“As in poetry, so with colours. It is the mystery of interior life which liberates, radiates and communicates. Beginning there, a new language can be freely created.”‘Absolute Colour Space’ is an apt title for a show that elegantly explodes the autonomous space of painting. Linear shapes of translucent colour hover in a seemingly endless space; no longer bound by the limits of the paper or canvas these forms float upon, through and above a transparent ground of clear acrylic. Drawn from a multiplicity of horizon lines these oblique shapes exist within the space of pure visual illusion, a formless, abstract space of virtuality.
Sonia Delaunay, 1966 (1)
In discussing the show and generation of this series Burns described his interest in the relationship between the polarities of the ‘concrete and illusion’. By pushing the limits of his own pre-determined system (a system based on his initial choice of three colours that he mixes from pigment and impasto) he is exploring the infinite through the finite; the endless permutations and possibilities of colour which shift with each remixing and which change from context to context, from viewer to viewer:
“The only limit to this system is the predetermined choice of colours ...the sky is the limit really...”Also presented in the show are a number of the formative studies in which the ‘colour stories’ (the recipe or formula of the final paintings composition) are evolved and tested. In these experiments on acetate the forms are precisely etched above a key of perfect rectangular daubs of paint. This key includes the three initial colours and the genealogy of subsequent colours mixed from those. These studies are important in underscoring the relationship of the works to the pseudo-scientific process of their generation; one which is precise and methodical and yet open and inquisitive. The titles of the paintings reveal a similar methodical questioning; rather than a series of answers or solutions they are catalogued numerically according to the ratio of pigment to impasto and to the length of time of their creation. By titling works such as 401:126:118 there is a telling dialogue introduced between the resonant colours and hovering forms of the paintings and these integral, numerical titles, reminding us that colour is essentially the (measurable) wavelength of light. But this gap between the esoteric titling convention and the vivid, evocative paintings also suggests the possibility that words, numbers and scientific analysis are inadequate in delineating the operations and effects of colour and light as argued by Josef Albers in his classic text Interaction of Color.
Adam Burns, 2011
“Practical exercises demonstrate through color deception (illusion) the relativity and instability of color. And experience teaches that in visual perception there is a discrepancy between physical fact and psychic effect.”That Burns’ colours are mixed and selected intuitively (i.e. he is not working from pre-mixed colours but using his own particular palette) extends this sense that it is a personal and perceptual science he is exploring, one which the paradigms and rules of traditional science do not fully accommodate.
Josef Albers, 1963 (2)
The relativity of colour is a concern that has been explored by philosophy and science since ancient Greece and the hypotheses of Aristotle on the individual nature of vision and perceptual sensation. In the early twentieth century Erwin Schrödinger conducted extensive experiments in the area of colour perception testing individuals responses to light waves of fixed frequencies. Discovering that the same colour sensation could be produced by combining waves of different frequencies, he suggested that this undermined previous assertions that the experience of colour was simply a direct correlation to wavelength. Following Schrödinger’s departure from traditional science and art’s attitudes to colour, Burns’ application of it is not a means for creating a codification or a formula for specific phenomena but rather, an empirical study of colour’s manifold – sometimes contradictory – innate qualities and possibilities. He is experimenting in the realms of the human science of colour perception, i.e. a science which is multifarious, evasive and volatile.
“I saw that the basis of colour is its instability”In these paintings there is not a slavish relation of colour to form but rather the colours and forms (the hovering geometrical bodies) work in harmony to try and achieve a balance that transcends the limitations of either. They operate in an uncertain space – that of thought and experiment – but casting shadows on the gallery walls which simultaneously imbue them with a real, physical presence.
Bridget Riley, 1995 (3)
It is important that Burns spent a significant amount of time before embarking on these paintings researching what might be constituted as the universally accepted ‘perfect shape’. During his second and third years on the Fine Art undergraduate degree at Northumbria University Burns conducted extensive studies and surveys into this subject. Though the general consensus tended towards citing a circle or sphere as the ‘ideal shape’ he decided, conversely, to implement a form which was comparatively ‘harsh and diagrammatical’. Again, I believe, there is a sense of using a form to go beyond itself; to push the limits of a shape that appears ‘harsh’ into a state of smoothness and sublimity. But it is also as a form defined by its relationship to the implied horizon lines, highly self-referential and located definitively in the domain of art and the illusion of painterly perspective.
Burns’ specific choice of scale in these paintings and his project to find and implement the ‘perfect shape’ resonates to the ancient search for the golden ratio (from the Pythagoreans and Plato through to the writings of Carl Jung on the Mandalas of Zen Buddhism) and the endeavour towards aesthetic harmony with the universe via the application of ‘perfect proportions’. This concept of a sacred geometry (the belief that there is an underlying geometric rhythm or pattern to the universe which the golden ratio taps into) is explored in forms as diverse as the rarefied arabesques of Islamic art, the ‘perfect’ proportions of Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man and in early modernist architecture particularly Le Corbusier’s contributions to the International Style. In all these examples, and inherent in the paintings of Adam Burns, is a sense of the operation of perfect forms and dedicated process as a means for pursuing the transcendent; of an attempt to communicate – via these forms and processes – with something beyond the limited form of artistic expression and human imagination.
“Both science and art are making us aware of the fact that time is a process of intensification, an evolution from the individual toward the universal, of the subjective towards the objective; toward the essence of things and of ourselves”Whilst Burns’ paintings are at once too complex and too ambiguous to be likened to the stained glass of church windows there is a faint echo between both these forms in terms of the evanescence of light as a material. The coloured glass of mediaeval churches sought to illustrate passages from the Bible for the illiterate congregation whilst metaphorically alluding to the light of God and creation. Whereas, in contrast, it is the luminescent and immaterial qualities of light itself (particularly coloured light) that directly resonate to the sublime in Burns’ work.
Piet Mondrian, 1937
Whilst he uses a highly systematic and rational approach to the production and composition of his paintings, Burns’ compositions frequently generate unpredictable results. In some Eastern philosophies such as Taoism and Zen Buddhism, practitioners accommodate accidents and chance encounters within their processes and rituals as these are seen to keep them in harmony with the real, unpredictable nature of the universe (whether it is ink blots in drawing or the random fall of the hexagrams in the I Ching). Similarly, Burns enfolds and welcomes elements beyond his control into the work. Though adhering to a predetermined system the interaction of colour and its infinite possibilities within the paintings is pushed to its limits, often invoking rogue colour combinations or unanticipated counterpoints. Whilst he has complete control over the initial colour mixing, as soon as the layers of colour are applied onto the acrylic sheet (it is flipped with each subsequent strata of colour, heightening the sensation of flight and weightlessness) the chiarascuro and colour mixing which takes place is entirely beyond his control. By fostering works whose eventual resonance and luminosity surprises even the artist, the final entities often seem to embody a shifting, unpredictable life of their own and though at the time of completion they are fully resolved Burns concedes that, with subsequent revisiting, he often sees something new or feels slightly differently about them. These paintings are as much about relativity, flux and chance within a dynamical system as they are about the interaction of colour and its limitless possibilities.
Through a questioning, alchemical process of precise colour mixing and meticulous layering Burns is developing a new, living vocabulary of painting. Unlike language however, it is not a finite or definite science. The lexis of colour and form that these paintings explore is as mutable, relative and full of questions as the traditional paradigms of science are fixed, objective and full of answers. In his own words:
“...These perfect shapes drift in a pure virtual space, challenging modernism with impulsive compositions and skewed geometry.”Iris Priest is an artist and writer, at the time of writing based at The NewBridge Project in Newcastle upon Tyne.
(1) Delaunay, Sonia, Untitled text for a portfolio of prints, (1966) republished in Batchelor, David (ed.) Colour, Whitechapel, London, (2008) p.133
(2) Albers, Josef, Interaction of Color, Yale University Press, London, (1963) p.2
(3) Riley, Bridget, Dialogues on Art, Karsten Schubert, London, (2003) p.56