Color Decoded 

Painter Moncier reorders visual experience and explores how perception happens

Painter Moncier reorders visual experience and explores how perception happens

About Color

New Work by Mimi Moncier

Through Jan. 2

Cheekwood's Temporary Contemporary Gallery

I marvel at the way my dogs see with their noses. They go out into a world thick with smells that give them endless entertainment and an intense stream of signals about the environment. Humans rely on their eyes the way dogs use their noses: we're heavily visual critters, and for anyone who is not color-blind, color makes up a huge portion of our sensory experience. The lights hitting the retinas in the back of our eyes form our primary way of engaging the world around us. We look out of our bodies and take in a fabric of color in patches, lines, flashes and endless combinations. Cézanne said color is the "place where our brain and the universe meet."

Since the perception of color is a fundamental part of being human, people through history have put a lot of thought into how this works. Do the colors exist in the objects themselves, or are the sensations we think of as color following the logic of assignments within our own neurological processes? What is the role of our consciousness in organizing the light quanta we receive? Is color literally in the eye of the beholder, or does it depend on an ecological interaction between environment and perceiver? Do colors have an emotional or inherently psychological content?

Mimi Moncier enters into this realm of inquiry with paintings that extract colors from the environment and rearrange them into bright abstractions. She takes digital images of a space, reorganizes the pixels to collect same or similar colors together, and then uses the resulting palette as the basis for an oil painting. The pieces in her current show at Cheekwood, "About Color," look great and can be enjoyed purely as color abstractions, but they also engage in a serious discourse about consciousness and experience. It's conceptual art that dresses up nice.

"My Studio Today" consists of a primarily white canvas with 12 uneven rectangles that separate and collect blues, purples, yellows, pinks and greens. Each section layers color mostly in concentric pools that transition from lighter tones on the outside to darker ones in the center, and each section includes many shades within a single or related color families, in an assortment that would require the Home Depot paint department to come up with names for all of them. She varies this surface with threads of thick paint that emphasize the boundaries of some of the tone shifts, and a few of the color patches include intersecting circles of color, like a Venn diagram that emphasizes contrasts more. The color are luscious and soothing. No hard angles, everything flows.

Moncier's method points to the computational process through which our eyes receive light quanta and then reproduce shapes that correspond to the objects in the world. This is in theory one of several possible procedures the mind could follow. For instance, it could do what the computer does and identify like colors—what portion of my field of vision consists of whiteness, of a particular tone of scarlet? While obviously we use the shape information to get around and survive, if we had stronger senses of hearing and smell working together, maybe we could move around effectively with those as guides, while the prevalence of certain colors could serve as a better signal for our survival impulses.

In looking at the painting of her studio, one reaction is to try to work back to what the source environment looked like. There's lots of white. She probably has a clean space with white walls. Hard to say beyond that. Are the pink, blue and yellow from paintings in progress, finished paintings on the wall, furniture or clever little objects of the sort you expect to see in a painter's studio? The piece makes us aware that we don't know what goes on in her head—we cannot bridge the gulf between what she saw and what comes to us.

The prevalence of white surprised me. There's so much. If I walked into this studio, would I perceive that much white, or would my eyes immediately float to the objects that have color? Moncier's technique points out that our mind selects which parts of our field of vision that we actually see. The mind chooses some colors as objects to focus on (or has them thrust on it) and passes over other color signals as context.

Several paintings in the show use similar techniques to make portraits of books, Moncier's house and her fish. Two other works take her techniques of color organization in different directions. One of those, "Timeline," consists of several horizontal panels covered in vertical bands of varying colors and widths; it looks like the result of a chemical spectrum analysis. Moncier describes the painting as "a color spectrum of me" without being specific about the translation of colors into events or qualities. It conveys the sense of life as a sequence of episodes or small periods, or of qualities. The title should not limit a viewer to interpreting it as a temporal representation. The painting shows variety in any case and offers a very positive view: I would be pleased to see my life as a sequence of such vivid colors. I'm afraid my timeline might have more grays to it.

"The Strip" is a series of square panels that explore the use of color in corporate logos. Each panel takes the colors from one familiar logo (e.g., Texaco) and rearranges them into off-balance concentric circles, usually with the predominant colors in the center and the rim, separated by thinner bands of secondary colors. In some cases, you recognize a color like Starbucks green or Home Depot orange, but the red, white and blue schemes of Wal-Mart, Kinko's and Exxon are more interchangeable. Some strange things come out, like the amount of yellow used by fast food companies Popeye's, Burger King and McDonald's.

This investigation of color takes Moncier's discourse in another direction: an examination of how companies use color to influence behavior. Corporate marketers know that the field of vision is not undifferentiated; the eye parses it constantly. To reinforce the point, the artist provides wall quotes that stress designers' use of color to program emotions and response. They probably pay more attention to color effects than artists do.

These advertising and logo pieces show that designed use of color reaches into our eyes to shape our moods and even our actions. It counts on our capacity to order the information in our field of vision, and the fact that this ordering occurs largely unconsciously.

Moncier makes us more conscious of visual perception. The "Strip" panels arm us with one more form of media criticism by heightening our awareness of the ways we're manipulated by corporations. The clean, soothing abstractions of the other works allow us to see past the colors that catch our attention first to everything going on in the background. If this way of seeing makes the visual world richer, more like these luscious paintings, by extension it suggests unnoticed depth in other realms of experience.

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