The longer I look at the works, the more I try to convince myself they are indeed all the same, but of course they are not. Rather than creating pure differences in their subtle shifts, they seem to stir a deep uncertainty. The white canvas, titled Magnitude (roses/pink), is in fact a gradient that almost imperceptibly shifts from pink to blue, to perhaps yellow or white. The ethereal quality seems somehow closer to perfume mist, evoking the expectance of a smell rather than a hue. Attempting to accurately see the shifts in colour, I found myself stepping back until I hit the opposite wall, which, as if anticipating this exact response, was left empty.
Upstairs, three paintings, all bearing the same title
nude, hang side by side. On a directly adjacent wall there is a painted grey rectangle the exact size of the canvases. It functions as a palette cleanser as I strain to adequately see the hues in front of me. The soft pink tones might connote faintly flushed skin, yet there is the sense that the canvases have barely any ink on them in the first place, though they are made through the application of multiple layers. The traditional nude is both negated and evoked.
As might already be implied by the negated nudes and barely-there inks, there is a sense of loss implicit in this show. It is exuded in many layers, the strongest of which comes from the thick melancholy of the Black Glass series that, despite being characterized by a flat expanse of colour, creates the impression of uncertain, and perhaps even sinister, depth. The flowers on the floor, arranged as if for a funeral, are a sign of temporality: bound to wilt over time. Then there is the information loss that occurs in a digital profile upon compression. While we do not know precisely what information is lost, nor is that loss necessarily perceptible, the remaking of each image still introduces an element of chance.
Alongside the paintings – and perhaps a bit too easily missed – is a text piece available beside the show's promotional material. The text is part of a forthcoming publication to be officially released within the next year. Titled FrameWork 11-14, it at first reads like a Mallarmé poem. Words and phrases are suspended in empty space but the impression is not one of concrete poetry as much as missing information. This is further supported by a long series of footnotes referencing exhibitions, panels, and talks Lyall has participated in. It seems this is a fragmented accumulation of his thought over time, distilled to mean something new altogether. And while large swathes of information are clearly missing, the key ingredients present themselves even more clearly for the empty space: "changing colour . . . void . . . excess . . . compression."
Perhaps because Lyall's subject matter is, as he himself describes, "aleatory," it is the uncertain materiality of the works that leaves the most lasting impression. Serving as a kind of perceptual ungrounding, these contemporary colour fields seem to abstract abstraction itself. Made by machines, and using the logic of machines, the exhibition is nevertheless deeply human. Its presentation and references tie it to a rich cultural history that both persists and changes meaning over time. As viewers, we are invited to reflect on how this history is reinvented and what our position might be within it.