The Relativity of Black: Q&A with Vincent Como
We’re all familiar with Spinal Tap’s ruminations on the color black. In this memorable scene of the mockumentary This is Spinal Tap, the band gathers around their manager as he reveals the jacket cover for their new album, Smell the Glove. There’s no text or any other adornment on it. It’s simply black -- understated and confusing for a 1980s hair band. “You can see yourself on both sides. It’s like a black mirror,” a bewildered bassist mutters. “Well, I think it looks like death. It looks like mourning,” complains the singer. “There’s something about this that's so black. It’s like ‘how much more black could this be?’ And the answer is none. None more black,” observes Nigel, the lead guitarist.
It’s all rather comical. But it’s also kind of profound -- black is death, black is the absence of anything else, black is mystifying, black is stupid. Ad Reinhardt, who was the “black monk” of the New York School, may have agreed most with Spinal Tap’s guitarist. For Reinhardt black was purely an aesthetic-intellectual pursuit and hence the negation of all symbolic meaning -- “none more black,” as Nigel put it. Color, on the other hand, is always making assertions and striving for meaning, and in that sense, Reinhardt added, “it may be vulgarity or folk art or something like that.” -- Matt Smith Chavez, San Francisco Contributor
Installation view of Laura Judkis’ work in Group Show (2013) at sophiajacob in Baltimore
But black makes assertions and strives for meaning too. It may just depend on your perspective. One only needs to look at the powerfully dark black figures in the paintings of Kerry James Marshall and Michael Ray Charles to glimpse at the poetic connection between blackness and the darkest of chromatic blacks. Fred Wilson’s black glass tears in Drip Drop Plop take this association one step further, shedding the narrative human figures to focus on the blackness of his materials and its connection to the black experience.
There are also dark narratives in black, narratives about death for example. Mark Rothko’s descent into depression and eventual suicide was accompanied by a series of black paintings that culminated in the Rothko Chapel. No matter how we experience those black canvases -- even if we’re not interested in their potential association with mortality -- black has always been a part of the rituals that we erect around death.
Black as a point of departure, then, is fraught with possibilities. I recently asked three diverse artists -- Brooklyn-based Vincent Como, Oakland-based Sean Talley, and Baltimore-based Laura Judkis (#100) -- about their thoughts on working with black. You can find my conversations with Como below. We’ll post my conversation with Talley next week, and with Judkis the week after that.
Matt Smith Chavez: To be interested in monochrome paintings like you are, you must also be interested in the history and the legacy of the monochrome. Can you tell me about your interest in this legacy? What are the points of departure that you’ve used to arrive at your work?
Vincent Como: It’s funny, you know, because while yes, I am quite interested in monochrome painting, I don’t often make that specific a distinction. More often I think I find myself considering “Painting” and the whole arc of the “History of Painting”, of which the subset of the monochrome is just another agent within this greater network. I don’t think I can consider the monochrome autonomously without taking in this whole legacy of Painting itself, but there is a sort of shorthand, I think, within the continuum that allows us to pick up at the genesis point of monochrome painting, or non-objectivity, which is located within Modernism, and that's something I'm very interested in.
Modernism is an incredibly fascinating series of events and particularly the latter half of the 19th century and entering the 20th because of the intellectual and technological upheavals which really catapult us into the present day. Certainly in relation to the visual arts -- I’m talking about Malevich, Mondrian, and even Duchamp’s contributions to the canon of art history. But my specific interests in it have more to do with the evolution of human consciousness as a whole package, and the expansion of our ideas and ideals within the framework of these networks and communities that we see starting to become much more prevalent, much more integrated with one another. This is the point where we start to truly become global. I mean, we know without question that we became so interconnected because we collectively figured out a way to finally facilitate war on a global scale in 1914, right? We're not talking about empires spending months marching across the alps, we're talking about crossing oceans and vast distances in a fraction of the time in order to impose our ideals on another location. This places us outside of any sort of localized tribal community for sure. The western scope of trade, as well as our relationship to influence, partnership, and power dynamics changed and expanded enormously with this step into a more deeply connected age.
Now, I might be taking somewhat of a circuitous route to illustrate this point, but for me and for my interests within a painting-centric practice, I can’t separate the influence of characters like Darwin, Freud, Crowley, Marx, Charles Fort, Nietzsche, Einstein and so many other major and minor players within modernism because I think there’s a cumulative effect at work on our understanding as a whole, regardless of any differences in the discipline they are working within. Through their lines of inquiry, as well as the technological advances of the day, like photography and laying of the Transatlantic telegraph cable, there was a collective push, a dissemination and acceleration of new information which I believe helped to thoroughly open human consciousness in such a way as to lay the groundwork for understanding and eventually accepting the notion that a painting could not only be something that was “abstract”, or no longer an illustration or caricature; something which makes no external reference, and thus becomes a thing-in-itself.
This thing-in-itself, this monochrome, acts as an object rather than an illusion, even if it presents an illusory space due to its depth of surface. That’s an issue with the organ or tool perceiving the object though, not the object itself. This object is a mark, in toto, a statement of information or intention made by human hands to convey an idea. This idea doesn’t necessarily fit within the context of our existing language-structure and so it becomes its own language. The language of painting, the language of abstraction, the language of the monochrome. In this way, I think of the work I make as statements or objects about human comprehension and limitation, the history of painting, the history of modernism, truth vs. belief and the successes or failures of this thing we call "progress".
MSC: The work in your show at Minus Space seems to explore the mystical and spiritual associations with the black monochrome. The works are directly tapping into our cultural interpretations of black. Is this something you were thinking about when producing this work, staking a claim that is in direct opposition to the idea of the monochrome as the negation of all affect?
VC: I think there’s actually a host of affect that can be experienced through the monochrome by way of Edmund Burke’s framing of the sublime. But we’ll get to that later...
The Paradise Lost works which were shown at MINUS SPACE were really the culmination of a perfect storm and I’d say it was one of those times when everything fell into place the way it was supposed to, or expected to, and then once in place it took on a life of its own and generated a whole set of new and unexpected connections. The initial idea for the series came from a news article which briefly mentioned a fire damaged Tintoretto, and I felt that the idea of an old master work being destroyed/transformed through fire was something important. I couldn’t stop thinking of what it might look like and the potential severity of the charred black that would have been left behind. I felt it was something that needed exploration.
I was aware from the outset that I was setting out to do something that is pretty multifaceted and in the end, fairly overloaded in association for objects with such a reduced outward appearance; the Tintoretto really just being the tip of the iceberg, if you will. First, applying the classical techniques of the old masters toward a monochrome end is, on the surface, a little absurd. I’m certainly aware of that, but I wanted to get the work to that place of convergence where the material properties of the painting’s construction, the linen, rabbit skin glue, oil primer, multiple glazes and varnishes, spoke directly of itself. Declaring its existence as this thing, this classical painting, without having to give in to any other narrative illusion within itself or reproduce in any way something external. The paintings then become the physical embodiment of classical painting, a signifier of the traditions of painting like an overt missive, because they are distilled to nothing more than the most direct material and application. As the monochrome absorbs the classical, the modern ideal overtakes the traditional belief structure. Next, this object-missive is subjected to the candles installed just underneath/in front of them where they are continually burning. This is both an act of veneration and mourning for the traditions of the past as well as an act of manifest destruction. Further destroying the traditional ways which had already been dismantled through the becoming of the monochrome. This acts in much the same way as moving through the stages of alchemical transformation, where the destruction of one state of existence through fire and putrefaction, prepares the distilled essence for the next stage of being.
These works are in constant flux, and yet suspended within that same act is that of becoming. They operate on multiple levels, certainly tapping into cultural interpretations and other aspects of mysticism or spirituality, but I also feel that a good deal of that is a contingency of the viewer. Something that is trapped within their specific neural activity through their personal knowledge and experiences. These are the tools through which the viewer is assessing, deconstructing, and relating to the work, and I feel very strongly that these works act as catalysts toward a mining of the viewer’s psyche in order for them to piece together a coherent understanding of what is presented before them. Certainly, by titling the series Paradise Lost I’m stacking the deck in favor of certain associations. Certain parallels that exist between Milton’s text and these paintings and the relationship to losing an ideal structure or ideology, and what is then opened up out of that very absence. Lucifer’s expulsion from Heaven creates the realm of Hell, Adam and Eve’s disobedience causes their banishment from Paradise, yet brings forth their enlightenment, their conscious reality. A reality which is fully aware of the absence of Paradise.
As far as staking a claim in opposition to the monochrome as a negation of affect, I would place that burden upon the viewer and their subjective interpretation of the work. The way I approach the monochrome is not only or always as a negation, although those ideas do filter through the process, but rather, as a concentrated whole. I see the monochrome as an interface offering information (albeit sometimes heavily obscured) and the viewer translates or interprets the information as best they can. So, while the object of scrutiny doesn’t necessarily imply an emotional response, the interpretation from the viewer may very well enter that territory, and if we can circle back to the sublime, I certainly understand if a viewer is overcome with any number of emotional responses due to an unsettling lack of information to guide them. I believe that anxiety toward an object of such extreme reduction is a very real and very tangible response.
MSC: What about your more recent work, The Temptation to Exist 001 and The Temptation to Exist 002? As two dimensional compositions they seem to relate more to the idea of black as the absence of color and affect. But then I find myself wanting to respond emotionally to the canvases’ unfulfilled potential (they are folded and rolled up, not stretched over bars). It’s like you’re inviting me to have an affective response to a minimalist monochrome work. And that’s a response I’m not accustomed to having.
VC: You kind of really nailed it with the idea of (unfulfilled) potential in these. This example is one of a couple different series’ I’ve been working on this year and these in particular are very much related to themes like failed ideals. Perfect concepts which crumble and collapse under the weight of their own history or dogma (again, like modernism, or a black hole, or capitalism) and yet, are still presented as the desired outcome of all combined factors, either because of an inability to adapt or due to the absence of a viable alternative to this present condition.
The series is titled after an essay by Emil Cioran, who was a Romanian philosopher in post-war France. The essay frames the fear of death as a paralyzing agent which infests the human consciousness creating an inability to break free of its hold upon us; forcing us into a state of never quite being. So I thought that the idea of an object which may not have always been in the present state that it is currently seen was an interesting parallel to the text. Perhaps these works are something which may yet be slated to become another object altogether. They each function in a liminal zone of understanding, always being something on the one hand, and never becoming realized on the other. All we know as the viewer is what is presented before us, but there are enough clues present to suggest these objects could, might, may have been, something else.
I’m glad to hear you are experiencing these in a new way, with an emotional response that you weren’t necessarily expecting. I think the possibilities are out there for multiple reads, but again I think they all really hinge on this idea of potential, and the idea that we’re stepping into a situation where we only have the information that has been presented before us, and any number of things could have happened in that space prior to our occupying it, as well as after we take our leave. The world doesn’t stop spinning just because we look away.
Vincent Como has exhibited his work throughout the United States and abroad. The focus of Como’s work is black, in both subject and material. His work has been discussed in publications such as the Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, ArtSlant, Art Press, Progress Report, and Bite Magazine among others. He holds a BFA in Drawing from the Cleveland Institute of Art and is represented by MINUS SPACE in Brooklyn, NY, where he recently presented the solo exhibition Paradise Lost.
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.