Nike Savvas' Colourful World of Love and Wonder
Black Dog Publishing
The universe contains countless microscopic sized particles. Over time some of these particles group together in clouds of hydrogen, form clumps, and slowly begin to spin. They attract even more particles and spin faster and faster, becoming larger, hotter and tighter. Eventually they become too hot and too dense, and from this chaotic embrace – a star is born. This event marks a point of rendezvous where a billion different elements from as many diverse trajectories merge, fuse and ignite. There is nothing pure or reductive in this. It is a chaotically formed, heterogeneous conglomeration of all that has been, is now, and is yet to come. For some this event is a moment of magic and mystery, of marvel and wonderment, while for others it symbolizes a different order representing a primordial affirmation
of truth laden in systems of belief. Observable analogies are found in different schools of thought and include areas such as science, philosophy and art. Indicative of particular systems or pathways, such analogies can offer unexpected resonances and correlations with the creative process, and in this regard the creative methodologies eschewed by particular artists can be as insightful as they are instructive.
It is in this respect that Nike Savvas’ art practice demonstrates a similar kind of rendezvous. As a collective body of work, her practice draws from a plethora of different references and trajectories as points of departure. These include but are not limited to, art history, theory, subjectivity, aesthetics, memory, politics, the body, spatiality, identity, presence and absence, high art and low art. Ultimately, there are so many that to attempt to list them here would effectively be a pointless gesture. For every foreseeable term used to discuss her work there are equally as many other points of reference from which to access it, and in this respect her practice is mindfully left open to interpretation. Over recent years Savvas has explored, borrowed, modified and informally critiqued a range of historical conventions generally reserved for the classification of distinctive, defining traits within traditional disciplines of art. In doing so she has chosen to position her art practice beyond the reach of prescriptive syntax traditionally used to entrench the boundaries between disciplines - such as with painting and sculpture.
Two of Savvas’ large paintings – untitled (Viva Forever) and untitled (Everlasting) were made in response to the artist’s large scale, immersive ball works. But these brightly coloured spot paintings do more than merely replicate likenesses of other works. In these paintings the gaps between the spots come alive in discordant drifting layers of spot against spot, and image against after- image in a disorientating no win game of déjà vu. Registering as both real and illusive, the pictorial space between the eye and the painting eventually becomes unstable and dissolves into disarray. This optical collapse signals the viewer’s immersion in a fluctuating, sensory zone of spatiality that parallels the three- dimensional work on which the painting was originally based.
Savvas’ recent suite of hard edge, geometric moiré paintings, similarly activates the eye. Titled Sliding weave, these paintings were exhibited alongside freestanding woven oor structures made from wood and coloured wool. Affecting a similar optical experience, the lines in these paintings rise off the surface to create disparity across the visual eld. And once again, they do so in such a manner as to parallel the layers and weave of the oor based structures on which they are based. This is arguably painting at one of its better moments – extending beyond itself, and beyond the eye of the viewer.
A recurring point of reference that presides over the artist’s work is its relation to painting. For Savvas, painting is understood in a broad sense, not merely in its relation to painting’s historic material tradition, nor corralled under the developing umbrella of what has come to be termed ‘expanded’ painting. This classifying term presupposes the expansion of painting beyond its former material limits. If we assume then that painting equates with tradition, it seems to follow that expanded painting equates to a new territory for painting. But is this new territory, or just another form of painting that, until now, had been conveniently obscured by history?
The expanded painting model effectively presents an argument for an inter-domain transfer of painting into other traditionally ‘non-painting’ domains, i.e. by extending the discourse of painting beyond its conventional classification as a wet or paint affected medium. As a key term of reference, Rosalind Krauss’ model of the expanded field has been extensively drawn on to identify and denote the emergence of expansive developments in the production and reception of art from within conventional, tradition based disciplines. Historically, the significance of the expanded field model has been well documented in its relation to sculpture, but what does this mean for painting? Today, painting can be identified across a wide and diverse range of processes and materials. As a discipline whose borders have now softened, painting now incorporates traditionally ‘non-painting’ materials, new perceptual associations, and a range of different conceptual relations and terms of reference that support painting’s re-enactment or re-staging in new and exotic forms. Subsequently, its designation under the rubric ‘expanded painting’ has, in recent years, been elevated into the lexicon of common usage to the point where the term is all but in danger of becoming a cultural sound-bite heralding the arrival of ones painting practice at the forefront of new territory.
The irony in this is that the expanded painting model is far from new. To offer some perspective on this we need only turn to Marcel Duchamp who claimed to have abandoned painting in 1912. However, his practice from 1912 onwards indicates a very different turn of events. Put simply, his Bottle Dryer was a drying device that transformed ‘wet’ to ‘dry’, and on the underside Duchamp inscribed a short poetic sentence that referenced colour. What is shown in this allegorical exercise is a separation of colour from its liquid or ‘olfactive’ transporter, a shift from wet to dry – from the sensorial to the conceptual. Similarly, his snow shovel titled In Advance of the Broken Arm also invokes the liquid properties of paint in its reference to snow as ‘crystalized’ liquid, but without paint’s colour properties. This is all but repeated in Paris Air (Air de Paris), a small blown glass serum vial. In this instance serum denotes blood plasma in which clotting factors have been removed naturally by allowing the blood to clot prior
to isolating the liquid component. There are many examples in Duchamp’s oeuvre from which to draw, and these three works address the drying and separation of pigment (colour) from a transport medium as much as they do the establishment of a new conceptual foundation for painting. In hindsight, this cast considerable doubt on the appropriateness of the historical syntax that had traditionally informed painting. Over time, similar approaches would lead to a review of painting’s perceived trajectory, its reconstitution under a different ideological framework, and the reassessment of its then acknowledged terms of reference. In a late interview recorded shortly before his death Duchamp spoke candidly about what may now be referred to as his ‘post-abandonment’ continuation of painting. He stated, “My hand became my enemy in 1912. I wanted to get away from the palette. This chapter of my life was over and immediately I thought of inventing a new way to go about painting. That came with the Large Glass.”1
Instead of continuing to work ‘within’ the conventional discourse of painting at that time, Duchamp abandoned it completely and focused instead on the material, contextual, institutional and ideological frameworks that informed that discourse. While movements such as Cubism turned to abstraction, Duchamp turned to a conceptual investigation of the meaning and function of painting.2 By deconstructing a specific mythology of painting Duchamp presented us with an alternative model for its continuity - one that showed that painting was no longer necessarily definable by an assumed set of criteria.
Following on this, it is not my intention to re-invent the wheel, only to highlight what is already eloquently voiced in Nike Savvas’ art practice. That the invocation and designation of something as ‘painting’ within a given activity or context arises through a collective series of related instances, associations and perceptual nuances that exist outside of painting’s tradition based competencies. While the quotable points of diversification in Savvas’ practice are too numerous to attempt to pin down here, an overriding and pervasive rationale does begin to crystalize. What materializes is a fluid, sedimentary practice that accrues its diverse forms and logics aggregately. The irony here lies in the revelation that, for such an audacious and ambitious body of work, its foundations are rooted in instability and molded through multiplicity, where meaning develops from a plethora of different sources and matures over time. With this, Savvas subscribes to a position that argues against the use of any single common denominator for the purposes of classification. This position again holds true as she signposts the way with markedly different pictorial, material and allegorical references to painting. 3
Savvas’ ongoing links with painting, and her predilection for vibrant immersive colour and light, are foregrounded in a number of her artworks. One such work is titled Rush, a massive forty- five metre long artwork that was installed for several months in a quiet laneway in the heart of Sydney. This ambitious work comprised of thousands of brightly coloured strips of translucent plastic bunting suspended in methodical rows five metres above the laneway.
On viewing this work in real time unsuspecting onlookers often appeared overwhelmed, as if momentarily transported to a soft-centred zone of elation, surprise, and contemplative wonderment. Would we experience the same effect if we were merely looking at the blue sky? I suspect not. In this case, as with the majority of Savvas’ artwork, colour and scale alone do not guarantee vitality, nor do they offer resonance. Beyond the initial self-gratifying experience, Rush slowly starts to open up to the viewer in a number of unexpected ways. What begins with the slightest whisper of air brushing through layers of waving colour eventually give way to more forceful and prolonged, mesmerizing waves that enact a poetic, colourful, kaleidoscopic caress that travels the full length of the work. This is, quite literally, poetry in motion.
On the one hand Rush raises the issue of the inappropriateness of paint for the task at hand, and on the other, invokes painting through any number of references we choose to call upon. On this point Savvas’ use of metaphor and allegory are instructive in highlighting associations and overlaps with a number of characteristics that are more conventionally attributable to painting. For example, the lengths of hanging bunting immediately call to mind the sweeping hairs of a brush. We can also invert this reference to emphasize the viscous nature of the surrounding air as it passes through the bunting, akin to a carrier, support, or transporter of colour—not unlike the liquid transporter used in paint to carry pigment.
As a representation of a landscape, a literal, physical and perceptual ‘field’ of colour, the viewer no longer remains passive but is instead compelled to travel the full length of the work. This activation of the viewer functions to exemplify both the physical and symbolic relation of each participant’s passage with the work. The exemplification of specific constitutive traits pertaining directly to the material tradition of painting do not merely act as signifiers or specific points of reference to painting within Savvas’s work, they actualize it, but under a different, and arguably unfamiliar group of relations.
In a body of work the artist refers to collectively as her Anthem series, Savvas transcribes the tone and pitch of popular music into spectacularly immersive visual equivalents. Drawing on classic, haunting musical anthems such as The Carny by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and PJ Harvey’s Is That All There Is? Savvas notates the highs and lows, and length and pitch of each sound and the instruments used, to create an extensive and complex visual transcription of each song’s arrangement. In these works sound is mapped rather than heard, and reformatted as auto-cues on a programmed lighting desk, then silently played back on club lights installed from the ceiling of the exhibition space. Here, the song remains the same, only transcribed and pictorialized in a transformative passage that begins with sound and ends with a magical three-dimensional automated lightshow in vivid colour. Savvas’ use of industrial lighting also works to amplify the projected hard edge geometric boundaries to further separate and individualize each colour. In setting up these boundaries – indicative perhaps of former ideological paradigms and the imperatives they placed on distinctive categorical differences, the light emanating from the programmed club lights eventually stretch out and collide in space. When they do their colours bleed, overlap and diffuse into one another, their distinctive traits giving way to a transformed, illuminated eld of discordant racing colour. This was never a set-up for failure, but an exercise in mergence.
In the Anthem series we observe the transference of sound to light, and light with illumination and projection across a darkened space of slowly diffusing microscopic colour particles. This diffusion is made all the more palpable by the addition of a hidden smoke machine that periodically emits just enough haze to give the projected colours a tangible, if temporal form. What makes this trajectory so compelling is the pictorial link that connects her Anthem series with the Atomic works, a separate series made concurrently over several years.
There are a number of similar works that the artist refers to collectively as her Atomic series. Each of these works consist of thousands of small brightly coloured painted balls suspended across an exhibition space on thin transparent lament and agitated by wall-mounted fans that disrupt the air ow causing the balls to shimmer and vibrate. Savvas has referred to these works variously as abstract paintings, exploded landscapes, and microscopic atoms of coloured particles left adrift in space and time. On a rudimentary level Savvas’ practice could be compared to a rich, complex and diverse tapestry comprising many specific points of reference and access for the viewer that enables them to embrace the work on their own terms. Likewise, these works also provide the viewer with a wealth of references and multiple discursive points of entry. These include abaci counting systems, periodic tables, optics, colour, Pointillism, landscape, the body, the immersive experience, spatiality, the attening of space and so on—the list is almost inexhaustible.
What is perhaps most surprising, and least expected, is a political dimension. If Atomic: Full of Love, Full of Wonder can be viewed as a subjective yearning from afar, a visual poem, a letter of love against an azure sky that draws on the limitless space and radiant colour of a sun soaked, mirage inspired Australian horizon, then her later work Atomic: In Full Sunlight presents us with a markedly different set of concerns. Atomic: In Full Sunlight functions as a poignant biographical re ection that draws on the artist’s personal histories as having lived in both Cyprus and the UK. In Cyprus, a luminous yellow wild ower named Lapsana grows and periodically covers the landscape. Savvas’ relatives regularly hand picked the wild ower for food, and as a means of subsistence. This ower, and its link with time and place, charts the artist’s personal family history to a time of severe poverty during the British occupation. It also raises the specter of personal loss and the disenfranchised cultural cost of Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus in 1974 and its continued occupation of the northern part of the country.
A similar luminous yellow flower named Rape Seed is farmed across parts of England and bears a striking resemblance to Lapsana. It is so similar in appearance that, for Savvas, seeing it immediately conjures a multitude of loaded personal associations to cultural histories that are brought to bear across different social, cultural and geo-political realities. As a visual eld, the shimmering haze of yellow in Atomic: In Full Sunlight interweaves Savvas’ personal history with a poetry born of distance to enact a subtle, elegant observation about identity, migration, diaspora and cultural subordination.
The coloured spheres in the Atomic series stretch out across space like cosmic atomized ejecta from a supernova. In astronomy, such an event does not simply imply a deceleration and eventual dissolve into nothingness as one might expect. On the contrary, microscopic elemental particles are in fact the fundamental building blocks for everything in the universe. In this analogy a surprising and somewhat unorthodox relation begins to surface in Savvas’ work that may arguably be the secret missing link that ultimately underscores her practice. Savvas’ approach to making art has remained constant in her questioning of prescriptive ideologies, in the blurring of boundaries and disciplinary categories, and in the different strategic methodologies that she continues to incorporate in her practice. On one level these include less formal devices such as allegory and metaphor, and on another, the fabrication of large, colourful, elaborately sophisticated and perceptually immersive optical environments.
Savvas reminds us that the elemental properties that abound in the universe, every microscopic atom in existence, constituting every conceivable aspect of our perceivable world - our physical and perceptual relations, our bodies, our eyes, our heart - and the blood that pumps it, originated as if by magic from a singular but complex set of events. She reminds us, that the world in which we live, that gives voice to our con icting thoughts and values, our hopes and dreams, all our love and magical wonderment, spectacularly erupted in chaotic disorder from the same point of origin - the heart of a star.
1 Roberts, Francis. (1968). Interview with Marcel Duchamp: I Propose to Strain the Laws of Physics, Art News, vol. 67, no. 8 (December), p. 46.
2 Duve, Thierry de. (1996). Kant After Duchamp. An October Book. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Cambridge, Massachusetts; London: MIT Press, p.165