Stereo-Vision: Thoughts on Color in the Work of Lyndon Barrois Jr.

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Western philosophy and art history are filled with attempts at mapping out and colonizing the space of color. These attempts lay claim to some kind of empirical truth that’s impossible to verify. If there’s a takeaway from these endeavours, it’s that the one thing which remains true about color is that it will always escape the restrictions imposed upon it.

Brown is the dominant color in both Neuland, Neuform (2017) and To Paint Oneself with No Mirror (2017) works from by Lyndon Barrois Jr’s Stereotypography series.

In the bottom right corner of To Paint Oneself with No Mirror is an image of a group of Nyangatom women of Oso Valley with their faces painted. This image was sourced from National Geographic and is bordered by a printer diagnostic test. This framed photograph is adjacent to overlaid pieces of beige chipboard in two different shades of, what Barrois refers to as, “off-white ground.” Referencing the “Brown Paper Bag Test,” a discriminatory practice utilized in the 20th century in the United States to decide whether someone was allowed entry to a segregated space, and also Goethe’s remarks on color, Barrois implies a new test. Which is more comfortable for you to look at? The expanse of beige with squares of lighter almost white chipboard or the dark skin and traditional colorful dress of Ethiopian women after a peace agreement? Where does your eye rest?

In Neuland, Neuform a printer diagnostic test is juxtaposed with a piece of marbled paper in the same CMYK palette, divided by a narrow strip of walnut. Below these elements is a photograph from the same National Geographic series, by Olson & Farlow, showing us a young boy from a different Oso Valley tribe. The boy poses for the camera with a baboon whose face he has painted, loosely echoing the face painting practices that are related to the culture of his people, the Mursi. This gesture operates as a double consciousness, an attempt at performing his cultural identity for the camera. The caption for this photograph on the website of the photographers Olson & Farlow reads, “A local child paints the face of his monkey hoping to earn a few tourists’ dollars if he is photographed. Influence from outsiders changes the culture from one of pride in customs to one of begging or demanding to be paid.”[1]

Barrois explores enforced societal double consciousness, the way of perceiving oneself through the eyes of others. Through this work he is able to turn the white gaze back on the viewer while creating a sense of agency and empowerment in stereotyped aesthetics; presenting the viewer with musings on color for deep contemplation.

Michael Taussig forwards the idea that “color is fundamentally involved in making culture from the human body.”[2] In Barrois’ work, we are presented with the complicated relationship color has in this process. Specifically, when color leaves the body as inspiration and returns as representation in pigment. Here we see color as history, as memory, as calor, as movement, as culture, as mineral, as chemical; we see what’s behind color and to the side of it. We see the same colors span a thousand years in one work, from the vibrancy of marbled paper, utilized by 8th Century Chinese book makers, to the most current digital printing methods for publishing.

In both To Paint Oneself with No Mirror and Neuland, Neuform we’re faced with the iconic pangram, “THE QUICK BROWN FOX JUMPS OVER THE LAZY DOG” set in an inky dot-matrix re-envisioning of Neuland font. Neuland is most recognizable as the font of Jurassic Park and American Spirit cigarettes. However, neither of these instances of branding hold the origin of Neuland. It was in fact designed by Rudolph Koch in 1923. Koch, a German man of little acclaim served in World War I, and after experiencing the horrors of war he returned home to find religion. His aspirations after serving were to create a new typesetting to spread the good word, and inspire other Germans to find comfort in God; though publishers at the time had other ideas for his handcarved typeset. Neuland was quickly labeled a “garbage type” and a “circus font” and sent overseas to the United States for digests, and pulp literature; shifting to become the quintessential typesetting to stereotype Africans, African Americans, and portray exoticism in Western advertising and publishing. Its most famous use was as the typesetting for the book “Native Son” by Richard Wright. W. E. B. Du Bois’ double consciousness is readily apparent here, with this pairing of black author and white publisher. Designer Rob Giampietro remarks, “But away from the white-controlled industries of book publishing, movie making, car dealing, adventure seeking, font designing, and designer clothing, in small African-American-controlled sectors of business and culture, no sign of Neuland or Lithos appears.”[3] African Americans were busy reinventing modernist fonts, creating new styles, and diverse combinations in typesetting, design, and in book publishing.

Barrois creates a methodology for making, which peels back the complicated layers of history, while moving uninhibited through space and time. This effort brings us to a major influence of Barrois: Prince. Prince refused to be constrained by stereotypes regarding gender, race, or sexual norms. Finding language to be restrictive, the content of many of his songs referred to dismantling clear-cut definitions of himself; “I’m not a woman, I’m not a man, I am something that you’ll never understand.” Prince eventually transcended language, becoming a symbol, a sensory phenomena.

Paisley Park, Prince’s enigmatic Minnesota compound, is an interesting and less talked about facet of the artist’s life. Designed in 1983 by Bret Thoeny, the deconstructed modernist office park exterior boasts a post-modern shopping-mall-meets-freaky-palace interior. In thinking about Barrois’ work in relation to Paisley Park there’s a sense of self-awareness and determinacy, a reconstructing of forms, functions, and styles. Prince utilized mash-ups of architectural styles and musical arrangements to create dream-spaces away from the world that move simultaneously between the utopian and dystopian, while Barrois takes elements of stereotype and the mundane to build new aesthetic languages and meaning.

Polly Apfelbaum has stated, “colour is structure for me. The system is there but it’s invisible. It’s both intuitive and formal, emotional, and controlled. It’s a harder mindset. Like music, it can be incredibly precise and specific without being ‘named’.”[4] In Barrois’ work we see an artist who is addressing the sometimes invisible nature of these color systems. He is showing us the tangibility of the perception of color and how it can matter in societies. In collapsing times and spaces, he cultivates an editorializing or curating practice, which points to the encoded nature of perception.

This essay is published in partnership with the exhibition Sensible Disobedience: Disrupting Cultural Signifiers in a Neoliberal Age curated by Lynnette Miranda at Charlotte Street Foundation in Kansas City, MO.

[1] Olson & Farlow: “Omo Valley, Ethipoa”, 2009 https://olsonfarlow.com/portfolios/ethiopias-omo-valley-march-2010-national-geographic-magazine

[2] Taussig, Michael: “What Color Is The Sacred”, University of Chicago Press, May 2009

[3] Giampietro, Rob: “New Black Face: Neuland and Lithos as Stereotypography”

http://blog.linedandunlined.com/post/404938892/new-black-face-neuland-and-lithos-as

[4] Apfelbaum, Polly: “Statement for Color”, Colour, Whitechapel: Documents of Contemporary Art, March 2008

 
 
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