Colour in science and the material word is objective. A thing. Chemical compounds dictate the pantone palette. Specific shades have trademarked names. Fire engine red, apparently, is fire engine red – a concrete entity.
And yet, for animals and humans, colour is highly subjective. Perceived with all of our senses and even noted as a peripheral detail, colour assumes an emotional register, volume, texture, cultural and symbolic weight and (for some) a sonic vibration. Experienced in condition of perpetually shifting natural light, colour is mutable. Under artificial light colour is concentrated or obscured, transformed, bleached, rendered optical or unstable: Mechanical colour. Digital colour. Even the arbitrary palette shifts of an iPhone camera setting put the spectrum on a mechanical grid.
We speak about the truth of colour (by virtue of our ability to reproduce a specific shade accurately) and yet colours found in nature can never be accurately represented, they can only be assumed. So perhaps it is within this gap, between organic hue and projection, that Matthew Johnson’s work dwells. His painting deals in permutations, emotive triggers, unlikely textures, the convex molten halo or the sculpted void that certain colours carve into white space.
Since 2000, Johnson has created a specific series of paintings following a structural model that balances the sphere within the square. Drafting up a grid in pencil, a circle of pigment merged into stand oil, is daubed into the centre. Johnson chooses this particular antiquated art material to release the luminosity of the pigment. Each dome of colour is a discreet entity: some function almost like a conductor moving energy through the kinetic space of the composition, while others merge to create a mass.
In his most recent work the play of contrast is deflected by a far grainier surface. Colour, as a central argument or subject, seems to be absorbed by light; falling light, disintegrating light, light that makes a painting look vast and distant or humid and immediate. Some of the large works trigger a primal evocation, some memory buried under a lifetime of artificial light. Imagine, for a moment, the perception of colour in a world illuminated only by the sun in the day and oil lamps at night. Or, later in history, the limited reach of a single candle within a darkened room. Night, before electricity was absolute.
Colour and light relates to the cycle of time, a cycle interrupted by the perpetual daylight of the modern age. These new works appear attuned to those highly subtle shifts in perception and generate a place of stillness. The idea that colour is not there to lend solidity but to participate in a process of decomposition and diffusion seems critical to this series and it’s gradual qualities of introspection.
The atmosphere generated by a work such as Limn Marine is one of absorption and engulfing silence. The base of the work is a single darkened mass. An obvious break from the patterning of individual circles of colour, this work addresses light rather than the materiality of colour and in particular, the light of dusk:
“This painting alludes to last light, where light passes into night and there is this moment in low light everything appears monotone. I have never really used much black in my artworks as light is always perceived as a colour tone even in the lowest of light source. We always tend to use white to illuminate a notion of light. The low end of the colour spectrum is a purple mauve, that is the colour I have used to emulate the light subject within this picture. I’m always trying to find new codes within a defined perimeter. This relates to the each colour having its own ascent and descent within the picture plane.”
Colour names form. But light changes all colour. And most painting stands at the intersection. This series goes deeper into the schism between native beauty and the man-made sublime and as the artist infers, nostalgia is a huge part of our attraction:
“We are often conditioned by 1000’s of pieces of visual peripheral information daily, to the point that a sunset or sunrise is not an experience but merely a conditioned image. Nature has become an electronic memory.”