The Uncertainty of Perception

The Central Forms of Robert Schaberl

Circular forms, reminiscent of tondi or mandalas; but also reminiscent in a picture puzzle way of a tunnel or cones of light; colors that change with the position of the viewer; a surface structure that triggers impressions of a spiral pull, or, convexly scintillating, makes its materiality unclear. All this attracts the viewer.

Robert Schaberl titles his works “Central Forms“. At first sight mainly appealing to sensual perception, they soon become subject of an analytical refection of this perception. The haptic oscillating surfaces seem to tilt, and, upon closer inspection, dissolve into dashes of paint, scratches and reflections.

The play with proximity and distance, the disappearance of the object and of the illusionistic aspect in favor of a visualization of qualities such as form, light, and reflection – without regard to a narrative content – has a long tradition in art and cultural history. While as a viewer one tries to find the “right” position for the most beautiful illusion, one immediately thinks of Diego Velasquez’s painting “Las Meninas” (1656), or the painted architectures of Andrea Pozzo (e.g. his ceiling painting “Apotheosis of Hercules”, 1709, in the great hall of the Palais Liechtenstein in Vienna). With these works every change of position hampers the impression to be part of a ceremony. Here the question of distance is essential. Only from the right distance to the painting the quality of the immaterial color light and the visionary power of the colors become discernable.

Wolfgang Drechsler and Peter Weibel discuss in their essay “Painting Between Presence and Absence”1, the shift from understanding painting as “representation” or as “symbol” and the resulting autonomy of the image – based on the Impressionisticquestion of how objects are perceived and the following analytical examination of the depicted object and its perception. This reaches in Cubism a level in which elements that let the object be perceived as three-dimensional body are emphasized.

The main artistic intention of the Futurists, Orphists, and Rayonists – also of Mondrian – was the analysis of the object, but also the interest in the movement of the object, its dissolution and penetration through light.

Delauney develops compositions with central objects, starting from ignoring the canvas corners, as well as his “window paintings”. In these pictures representation dissolves into colors and light and the true world of painting emerges – colors, forms and light; described by Guillaume Apollinaire as pure painting, “peinture pure”.2

The equation of color and light, made possible by M.E. Chevreul’s explanation of the effects of simultaneous color contrast in 1839 led to Delauney’s assessment that “color takes over the function of form and form is not descriptive; it is self-perpetuating and a law unto itself.3

His circular forms, “disques simultanés”, where color is employed in a circular manner and the form develops from the circular rhythm of the color originate from these reflections. His clear forms precursed non-objective works by later artists, such as Stella, Noland, and Kelly. But color released from the obligation of depicting objects also enabled its identification with the light from which it originates.

Later on Barnett Newman rid himself of the traditional forms of abstraction by applying his new principles of spirituality and transcendency. Newman shared with Mark Rothko and Ad Reinhardt the goal of achieving the “form of the formlessness, image of the imagelessness.”4 He created infinite meditative realms of color, in which there is not so much an explosion – as with Jackson Pollock – as an implosion, from which color and surface freely arise, creating a transcendental experience.

The dematerialization of the picture and the shift from object reference to transcendence has its origins here. This dematerialization, based on Constructivist tradition, found its continuation in the immateriality of Dan Flavin’s light installations, and led the next artist’s generation to Minimalist painting or light projections, such as Robert Ryman, Agnes Martin, Robert Irwin, James Turrell, and Douglas Wheeler.

From this point direct references can be drawn to Robert Schaberl’s work. Of particular significance for Schaberl is the liberation of light from producing arbitrary illusionistic images, such as photos, films or videos. In James Turrell’s work this leads to the pure “light picture”; from his “perceptual cells” to the “Roden Crater” with their immanent isolation and, at the same time, their opening towards a hitherto unknown universe.

The representational world of the picture and light as a light source are separate. The light itself does not reach the observer immediately, it is reflected, mediated light. Let’s make a thought experiment and suppose the light source is extinguished, the picture will actually be dark, the world of the picture invisible, but still existing.”5 Writing here about Signorelli’s “Great Pan” (c. 1490), Wolfgang Schöne clarifies that the history of the analysis of light stretches back to earliest times. Every religion is based on the separation of light and shadow. In ancient cultures, from the Egyptians (e.g. the temple of Amun Re in Karnak) to the Celts (e.g. New Grange), from Ireland to England, Brittany to Spain, we find ritual architectures that dealt with the idea of space-illuminating light.

In fact, even today we do not know what light really is. Arthur Zajouk notes that at the beginning of the 17th century Francis Bacon asked himself why form and origin of light had been the subject of so little research, and Zajouk further states: “The Quantum theory, based on well-accepted research, has proven that the simplistic mechanistic concepts of light in earlier scientific theories are no longer tenable. Instead, a new theory of light was conceived which all great physicists of the 20th century tried to grasp – from Albert Einstein to Richard Feynman – in vain, as they had to admit themselves.”6

The Occidental history of light began with the tale of Prometheus, who stole the light for the humans from Zeus, and in the blind poet Homer’s epic poems “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey”.

It was Goethe who, in 1810, noted the remarkable fact that the color blue was non- existent in the Greek language. It is missing because kyanos means “dark.” Thetis wore on her visit to Zeus (taken there by the god’s messenger Iris) a kyanos, a cloak which was described as: “There was no darker garment than this.7 There is a similar puzzle relating to chloros, which was later equated with “green.” In the “Iliad”, chloros describes honey; in the “Odyssey” it is the nightingale; in Pinder, the dew; and in Euripides, tears and blood – from which Zajouc concluded that it had meant “moist,” “fresh,” and “lively,” and that the visual color perception was unimportant to the Greeks. “They saw the fresh moisture of tears before they saw green.”8 So it is about a perception of reality which differs culturally, depending also on the notions of color and light – which itself is strongly connected to the conception of the eye. It is of fundamental significance that in the Bhagavad-Gita, and also for Homer, Empedokles, and Plato, a crucial human activity is necessary for visual perception – a motion from the eye towards the world. The natural philosophers of the 16th century, in particular Kepler and Galileo, were instead more interested in the physical construction of the eye and believed that vision was ultimately a question of the mechanism of the eye. Thus the emotional aspect got lost and the separation between optics and psychology followed. This separation was based on the book “Optics” by Euklid (300 BC), a geometrical description of vision. Euklid’s thoughts also formed the foundations for thedevelopment of classical perspective. Alhazan investigated the camera obscura and concluded that nothing emits from the eye by itself, while Leonardo da Vinci proposed that the eye itself was a camera obscura. Finally, René Descartes added to the world of extension, the substance, the res extensa, a spiritual principle, the mind or the soul, the res cogitans.

Since the middle of the 19th century neurologists and psychologists have been investigating the structure of the brain and increasingly defined it as a machine. Today, scientists, architects, designers and, of course, artists, are in different ways researching on the nature of light.

Starting from an gestural-expressive and spontaneous-painterly method, Robert Schaberl compresses his color palette and reduces it, in the first instance, to various tones of black. At this stage he has already noticed that a mixture of black and blue leads to a much darker effect than just pure black – reminiscent of the Greek kyanos. Originally, his structures are influenced by water surfaces, geological forms or lava streams and, eventually, magnetic pole points and cyclic repeated patterns. Ensuing he investigates in his paintings and also in photographs round forms – naturally occurring forms as well as man-made structures.

Schaberl is interested in the possibilities for the development of negative/positive, and in time and motion. He is looking for objects which produce tiny particles by themselves and thus form the basis for a picture. Mainly he collects fungi, placing two or three examples on a piece of glass. There is always one poisonous fungus that causes what he has termed “diabolic beauty.” The process of decay that commences after several hours and the falling-off of the spores leave organic structures, changed through the exposure to the air, mirroring themselves self-referentially. The resulting “images” are scanned, cleaned, and turned into Lambda prints.

Due to the natural process of decomposition, and the resultant moisture, an impression similar to a sepia drawing is created. For Schaberl the process is equally important as the play with coincidence which he controlls by determining the point of stopping. If, in the course of the hours, a worm has eaten a path through the fungus, a trace remains, making the lapse of time visible.

By means of an inductive procedure, the fungi-photos seem to give evidences, while, at the same time, they are protected from a purely intellectual-rational reception by their aesthetical values. For Schaberl, the ambivalent relationship between photography’s “untouchability” and the haptic qualities of his paintings is also important. The varying density of the superimposed layers, the indefiniteness of the perceived, correlate with the formal association between eye and cell.

Schaberl addresses the eye of Ra, the archetype of the godly being in Egyptian culture, and thus the retinal stimulus of images (which led Marcel Duchamp to refuse any further art production) as well as sober dealings with sensuality and the uncertainty of the seemingly familiar. This uncertainty results in an interaction between viewer and picture and stems from a dialogue between artist and material. Schaberl is interested in the concentration of light rays and in the question of how it is possible to create from a surface a structure that emanates out of the plane of the canvas. In order to achieve this, he takes an assumed center – which is not identical to the geometrical central point – and, from which, over an applicated primer, he meticulously sets to work with fine brush strokes of transparent oil paint.

At the beginning Schaberl was interested in LP records, where, as with photographs, there is also a taboo placed concerning touching them. He was interested in their surface, form, reflection, in their grooves and in the way they collect light. Starting from that he investigated the intensity of the color black. In the following questions ofcolor, light, space, and time were transformed into an illusionary world of images. By means of different glazes and interference pigments, Schaberl superimposes colors in monotonous-meditative layers, and creates in this way seemingly three-dimensional paintings which never become clearly tangible from just one perspective. Through the reflection of light and the obsessive-persistent formulated surface, the color and spatial effects of the painting change and deceive the perception of the viewer, because Schaberl’s works have to do with factors that take place during the process of seeing.

This is no longer the “illuminating light” of Caravaggio or Georges de la Tour, or the “reflected light” of Rembrandt. Neither is it the “light-space modulator” of Moholy- Nagy, nor the attempted “reflection potential of light” of the Zero protagonists Uecker, Piene, or Mack. And it is also not the “light problematic” of Barnett Newman, that Schaberl considers too religious and radical (Newman’s surfaces must not shine). In Schaberl’s work we find a lucid depth – no longer directed to the representation of an object – a depth of light that is simultaneously translocated to an almost absolute proximity.

The translucent color light, that impresses him in Turrell’s work, is embedded by Schaberl in a three-dimensional surface, in order to lead it directly back to the eye. In this way a surface emerges, that does not only have a fragile layered structure because of its haptic materiality, but also combines different color effects and optical phenomena into one painting. At one point the center appears to be light and the outer layers dark. And then the impression changes and the center appears dark. This means that our perceptions of depth, light, and color are never certain. One of his most recent works – which measures appr. 2 meters in diameter – is covered with layers of mother of pearl color. They refer explicitely to the spectral colors andthe rainbow (which for Hesiod was a manifestation of the goddess Iris) and lead us, ultimately, back to the question of what light actually is.

We find then, in Schaberl’s work, a new kind of fusion of emotional and highly aesthetic expression with a rigorous structural technique. It leads the viewer to doubt the source of light, thus shaking his certainty and pairing interaction with self-referentiality.

Elisabeth Fiedler

1 in: Bildlicht. Malerei zwischen Material und Immaterialität, Wiener Festwochen (ed.), Vienna 1991. 2 G. Apollinaire: “Reine Malerei bedeutet vielleicht reines Licht“, cit. from: R. Delaunay, Zur Malerei der reinen Farbe. Schriften von 1912 bis 1940, Hajo Düchting (ed.), Munich 1983, p. 135. 3 R. Delaunay: Du Cubism à L‘Art abstrait, P. Fraucastel (ed.), Paris 1957, p. 97. 4 Ad Reinhardt, cat. Kunsthaus Zürich 1973, p. 30. 5 Wolfgang Schöne, Über das Licht in der Malerei, Berlin 1954, 1977, p. 11. 6 Arthur Zajouc, Die gemeinsame Geschichte von Licht und Bewusstsein, Hamburg 1994, p. 18. 7 Homer, Ilias, transl. by Wolfgang Schadewaldt, 22. Gesang, verse 401–402, Insel, Frankfurt am Main, 1975, p. 376. 8 Homer, op.cit., p. 28.

Robert Schaberl ... von Licht und Farbe © 2004 Neue Galerie Graz