In a brief artist’s statement for the catalogue accompanying the 2006 exhibition “High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting 1967-1975,” Roy Colmer (1935-2014) mentioned video feedback no less than three times. Colmer’s exploration of this process––whereby a video camera is trained on its playback monitor, producing ever-receding self-replicas––introduced to his painting practice a set of behaviors and effects, like movement, time, and delay, from outside the medium’s usual purview. His line of inquiry seems to have concerned cross-pollination among mediums: how could television monitors and video cameras point abstract painting––regarded as outdated and conceptually bankrupt by the early 1970s––in a fresh direction?
The ten paintings shown in Lisson’s tightly curated exhibition (the first solo presentation of the artist’s work since his death) offer provocative if inconclusive responses to this question. For each painting, Colmer wholly covered a canvas with horizontal spray-painted lines of equal width in alternating colors, and then spray-painted either side of the composition with a highly saturated or dusky hue, partially obscuring the stripes and leaving a glowing, irregular mandorla form at center. Despite the circumscribed set of parameters, there are significant variations in the paintings, which evoke patterns and effects of analog electronic media, including those that arise when the transmission of images and sound is interrupted by static and noise. Some of Colmer’s stripes are not quite straight, and some, by way of minuscule snarls of acrylic, bleed into those below them. In certain works, the slight misalignment of masking tape during his multiple stages of paint application resulted in slivers of underpainting that peek out from the stripes’ edges, such as threads of maroon and yellow glimpsed between carnation pink and ocean blue in Untitled #49 (1970). Works like Untitled #112 (1972) bear stripes of contrasting colors at their tops and bottoms that lend the compositions an uneven visual weight and produce a sense of vertical scrolling, as if the bands are forever cycling upward or downward over the central motif, enhancing the images’ allusion to the horizontal registers of static that appear on tube televisions when they lack reception. The paintings also conjure another visual characteristic of such TVs: the luminous flash of an image sucked into a downward vortex when the boxy machines are switched off.
Colmer was exposed to media theory through Almir Mavignier, his adviser at the Hochschule für Bildende Künste in Hamburg, and would have been attuned to the insights of cybernetics, including the notion that communication is not a one-way flow of broadcast information but a circular system of information exchange. Colmer began experimenting with video feedback in 1971, creating closed-circuit works that, in effect, show the camera watching itself see. His paintings likewise seem to probe questions of spectatorship, particularly since his recurring mandorla shape formally corresponds to the intersecting fields of view inherent to binocular vision and thus prompts the spectator to confront her own act of seeing.
Perhaps paint on canvas felt to Colmer increasingly inadequate as a means of exploring such aspects of lived experience; in 1975, he stopped painting entirely and began documenting his environment with a camera. Through the 1980s and 1990s he produced collages (seven of which were shown at Lisson) consisting of snapshots stacked in neat grids, with each composition focusing on a single subject: discarded, crumpled letters; empty flour packaging; silvery sidewalk fence poles; blistering tree trunks; the Canal Street subway station’s fire-engine-red columns. For the collages depicting vertical subjects, Colmer aligned the forms into composition-spanning bands, arranging quotidian items into striped images that echo his mandorla paintings and affirm that his work is best considered not in isolation but in relation to the world.