David Batchelor


‘The Colour of Slang’
Briony Fer

One of David Batchelor’s drawings looks like a handmade colour chart, or at least a group of colour samples, with dabs of paint next to the names for the colours. Not all the pencil-drawn rectangles are filled and some of the names and the colours are mismatched. The ones that do match are pretty approximate: there is ‘blue’, but which ‘blue’? Then there are those that don’t match like the word ‘flesh’ next to a blank. Are we to fill in the colour, and if so which colour would that be? Maybe the drawing is just a series of informal jottings for an idea or maybe it’s a definite plan. Whichever, it seems to be unfinished, still evolving, as if this kind of matching and mismatching would never, and could never, be quite complete. It seems to read vertically but then again it could equally well be a plan for a layout for a group of flat monochrome dollies spread out on the floor and viewed from above. In this sense, too, the drawing is in a kind of limbo. These ambiguities don’t detract from its status as a drawing in its own right but on the contrary make it one. It is not only a drawing that uses colour but a drawing that asks what it might mean to draw in and through colour, which is to take a position against entrenched ideas about drawing, not least the still tenacious historical opposition between colour and design.

Fluorescent highlighter pens, spray paint, crayon, biro, pastel, gaffer tape, graph-paper, lined paper: these are not necessarily specialised artists’ drawing materials. A lot of them belong as much on any desk or for that matter in a classroom as a drawing table or studio. Despite their ordinariness, they make up a small but surprisingly varied repertoire of graphic materials and found colour. And although if you set Batchelor’s drawings side by side with his three dimensional work you can certainly find plenty of equivalences, the disconnections are even more striking. Spray paint spreading beneath and beyond a small patch of black tape on graph paper can be likened to the way fluorescent light leaks from the underside of the dollies on the floor in an installation but it is also different. A drawing has its own dynamic, its own direction, its own economy. Batchelor’s drawings are often economical and simple: concentrated, intensely material constellations within a larger synthetic universe of everyday colour. Colour splattered on squared or graph paper might look something like an aureole of light, but not necessarily. The connection with the actual light is dispensable – and what is more immediately interesting is the way a fine liquid splattering of colour runs riot with the ordering grid of the graph paper – or what it might mean to lay out an incomplete and partial series of colour samples on a piece of paper, gathering together some colours while allowing others to go missing.

Maybe, then, the fact that there is no artificial light in Batchelor’s new work is not the shift away from what has gone before that it might initially appear. Although he is best known for his installations of coloured lightboxes, the work was never about the light as such, but about the kind of vivid colour that could be produced by using fluorescents or by making light shine through Plexiglas or, increasingly, opaque coloured plastic – of the type found on supermarket shelves like detergent bottles. What fluorescence there is now is in the colour of a highlighter pen, which is not at all the same thing as fluorescent light. More to the point are the standardised ready-made colours in a relatively narrow range – in inks even narrower than in lights – and the brightness of the colours. Fluorescent colours are, of course, even brighter than normal colours and if they were sounds, they would be high-pitched, thin and piercing. From this point of view, both the drawing and the new work can simply be seen to extend the range of possible colour that may normally be overlooked but that fills our everyday lives. The sea of plastic which concerns him is all ready-made, but it is not the ready-madeness that is really at stake here – but what can get made out of this kind of colour. This is not about a new conception of a palette of colour that serves the same old gods of aesthetic feeling whilst using new materials of a commodity culture, but then nor is it simply an anti-aesthetic gesture either.

The towers of plastic called Parapillars are made up of small cheap household items, toys, bric-a-brac. They attach to vertical metal structures made of Dexion shelving uprights, attached at regular intervals from top to bottom and in four directions. They are like signage gone crazy, proliferating madly in all directions at once. All these small plastic items are the kinds of thing that used to be ‘Made in Hong Kong’ but which now tends to be ‘Made in China’. Batchelor has talked about finding and collecting all this stuff in pound shops (or their equivalent) from Bethnal Green to São Paolo. Cheap plastic connotes a whole lot of words – trash, rubbish, tat, kitsch, junk – all words that point to what is cast out and unwanted and contemptible; and then link to another set of words about the outmoded and the redundant and the thrown away – except all this is new rather than old or worn out. It’s not just newness but brand newness – all the more to emphasize the inescapable uselessness of so much that is apparently useful (I defy even a child to cut with plastic scissors). What is useful won’t last. Obsolescence can look brand new. At stake here, then, is a geography of colour. I don’t just mean in the sense that the kind of plastic made in different parts of the world will be different, but in terms of a global traffic of cheap commodities – which get stuck to these great towers of colour like flies to vertical strips of flypaper.

This may be geography, but it is not iconography. These are not representations of global capital yet they intervene on – and maybe even interfere with – its logic. And the way art might do that is to mess with your eyes. It may seem absurd in this context to invoke a poem about flowers by the great American poet Wallace Stevens – but absurdity is surely not inappropriate here. Flowers can be weapons too in the war on images. ‘A Bouquet of Roses’ is really a poem about colour, or better, what he calls the actuality of colour. It’s the ‘crude effects’ that interest him, the colours that are ‘Too much as they are to be changed by metaphor’. To choose a vase of flowers is to set himself the ultimate challenge of describing their palpable thing-ness (no mean feat, even for a literalist). Of course this is about how we perceive the world but it is also, for Stevens, about the colour of thought. There is no getting away from metaphor in the end, but the imaginative intensity of his writing is to take that thought absolutely and entirely literally, if only temporarily. Cheap, coloured plastic is looked at by Batchelor, I am guessing, with the same kind of intensity that Stevens paid to a bunch of flowers (or a painter like Manet might have reserved for the great colour exercises that were his flower paintings). This isn’t about trying to say that Batchelor is painting in plastic - nothing could feel more wrong; but that there is something more complicated going on here than collecting and recycling ready-made colour, something that feels at times awkward and contradictory. For example, for all the emphasis on the synthetic, and despite the fact that everything is so inorganic, there is something powerfully organic about Batchelor’s approach to construction. At least the towers, which tend at times to one side or the other, in what he terms their ‘drift’, is not a model of exact mechanical reproduction. Flowers, I admit, would be pushing it but organic growth or cellular proliferation seems just as relevant as the production line.

This has to sit with colour that could be described, as Roland Barthes once described Warhol’s colour, as chemical. Earlier, in Mythologies, written in the 1950s, Barthes had written a whole essay on plastic, noting how it was ‘capable of retaining only the most chemical-looking colours’. Barthes saw these as the colours with the most aggressive qualities, presumably for attracting attention in the clamour of the market place. However, it is worth remarking on the fact that this has changed and that these kinds of colours have become, not disconnected from the over proliferation of cheap commodities, but, precisely because of their connectedness, marginalised and made relatively invisible. Perceptually, these bright plastic colours might seem the ones to attract most attention, but culturally, they are the most invisible. Fluorescent materials are a good case in point: we barely see them. It is as if Batchelor makes us see the colour again, makes us see that the brightness has this kind of edgy sharpness, makes us see that this is literally petrochemical colour. Maybe we need this kind of colour extracted from its ordinary usage to see it at all. The fluorescent marker pen seems the measure of something here – ubiquitous, everyday, cheap colour – its double function seems at once to be overlooked and to highlight. Synthetics and aesthetics are not in this way mutually exclusive.

There is an extreme narrowing of the colour range in the monochrome towers, bringing together lots of different shades of a single colour, or a mixing together colours that seem close to each other (blue, purple, black, for example). From a distance, they look monochrome. Close-up, the effect is of almost infinite difference. This is a kind of travesty of the kind of subtle nuance found in the rhetoric of painting but is not in the end unrelated to it (in so far as maybe it would be interesting to look at a painting like this). What you see is the sheer materiality, the petrochemical effect of it all. This is another kind of mismatch. What seems at first like uniform colour ends up being lots of different shades of colour. This balancing act between the whole and the part runs through all of Batchelor’s work. Seeing things as the same or different colour is a more precarious and much more approximate business than at first it might seem. The idea of drift seems an interesting way of thinking about this, because it points to the way things, including colours, refuse to stand perfectly upright or stay in their proper place or even be what they are meant to be. This way, bright colours that we might not call dirty, drift in that direction because of the associations of acidity, corrosion and toxicity. Purity collapses into impurity. The idea of using colour in this way seems simple, but the effects are complex. It can also be comical, with feather dusters jutting out horizontally to look like the exclamation mark has been omitted. The regular ordering of the small objects come to appear ludicrous, which is both comic and bleak at the same time.

Hey presto: colour is corrosive! A series of smallish spheres placed directly on the floor would seem to embody a different logic from the cartoonish silhouettes of the multi-coloured Parapillars. For a start, Dog Day, which is black, and Doris Day, which is white, seem like a negation of most of Batchelor’s interests in colour to date. They are both made out of plastic covered flex that has been remaindered from other projects. Left over from the installations of coloured lightboxes, these are both colourless and lightless. The flex is wound tightly into a dense and imperfect ball and inside both there are flecks of other colours (but more obviously in the black one, with reds, blues and yellows glimpsed through the black). I am not suggesting that this is a complete group in any way, or even an incomplete group for that matter – but there is something about the animated slippages and gaps between the works that makes it hard to resist describing the six Eyeballs as the progeny of Dog and Doris. The language of the titles merely exacerbates the connections between them. Rather than a heavy and dense mass of plastic, these are hollow, tessellated spheres now made out of plastic sunglasses. The plastic mirrored lenses catch and reflect the light in a small but dazzling spectacle of spectacles. Looking is focused on the spherical form only to be dispersed into a thousand tiny fragments, green in Eyeball 10 and multi-coloured in Eyeball 11. I take it the title is a verb and not a noun (to eyeball). It is as if coloured plastic could act as a form of slang, taking all sorts of liberties in a radical yet at the same time exuberant reworking of conventional materials. After all, what else is slang but the bargain basement or pound shop of language? Slang is also a way of recycling and invigorating language, when original meanings get tired. Can colour be a kind of slang then? Well, in David Batchelor’s work, yes it can.

It is also, to return to Wallace Stevens, a way of thinking. Informal, everyday, ordinary thought, the kind of thinking that meanders along and then all of a sudden makes connections that light up the world in some way. Actual coloured light is not necessary for that. Maybe it is the work’s tenuous link to permanence that triggers this effect – the sunglass spheres perhaps most powerfully articulating this kind of temporariness. Barely sculpture, they become as provisional as some of the drawings – incomplete too in the best sense of opening out onto a vision of the world which is far from totalising but so all the more intensely felt. Like colour, experience splinters off in all directions. These effects turn out to have little to do with the ready-made qualities of colour in general. Or rather let me rephrase that: the important thing now is that colour, including readymade colour, is absolutely not pre-given but always evolving. Like the drawing I began with, it is incomplete, open, uncontainable, necessarily unresolved, sometimes awkward, always changing. It is not just that colour is made in our experience but that it is always in the process of becoming, constantly opening onto new thought. From this perspective, the missing colour ‘flesh’ in the sample sheet is not a lost object but a permanent possibility.

Briony Fer, ‘The Colour of Slang’, in Unplugged, Talbot Rice Gallery: Edinburgh, 2007, p. 10-13.