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AT THE GALLERIES:Art interpretation isn’t always black and white

Black and white are the most important colors in the artist’s palette. They give the artist control over color, form and saturation. Without them, pigments are cartoonish and flat, and dimension wouldn’t exist.

Pardon the art lesson, but we also need to talk about carrier oils. Artists mix more or less oil into paint to thin it (for oil paint, that is — acrylic is totally different). The oil speeds drying time, but it also makes the color more transparent.

This complicates drying time as well — the more layers, the longer it takes to dry, and you must wait until each layer dries before adding another or the paints will mix on the canvas.

If a color is transparent, it has the ability to change the qualities of the layer underneath it. An artist might put 50 layers of color on a canvas before finding the right combination of tone, saturation, lightness, etc.

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I’m reviewing these things for you because of the work of Darren Grant, currently on view at Diana Ferrone Gallery (1951 So. Coast Highway) through March 22. Grant’s color studies make use of these techniques to great effect.

They are dark without being dismal.

“Cobalt Space” (50 x 68) is exactly that. Although a bit flatter, dimensionally, than the other canvases, Grant’s use of black is expert. Cobalt is a difficult color. Its intensity tends to steal away any sense of depth. If you don’t know what you’re doing with black, it’s easy to make the intensity disappear into darkness. White just makes it wash out. Grant keeps the cobalt vivid.

Too much cobalt and the eye gets tired. It’s an exhausting color. But Grant also uses crimson under-paint. The effect is to make the blue seem as if it is smoldering, on fire. Its large scale adds to this effect. The canvas is meditative without being static.

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Grant also uses geometric forms, mainly squares and rectangles. He shapes these using the edge of the brush, but also suggests them in the under-paint.

“Insight” (48 x 48) has these forms on its red and orange surface, but also in the layers beneath.

Geometry gives color a place to reside. Grant’s canvases often seem to have self-painted “frames” — a separate few inches of color that square off the color and keep your eye from wandering off.

“Captivated” (48 x 48) is probably the best example of this — its title even suggests it. Multicolored rectangles move around the canvas in red, blue and orange tones, but a frame of red, black and yellow keep them confined.

The canvases also have very complex color combinations. Although primarily red, “Insight” also has olive, cobalt, yellow and violet slipping across its surface, carefully maintained in the same tonal range — no color stands out or seems “stuck” onto the range of shapes. They harmonize.

The other interesting thing about Grant is his brushwork. “Insight” is full of neat vertical and horizontal strokes. This speaks to his skill with mixing in an oil vehicle, because this tends to make the brushwork disappear. Grant’s upper layers of paint are more pure.

You might be detecting that the titles of Grant’s pieces declare his connection to abstract expressionism. Here we arrive once again, as we have so many times in this column, at the problem of originality.

No painter of color studies can work successfully without dealing with the massive shadow cast by Mark Rothko.

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Rothko’s most famous canvases were on an enormous scale. He used all the things that I’ve listed above to such a degree that the phrases “staggering genius” and “soaring religiosity” would not be an exaggeration applied to his work.

His canvases sometimes took months to paint because of the many layers, layers that sing with light. He used black like the master he was, culminating in his final years in canvases that were studies in layers of black.

He used rectangular shapes and matched complimentary and contrasting tones, and even framed his canvases in the color of the under-paint.

It seems to me that Grant has brought a certain humility and friendliness to the color study. They are beautiful canvases. They are inviting and pleasing. They make you think and feel.

So, what to do, as a reviewer? Is it fair to compare? After all, I’m not inviting you to compare this column with other geniuses of art criticism — with Walter Pater, say, or even Oscar Wilde.

But you do have to ask, what are these canvases doing that is so different that we as viewers receive them with the kind of complexity the artist is clearly asking for, with the same emotional demands of those pure experiences that are Rothko’s canvases?

Of course, that experience is intensely personal. You’ll have to answer that question for yourself.


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  • BOBBIE ALLEN is a poet and writer who has taught art theory and criticism. She currently teaches writing at the University of California, Irvine. She can be contacted at bobbieallen@mac.com.

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