Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Evocative Meaning of Gray--Jasper Johns

Yesterday, I went to a lecture at the Metropolitan Museum on the Jasper Johns exhibit entitled " Gray". Johns' work wasn't all in gray tones. But, as was demonstrated by the some 40 or so paintings in the show, he liked gray. In fact, it was his favorite color. Room after room was filled with common themes: flags, numbers, targets. And they were all multi-layered literally and figuratively.

But this is the "take away" for me from the work displayed. Johns's use of gray, stripping the work of color, and the emotions that color provokes, makes you really look at the physical qualities of the work. Sometimes its the layering of wax-based paint on canvas, sometimes the use of objects on the canvas surface, sometimes the use of faux wood carefully painted by the artist on the canvas. But always it makes the viewer search for meaning out of what objects and materials were used. As the curator pointed out, it asks us to consider the possibility that " intellect is the home of art." Or as the exhibition notes say:"Painting can't be translated into language or deliver meaning on purely coloristic terms."

Johns' object lesson for me? More and more as I get older, the notion of gray--gray area, gray moral issue--eclipses the love I used to have for the flat out, the big splash. It seems that once the color is drained out of the "big" in life, there's room for something more comfortable. Less drama, more contemplation, more interior search.

Johns apparently disliked being asked what his paintings meant. His standard response? What do you think it means?

What do I think the gray paintings mean? To me, they serve as reminders of the direction I want my life to move toward during this generative time-- an effort to look more deeply, see more clearly, love more authentically.


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