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Living Color

Two exhibitions explore the power of pigment

Most people know something about color theory. In kindergarten, you learn that when you mix yellow Play-Doh and blue Play-Doh, you get green Play-Doh -- and that when you mix everything together, you get mud. In high school art class, you learn that warm colors advance and cool colors recede, that red excites us and blue calms us, that complementary colors like blue and orange radiate against each other, causing optical vibration.

Just about every artist has a grounding in color theory, but for some of them, color becomes an obsession. While color has always been a part of art, it wasn't until the mid 20th-century that it became a subject for art. In two exhibitions currently on view, artists explore the power of color in provocatively different ways.

In "Thomas Deyle"at Gallery Sonja Roesch, paintings on Plexiglas become a free-floating haze of color. And at Sicardi Gallery, Carlos Cruz-Diez, the grand master of optically kinetic art, presents his paintings/constructions, the results of decades of optical experiments. "Interactive Random Chromatic Experience" is the title of the show, and while it doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, it's a pretty accurate description of Cruz-Diez's amazing work.

Cruz-Diez has explored color using light, sculptural constructions, painted two- and three-dimensional surfaces, and even digital media. The octogenarian artist showed an early light installation and some of his epic paintings at the MFAH's "Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America." In his show at Sicardi, he presents several large-scale paintings that fill the gallery space with kinetic color.

Cruz-Diez utilizes the optical flicker that happens when slender, parallel lines of color radiate against each other. But he does it one better by separating sections of lines with slender strips of tinted Plexiglas or thin painted strips of aluminum that stick out from the surface at a right angle. As the viewer moves, the painting shifts, causing the color to further flicker and creating a staccato effect on the eyes.

Physichromie 2378 (1998) is almost 18 feet long, and as you walk past it, geometric forms appear and disappear. The painting moves from yellows and pinks to greens and blues. Another work, Physichromie No. 2364 (1996), appears yellow and black when seen from the left, orange and black from the right.

These paintings reach out and grab your retinas, whether you want them to or not. They can't be experienced passively. And they can't recede into the background. You just want to wrap yourself in the works, surrounding yourself with optical sensation.

Cruz-Diez's explorations have incredible focus and drive. Among his wide body of works are impressive public art installations and outdoor sculptures. The Sicardi show includes a 1970s motorized work in which a striped circular form rotates against a striped background, behind another layer of stripes on a clear Plexi panel. (It's not bad in its static state but it's supposed to be amazing when it moves. Unfortunately, the 30-year-old motor is on the fritz.)

Cruz-Diez is also making art digitally, a medium many artists who are decades younger find daunting. He's designed a program that "invites visitors to delve into his chromatic research and vibrational discoveries." You can select from a library of forms, colors and effects to create your own work. A time limit had to be added to the program at a previous exhibition -- people became so engrossed in constructing images that they refused to share the computer.

At Sonja Roesch, Thomas Deyle's use of color is more organic. On panels of frosted Plexiglas, Deyle rolls 600 impossibly thin layers of the same color. The acrylic is highly diluted so the pigment slowly accumulates. At the end of the hundreds of coats, the center has a mass of dense rich color that dissolves into edges that seem to have only fine flecks of pigment. The effect is one of free-floating color set against the pristine white gallery walls. The Plexiglas supports disappear, and the viewer is left with these mists of cadmium orange, pale yellow, lush aqua...

Scarabaeus no. 5 (2002) is the largest of the series. A mass of deep cobalt floats on a six-foot Plexiglas square. It feels otherworldly, like a digital special effect inserted into the real world. There is no definite edge to it, but your eye seems to continuously search for one, creating an optical buzz that charges the color. The work isn't about monochromatic color on a surface, it's about the color itself and its inherent richness and sensuality.

Cruz-Diez is engaged in an impressive and masterful exploration of optical phenomena. And Deyle has embarked upon a labor-intensive quest for pure color. Each artist's work grabs us by the collar and reminds us of color's power and beauty.

 
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