Alice L. Hutchison

“Thus the puzzle we are faced with is neither a psychological nor an aesthetic one: it is a cultural one, and as such it is filtered through a linguistic system. We are dealing with verbal language in so far as it conveys notions about visual experiences, and we must, then, understand how verbal language makes the non-verbal experience recognizable, speakable and effable.”

Eco continues his semiotic perceptual-experiential discussion of COLOUR, in that one “must pass though the semiotic structure of language. As a matter of fact, colour blindness itself represents a social puzzle, difficult both to solve and to detect, because of linguistic reasons.” (p. 159)


Alice L. Hutchison

Gustavo Artigas and I have been working since we first met in Mexico City in 2004 – for six years now, a long gestation period to hatch a plan. It has turned into a theoretical exercise. In any case, whether an exemplary artifact of Deleuzian ‘becoming’ over this time, or in this discussion ‘organs without bodies,’ we have had an extensive conversation that has continued throughout various political upheavals, at least two American administrations, Mexican elections, devastating global wars, economic disasters on the micro and macro scale, personal upheavals, the birth of his child, international residencies and relocations, various curatorial positions, hundreds of emails and letters, and ultimately finally finding fruition right here in this text for this new publication. The various countries and continents in which we have both adventured in our work over this time has provided a dazzling array of contexts in which to consider his artistic practice and given us an opportunity to reflect upon these various cultural backdrops, and situational, relational aesthetics from multiple perspectives.

To describe his work in the simplest of terms, Artigas combines a poignant merger of art, sport, and performance. He is well known for his works relating game structures to disaster situations, creating interfaces to be played by spectators or specific groups within a given community. One of the projects that he recently proposed for our Southern California campus environment was to be an extraordinary performance festival in which fraternities and sorority groups would perform their initiation rituals. This proposal was not warmly received by the university I was heretofore employed with, nor any of the other major campuses here in Los Angeles whom I approached in an attempt to gather these various competing ‘teams’. It brought home the fact that the university system itself could not support even a faint whiff of radicalism, self-reflexive critique and irreverence. Where was there space for humor, play or irony within such a structure? It was all too true – the Academy is a slow moving maze and haze of bureaucracy more so than the museum establishment. It was going to be impossible to produce something with such a spirit of intuitive playfulness within this cultural framework in which such proposals were quite alien, and in obvious fact of necessity, Artigas’s projects often take place in the social spaces just beyond institutional control. It would have been a hugely entertaining, popular and dynamic culmination of his performance works, in which such performances are presented as Actions and live Events, where social tension and behavior are thematics, exacerbated by extreme or unusual situations; imperative subjects in his work. One could easily imagine unplanned synergies and wonderfully boisterous ‘accidents’ happening within such a frat-fest. It would also be an anthropological analysis of an aspect of our Southern Californian academic culture, with the Mexican cultural anthropologist turning the table on Western ‘normalized’ perspectives on anthropology, analyzing the American college community rituals as an exoticized artifact of a dysfunctional über-capitalist society. As such behavioral phenomena has become an entrenched institutionalized and sanctified part of American higher education, and flourished into morphing hybrid rites and rituals, this must say a lot about the infantilistic preoccupations of the culture at large? However Artigas is never the cynic, and this would be a conjecture in which he may pose the questions, but is asking his audience to meet him half way, with his participants the essential canvas upon which to draw clues. This theoretical proposition Initiations would have been, and perhaps still could be, an important sequel to the project in which we first made acquaintance; Opening/Intervention (Mexico City, 2004), during which two American football teams competed to tear down a gallery wall, wearing custom-designed helmets and customized football outfits, hurling themselves from both sides, at a dividing wall until it collapsed, and they collapsed upon each other – a literal and physical mis-en-abyme of cultural assimilation, desolation and a pithy triumph for aestheticized testosterone physicality. After all, aren’t such games a ritualized outlet for which? Since the early nineties, he has structured his projects around the notion of “the unavoidable essence”, “the surprise”, and the possibilities of playing games that produce confusing responses before preconceived actions within a given social context. So always, there is serendipity involved, where chance takes the helm. Chance and most of all, with a stress upon its concomitant potential disaster and danger…

The thrill of danger which is really what makes his work unique in the contemporary art world today, and creates an inherent artistic identity in which he can readily be identified, (although again Artigas has played against this stereotypical notion of essentialized artistic identity in a performative action Duplex in Madrid, 2001), brings me to discuss his more recent projects – primarily the Risk series of paintings and its implicit issues of toxicity; the exhibition itself titled PINTURA Y PAISAJE (Painting & Landscape) 2009, evoked academic classicism and art historical conservatism in its title only. Artigas’ approach toward the subject of painting and the landscape genre, focuses upon the uncommonly explored notion of toxicity disguised and invisible to the naked eye, in the pigmented materials used within the creative processes. The artist’s scientific, specifically chemically-oriented analysis here, reveals and extends the artistic platforms and solutions developed around chance, accident and risk. In this exhibition, Artigas presented a series of monochromatic oil paintings in which a description of the toxicity of the pigment utilized in the embodiment of each paintings’ palette, is stenciled in the center of each, in various languages, alongside video footage of landscapes, reliefs and volatile textures formed by (some illicit) substances equally potentially hazardous and harmful to the human organism.

It is important to note the early philosophical context of pharmakon the Greek word for pigment which both Plato and Aristotle treated with great suspicion, this illusionistic image-producer, seducer; “color” — for it was the same word in Greek as ‘drug’ – color and drug were both signifiers of the narcotic, the creator of illusions. And now the issue of narcotics is a most pressing crisis in Mexico, so while his contemporary Teresa Margolles may take a very direct approach to the subject, Artigas again removes any direct commentary upon such a significant social crisis undermining contemporary Mexican communities particularly, although the situation is rife globally. As if to put a colored gel lens over the subject of narcotics (the way one lights film and theatrical sets), the pigment paintings become statements for the collector and required a specific art gallery context. Pigments for the canvas and cosmetics for the face have become synonymous from Aristotle to Minimalism, with artifice. In David Batchelor’s book Chromophobia, he notes that: “Since Aristotle’s time, the discrimination against colour has taken a number of forms, some technical, some moral, some racial, some sexual, some social.’[1] In Chromophobia, Batchelor notes Aristotle and Plato’s derogatory references to colour as a drug. Aristotle referred to it as pharmakon, and Plato viewed a painter as merely ‘a grinder and mixer of multicolour drugs’.[2] At play here is the effect that colour can have on perception. Such stark monochrome reductio gave rise to the West Coast Finish Fetish artists reaching its apotheosis in John McCracken’s lucid red (and brightly colored) planks. (McCracken I think would support my cosmic view of this ongoing project too). Color has become synonymous with the “feminine,” the suspicious and dubious “painted lady” (a biblical reference to the Scarlet Woman), or the artificial paradise of the ‘picturesque,’ color has been maligned through the millennia since these early damnations, and it did reach religious banishment as a commandment; “No graven images” (Exodus 20:4) for the primary superiority of: THE WORD. Umberto Eco, in his pertinent text, ‘How Cultures Condition the Colours We See’, concurred, “colour is not an easy matter.”[3]
For Artigas’ Colour Risk project – there is an echo of this ancient fatal attraction to color: and quite literally. It is perhaps the most literary and linguistic of his series over the past decade, with a description of the actual toxins essential and inherent to each pigment, and its dangerous ramifications, in various global languages, in order to better communicate such potentially hazardous information to the world. Josef Albers once said “colour deceives continually…”. Color also encodes information: political alliance or affiliation, nationality, flags and economic indicators, to sacred coded meanings. There is also the issue of Artigas taking up painting. And language art simultaneously. Whether there is any relevance to bring up a questioning of religious doctrine within this Risk painting series may be way over-reaching potential analysis or anything the artist may have intended, but I think there may be some validity, particularly for artistic radicalism within a highly Catholic culture, which represses such anomalous practice or counter-cultural discourse of rebellion and self-expression. While there is a deeply rooted and profound history of socially-engaged Mexican painting and muralism on one hand depicting Marxist social utopia, and at the other end of the spectrum, the intensely personal Surrealism of well-known expatriates such as Leonora Carrington; for a contemporary artist in Mexico City to begin a new series of paintings within this art historical context is an ambitious proposition and raises multiple questions, as he is taking very hackneyed tropes and traditions to pose fundamentally culturally loaded questions within a wrought and challenging contemporary environment. Is there any nationalistic relevance or cultural specificity indicated by which pigment relates to which language? And conversely too, the paintings themselves can also be viewed too without any cultural baggage, simply as aesthetic objects to adorn a contemporary living space.

The fatal attraction inherent to these paintings, which can be viewed separately or as an installation, feature various topical disruptions if ingested or upon contact with the skin, usually carcinogenic. Such dangers inherent to the act of painting have never been so blatant and make it far more precarious than any hair-raising conflicts with an adversarial critic. The symptoms are as follows: ALIZARIN CRIMSON: Causes dermatitis and allergies in a few people. May cause serious skin irritations. COBALT BLUE: Repeated skin contact may cause allergies and irritation in specific parts of the body. Inhalation and ingestion may cause asthma, fibrosis, lung cancer and diarrhea. Other symptoms are vomiting and fever. CHROME GREEN: Chromate causes allergies and irritation in some people. May cause skin ulcers. Inhalation causes lead poisoning and lung cancer. Chronic ingestion may cause vertigo, muscle and kidney damage. Can cause respiratory irritation. WHITE LEAD: Can cause fatal lead poisoning. Ingestion is a cause of some gastrointestinal damage. Causes neuromuscular disturbances and anaemia. Other effects include birth defects, headaches, irritability, weakness and fever.

With such positive and redeeming qualities, pigments therefore imply too much risk, and really, can be left in the art supply store from whence they came. The series reveals no intentional reflection upon the current dialectic around contemporary painting and its continued relevance, nor whether there is really any attraction to painting at all, per se, so there is really no point in bringing up color theory per Josef Albers, nor the Joseph Kosuth tradition of imaging statements with the graphic use of words, as we are now in the realm of scientific analysis; Chemistry. Instead, we are brought back to Artigas’ meta-theory: Every activity involves risk and Art is no exception; although there are many varieties of artistic production as a recreational experience, occupational activity or therapeutic supportive care and treatment. The background of this risk reality can be found in early studies of so-called Occupational Disease or those conditions related to specific work activities. The notes of Bernardino Ramazzini in his book De Morbis Artificum Diatriba (Of the diseases of workers) published in 1713, is of particular relevance. The artist’s ongoing study will include comments on the damage from the development within various disciplines including painting, printmaking and sculpture. The most representative colors in the spectrum are manifest in twenty-seven monochromatic oil paintings (each 1.22 x 2 meters). At the same time providing information about the real harm that exposure to these pigments have on the body. The text clearly articulates the color of each painting detailing the injuries that occur in different organs caused by direct and indirect, inhalation or ingestion. This series is the first delivery of a long-term project that includes a study and exhaustive compendium of traditional and contemporary technical materials. From a risk perspective it is always possible to assess and interpret differently, the way we understand and relate to human activities. The contingency of risk, the open possibility to materialize an injury is in this project a metaphor for the interpretation of the work of art: How art affects us and transforms not only varies according to how we perceive it but also how close we are to it. The risk inherent in painting is self-prescribed and comes with a public warning.

[1] David Batchelor Chromophobia, Reaktion Books London 2000,p. 29.
[2] Batchelor, op cit., p. 31.
[3] In On Signs, ed. Marshall Blonsky, JHU Press, Baltimore MD 1985, p. 157.