- Colour in Art by John Gage
Thames and Hudson, 224 pp, £9.95, February 2007, ISBN 978 0 500 20394 1
At the corner of Marsham Street and Horseferry Road stands the new Home Office building, designed by Terry Farrell and Partners. It was opened in 2005 and everything still looks just as it should. Along the Marsham Street frontage big plinths present crisp rectangles of grass and brimming water, orderly packages of the organic. The long, grey slatted façade that rises above them is punctuated by a white lattice over the entrance, a schematic town plan composed of 64 variously chopped-up chequers. And then, overhead, the building’s length is crowned by a further grid, a canopy of large panes looking through to the sky. Acrylic film sealed between the glass sheets turns the daylight scarlet, turquoise, sharp yellow, light green and bluish mauve.
The array seems to distil many of the experiences of colour currently on offer in urban Britain. It translates the patterns of dresses, T-shirts, shopping bags and car paint passing along the Horseferry Road; it’s echoed by commercial and institutional showrooms; it enlarges on the toolbars capping my computer screen. Colours dangle, detached. They arrive as substanceless, causeless, add-on effects in an environment not otherwise deemed to have colour. The ocean in which these arbitrary islands float may in principle be white – that, famously, has been the ideal for interiors where Modernist art is displayed. Or, more likely, in the cooler design manners of recent years, something less absolute – creams, cloud-greys, the self-effacing neutralities of MDF and cement. Such backdrops are the stalls, and bright colours are the goods. They are the quintessential sign behind shopping, browsing, culture-sampling and tourism.
You might read the Home Office street front as an aspirational allegory. On ground level, we are supplied with nature, the raw stuff of the world. Over that, we impose our urban grids, our political structures. Yet, ultimately, we reach up towards ‘quality’, a je ne sais quoi represented by these rainbow intensifications of the London sky. But probably the building’s adornments are not meant to spell out anything quite that didactic. Their creator, Liam Gillick, who graduated from Goldsmiths in 1987, has shaped his practice out of coloured plastic panels and printed texts. His environments and his writings are characteristically centreless and elliptical in effect; at the same time, they are noisy, with a will to provoke. He talks about affecting people through ‘an adjustment of things, which works through default’ and he puts forward his ambiences as catalysts for ‘discussion’. Occasionally, he turns this dialogue inwards, into the artwork itself – discreetly, as you round the Westminster street corner, a succession of angled stained-glass screens at pavement level draws you in to deeper and deeper compounded overlaps of colour. I enjoy that, and I also like the kaleidoscopic glints with which the building’s canopy spangles the tarmac and stone below.
But something about its acid yellow, turquoise and keen green jangles me. Gillick’s array of insistently synthetic tints feels less like a reference to consumerism than a grammar of it. I wish that grammar would express something; I wish it were about something. If only its greens related more to the grass below, if only its blues were not so alien to the skies they refract. Must colour be so set against both nature and transcendence? Doesn’t that make colour a kind of emptiness, not so much an ultimately desirable je ne sais quoi as an anomalous, feelingless nothing-in-particular? I suppose these negative reactions are allowed for by the open-ended principle of ‘discussion’. Probably, Gillick is just the right artist to lend the most hapless of government departments a visual profile loosely suggestive of pluralist benevolence. But the mood of his democracy of colours is quizzical and just a little wry.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.