Friday, June 13, 2014

James Howell

Studies in colour gradation were an integral component of Josef Albers’ teaching. It was a means of cultivating among his students a “more discriminating sensitivity” when it came to distinguishing between deeper and lighter hues. 

“We study gradation by producing so-called grey steps, grey scales, grey ladders”, he writes in Interaction of Colour. “They demonstrate a gradual stepping up or down between white and black, between lighter and darker.”

94.75 to 96.66
acrylic on canvas 
each 66 x 66 inches
October 2003

The painter James Howell has transformed this simple exercise in visual discrimination into a life project. He explores relational colour increments through the colour grey, which he works up from titanium white, ivory black and raw umber. They are mixed with the utmost care with a view to attaining the most equal modulations in shade that he can achieve. This has led Howell to delve deep into colour chemistry and to rely on computer aided technologies. This has been especially necessary in order to ensure that the temperature of the grey remains constant, in spite of the shifts in shade he might wish to apply.

s10, Set 91.14, 7.5.99
acrylic on canvas
40 x 40 inches

In earlier works, he painted a series of grey tones on separate aluminium sheets. But in his latest series, Howell paints horizontal bands of grey on a single, square canvas, always setting the lightest shade at the top, and the darkest at the base. These works are distinguished by the tonal range they depict. Some are calibrated so as to expose an almost imperceptibly narrow degree of variation, while in others the parameters are set further apart.

Set 68.98 12/27/94 
Acrylic on .25 honeycomb aluminium 
33 x 33 inches

At first glance, these works look monochromatic and almost blank. It is only gradually and from close up that the narrow bands become perceptible, and we come to notice the artist’s delicate, meticulous brushstrokes. Gradually the paintings' underlying order and rationale reveals itself. But no sooner do we have a sense that we have grasped the nature of this artistic project, and we start to enjoy the heightened sensation of knowing that our eyes have become attuned to these infinitely subtle gradations, then something strange happens.

The work ceases to feel like a mere rigorous optical exercise, and emerges as an unending, poetic meditation on the essence of the opaque.