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Accompanied by the grey

August 26 2020

Accompanied by the Grey

I was staring up at the sky a couple of weeks ago on a warm cloudy day. To be specific it was the 7th of August and it was early evening. I was lying on a shingle beach here in Norfolk totally absorbed by a heavy mass of backlit cloud. The thoughts that scudded across my mind were of the Divisible Projects show, Grey Matter that would open a few hours later in Dayton Ohio. Over 150 invited artists had sent in a grey painted postcard; a global and postal experiment. I drifted on to think about friends and artists in the show for whom the use of grey is a key factor in their work. I wished we could be there together.

I thought about grey works that I have seen and remember, Gerhard Richter’s grey paintings and mirror works, Alan Charlton’s use of grey as an signifier for form in space, Cy Twombly’s fascination with time, space, and movement in his 'Treatise on the Veil', Bridget Rileys matt flat grey scales that although formally stable make me feel slightly sea sick. Ellsworth Kelly’s greys however locate and ground me. I would like to spend time with Brice Marden’s layered, romantically paced pigment and wax paintings. …and who doesn’t think about Picasso’s Guernica.

Richter says, grey’s inconspicuousness gives it the capacity to mediate, to make visible in a positively illusionistic way, like a photograph. It has the capacity that no other colour has, to make 'nothing' visible.’

I love the softness of a grey day, that mid tone that seems to make sense of every other colour. I discovered recently that people with paler eyes find it harder to focus in bright light due to having less pigment in their irises. Softer light enables longer looking. I have always enjoyed the moment when the light begins to fade into evening, especially in the city. Brightness down…saturation up. David Batchelor talks of this moment, he says,

‘in the city the luminous is always accompanied by the grey: they co habit and sustain each other in an often unacknowledged relationship of independence.’ On this particular evening on the beach the sun suddenly dropped below the cloud, just before it set, and everything glowed.

The following day I pulled Chroma by Derek Jarman from the bookshelf and noticed that the chapter on Grey is titled, Grey Matter, He begins with a quote from Kandinsky, ‘ Grey is void of resonance, an inconsolable immobility.’ Jarman list various negative associations for him to greyness, school uniform, Nissan huts, drizzly days of boredom, but contrarily he offer us grey as a tenacious colour. A colour that can take things out, or draw things in. The grey of Mantegna, the led of Anselm Keifer, the felt of Joseph Beuys.'

Back at the studio table I reflect on grey in my work. I realise I mostly I use a very thinned transparent black: for the purposes of seeing through. This is a barely there black, it responds to the surface and alludes to grey though it really is black. It is black diluted with light; a permeable black.

I decide to mix some greys myself from highly pigmented water colours. It is a nuance vortex, the colours are sucked in together and the results resolutely hum. I am reminded of felt, recycled cardboard and handmade paper, these greys are full of pigments that used to be separate but are now bonded together. Cool green warm violet: warm green, cool violet.

Later I flick on through the several underlined sections of Batchelor’s book, 'The Luminous and the Grey,' his title taken from Wittgenstein's’ questioning observations and notes on colour. I like how Batchelor journeys around this subject, he writes,

grey is the most tentative of colours and the least absolute of any; it is difficult to imagine a pure grey. Grey is the colour of in-between. It is the irregular path between the imagined absolutes of black and white, and I am constantly reminded in grey of that which is not. Grey, then is potentially as rich and as complex as other colours and, in its very own way, unlike other colours. Contrary to the idea of grey that is contained in caricatures and in many conversations, actual greys, greys of the world are rarely so simple, so predictable, so dull.’

At the studio table the reading and placing of a grey for me acts as a type of a gage; a device to measure and record dimensional information. It senses depth and temperature. It is a conduit for both association and for action. The beauty of grey is that it can be singular and multifarious. It holds the promise to be both, apparently silent, but so often, shimmeringly poetic.

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