Spectrum of Light
Colours dance across the canvas, less like beams of light, more akin to flashes of lightning, iridescent and fleeting, crackling across smooth planes of colour. Robert Schaberl’s works, in particular his Zentralformen, are comprised of thousands upon thousands of concentric circles built layer upon layer, one on top of the other. They radiate out from the centre of a circle like an infinitely expanding field. The work spreads out like a supernova before contracting back in on itself, only to reach out again, like the tides, an endless, organic, circular, rhythmic process of renewal. In Schaberl’s work, each perfect circle is ringed with a fluorescent halo of colour, just visible around the edges of each smooth, luminescent disc, like the sun behind a lunar eclipse.
Schaberl’s interest in colour – and its subsequent interplay with light – stems from a long-term fascination with movement. Before the Zentralformen, his early oil on canvas works included an exploration of floating, lava-like forms and waterfalls, rippling across the surface with a focus on motion and space. He was fascinated with the way the shapes he painted appeared to move, and so he applied increasingly larger amounts of colour in order to enhance the effect. This reached a fever pitch when he realised that “I had gotten to a point where I had added so much colour that it was no longer music, in a sense, but just noise.” In attempting to use colour to initiate movement, he felt there was an ensuing barrage to the senses which completely overshadowed the nuances he was trying to achieve. This prompted Schaberl to strip back completely, subsequently working only in monochrome shades of black and grey. During this period Schaberl began to notice the way in which the pigment black absorbs all other colours, facilitating experimentation with the reflection and refraction of light. Instead of adding different colours together, he explored the ratio of linseed oil mixed in with his paint. The oil gave shininess to the paint, and so by adding differing quantities to the pigment, Schaberl was able to create different modulations of glossiness. At the same time, he began to experiment with the idea of the circle – creating the Zentralformen. This circular form allowed Schaberl to further push the boundaries of colour and light due to its unique optical properties. “The circle also gives a lot of room for interpretation,” he muses. “It is the universe, the sun, eternity. It is the shape of growth – like the rings of a tree – almost everything in nature grows out from a central point. On the other hand, the circle stands for technical evolution – think of the wheel, and all subsequent mechanical innovations.” The varying degrees of glossiness and the subsequent reflection and refraction of light achieved through the central focus provided by the circle marked a seminal point in Schaberl’s practice.
It was seven years later in 2000 when Schaberl came across Iriodin – an industrial pearl lustre pigment used in everything from car manufacturing to the cosmetics industry – and a watershed moment occurred. “The incorporation of Iriodin allowed me to really explore the optical properties of the work, and, more importantly, by combining it with regular paint, I was able to create hues that change colour.” With Iriodin, Schaberl began the precise alchemical process with which he calculates the colour combination for his works. The paint is applied by laying the canvas on a turning pivot, rather like a potter’s wheel. Schaberl then spins each work by hand while painstakingly applying layer upon layer of paint, often starting with a fluorescent base, which gives many of his works their characteristic brightly coloured ‘halo’. He then alternates gloss paint with Iriodin-enhanced colours, carefully gauging the amounts in order to create the precise effect he has in mind. “Different layers of colour affect each other – a blue layer with a grey base, for example, will produce a different effect to another blue one and is the difference between producing a deep purple or a soft violet. This allows for endless options – each colour can be a whole new spectrum.”The end result is paintings that change colour depending on where the viewer is standing, sometimes in subtle shades, such as from royal blue to a deep purple, and at other times in more contrasting tones, such as a rich gold through to a vibrant coppery red.The final effect is of light dancing across the surface and a gradual fluctuation of colour, rather akin to the sheen of a CD or LP record, or the rings of a tree. This use of the pigment was completely unprecedented, and led to a subsequent collaboration with largescale pigment manufacturer Merck, who supported Schaberl to do create a special façade for the Graz University of Technology in Austria.
For Schaberl, the play of colour between the artwork and the viewer is precisely the crux of his work. When you view the work straight on, you see a circle of full colour. “Perhaps a texture to the surface attracts you,” he explains. “but as soon as you move closer, or move to the side, you begin to feel your own presence in the space.” It is this environment and the involvement of the viewer in the work that completes the circle. In this sense, with these "Zentralformen" all viewers will see different colour within the work, depending on their position. “I’ve gone from seeking to create movement within my work to allowing for movement of the viewer who looks at the work and their interaction with it.” Indeed, the sophistication and complexity of the work suggests that the viewer plays and integral role in its interpretation.
In Spectrum of Light, Schaberl’s works have a new, even more intricate, modulation of colour. The colour pulses outwards from the centre of each circle like radials, a supernova of colour that expands and contracts depending on the viewer, as if the painting were breathing in and out. A finely-honed technique over the years, a deepened understanding of how the materials operate and interact combined with innovations in Iriodin has led to a new level of optical complexity. To accomplish the effect, Schaberl likens the technique to weaving. Where he would normally apply a thin, uniform layer of either Iriodin or regular paint, building up layer upon layer of either colour or Iriodin pigment, he now uses both Iriodin and colour within each layer in order to attempt to create both a pulsating movement and the magic of the sweeping change of colour across the whole work.
Schaberl’s appreciation of the viewer’s role can be likened to James Turrell in the way that Schaberl uses our sense of space and depth to challenge existing understandings of light and colour experiences and the way that our brain is programmed to process them. Schaberl explains; “Your mind is full of experiences with colours, and you have filed them away accordingly – for example, the sky is blue, water is blue.” Both Schaberl and Turrell are interested in how we understand colours in certain contexts, for instance, how blue ‘behaves’. Upon looking at Schaberl’s works, however, the mind is forced to question itself, for the rules of colour are taken out of context. “You see people come up close, then move further away, and you can witness them trying to readjust their sense of perception and the stored associations they have in their mind of experience, colour, light, surface and material.” For Schaberl the ultimate goal is to get people involved in experiencing these behaviours.” As an experiential process, with no one to see the change of colour and light, the circuit cannot be completed, and nor can the work.
Without light there is no colour, yet here, Schaberl tells us, without us there is neither – the very immateriality of what we thought we knew and what we experience means that the work is not what we see painted on the canvas, but, rather, exists only in the moment that we view it.
© Catalogue text for the soloshow at Kashya Hildebrand Gallery /London by Anna Wallace-Thompson, 2014