The Relativity of Black: Q&A with Sean Talley

Long time critic David Levi Strauss proposes that art criticism “involves making finer and finer distinctions among like things.” Sean Talley’s most recent body of work makes a similar kind of assertion with regard to color. For every black surface in Talley’s work there’s a blacker still, an ever finer distinction among like things. And while black may sometimes be considered the absence of color, in Talley’s case it can remind us that chromatic variations result from surface and material properties. As Ad Reinhardt explained, there’s “a black which is old and a black which is fresh. Lustrous (brilliant) black and matte black, black in sunlight and black in shadow.” Black, it turns out, is a multiplicity of colors.

Sean Talley | AIILCI, 2013. Graphite powder on paper. 14 x 11 inches

Last week I started writing about the relativity of black -- black can mean everything at once or nothing at all. I recently had a chance to speak with three diverse artists about the way they use black in their work. Last week I talked to Vincent Como about his monochrome paintings and their relationship to modernism. Today we post my conversation with Oakland-based artist Sean Talley. Next week you’ll be able to read my conversation with Baltimore-based Laura Judkis. My interview with Sean after the jump -- Matt Smith Chavez, San Francisco Contributor

Sean Talley | AIV, 2013. Graphite powder on paper. 14 x 11 inches

Matt Smith Chavez: Where do the titles for your works come from?

Sean Talley: The titles are meant to be formal representations of the works themselves. After I finish a piece, I try to remake it using the letterforms of the alphabet. If you look at a drawing alongside its title, you'll often find that the marks that comprise the two share some visual characteristics. The titles are unpronounceable and difficult to memorize much like the objects they represent, yet there always seems to be something lost in translation.

MSC: I was looking at some of your older work -- from your 2008 show at Jancar Jones Gallery -- and I was surprised to find color. Can you tell me about this trajectory, from color to mostly black compositions? What have you found by shedding color?

ST: That was the first show I did with Jancar Jones Gallery, and it marks the beginning of a line of thought from which I'm still drawing: art making is a form of design (this idea came to me from an essay by the Dutch design studio Experimental Jetset). The works in that show can be described as geometric shapes of primary and secondary colors arranged on paper. The description is like a machine for producing artworks. They're all different, and they're all the same.

Then I learned from Montessori toys that by isolating and varying one property of an object (such as its weight or size) but keeping all of the other properties the same, you could start a conversation about the property you're modulating. Sol Lewitt points this out in his Sentences on Conceptual Art: "If an artist uses the same form in a group of works, and changes the material, one would assume the artist's concept involved the material." I was considering this approach when I made the work in my 2009 show at Jancar Jones, and that's when I started thinking about color in a different way.

Sean Talley |
LLXYI, 2013. Graphite powder on paper. 14 x 11 inches

I began to consider color as merely one property among many different properties of almost all visual things. Put simply, I realized that everything has color. As I understand it, all visual objects reflect ambient light into our eyes, and colors are simply the names we have given to different parts the visible spectrum.

The funny thing is that by not using deliberate and obvious colors (named colors), I inadvertently introduced many new, unnamed colors to my work.

MSC: That’s interesting. When you mention unnamed colors, are you referring to the subtle differences in the shades of black in your more recent work? There’s definitely something kind of unnamable about those contrasts.

ST: I'm referring to more than just the different shades of the layers of graphite. By not using those primary and secondary colors, I began to see the particular colors of all of the materials I had been using shifting under different lighting conditions. I noticed the colors of light reflecting off of the paper and the graphite and the mat board under plexiglas, and then the frame too with it's shadows on the wall behind it.

Sean Talley | SIOIT, 2013. Graphite powder on paper. 14 x 11 inches

In web design there's a rule that you can only ever approximate the colors that your audience will see because every user views the internet on a different computer monitor. That's not actually a new concept. Environmental conditions have always had a profound effect on how we experience color. I imagine that Robert Rauschenberg's white paintings look drastically different when the lights are out (Didn't John Cage famously call them "airports for light?").

Now I'll contradict what I said earlier: It's probably better to say that color is not something that an object has; it is something that an object does. The quality of its performance depends on its context..

MSC: I’m interested in the connection between your ceramic sculptures and your two-dimensional work, especially as it pertains to your work from 2012. I’d like to imagine that both approaches are exploring the properties of line -- is that a valid connection to draw? And by the way, which came first, the sculptures or the two-dimensional work?

ST: It's a valid connection, sure. The noodly drawings came out just before the noodly ceramics last year.

Sean Talley |
JWXTNJO, 2012. Unglazed Ceramic. 8 × 8 × 8 Inches

Sean Talley |
MIQIQVA, 2012. Graphite Powder on Paper. 14 × 11 Inches

I'm not the type of person who has tattoos, but if I had to get a tattoo I would get a tattoo of a scribble. I would want it to look spontaneous and sincere like a scribble to start up a dying ballpoint pen. Being a tattoo, it would have to be applied slowly and carefully though — more like a drawing of a scribble.

That's what I was trying to get at with those scribbly, gestural drawings. They're quickly drawn in Adobe Illustrator with my index finger on my MacBook Pro's trackpad. Then they're methodically transferred to paper using a laser cutter and graphite powder. I'd like the final works to seem loose and stiff at the same time (al dente). And I can see that certain characteristics of their look are determined by the technologies I use to make them (I think this is true of all drawings, but it's something I usually take for granted).

Around the same time I started working with clay. One day I found an extruder in the supply closet of the ceramics studio. An extruder is like a Play-Doh Fun Factory: you fill it with clay, pull a lever, and noodles spill out of it. I cut the ends off my extrusions and realized that the forms were very similar to the computer-generated lines in my drawings: they both have consistent thicknesses and neatly truncated ends.

Sean Talley |
FLEPZHI, 2012. Graphite Powder on Paper. 14 × 11 Inches

Sean Talley |
UNUNUNU,  2012. Unglazed Ceramic. 7 × 3 × 3 Inches

But of course, ceramics have very different concerns than drawings. The presence of gravity is a big difference. That seems obvious now, but I'm not sure I would've realized it if I weren't making drawings at the same time. In my drawings marks can seem to float in space. They can be disconnected from every other mark. By contrast, all of the parts of a ceramic sculpture must be connected. They rely on each other to achieve verticality (to resist the force of gravity). So moving back and forth between drawing and ceramics has revealed some "truths" about each medium.


Sean Talley’s work has been exhibited at Jancar Jones Gallery, Artists’ Television Access, and New Langton Arts in San Francisco. Talley received his BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute his MFA from the University of California Berkeley.

Matt Smith Chavez is an artist and writer based in the San Francisco bay area. He’s an MFA candidate at the University of California Berkeley.


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