Jacques Palumbo







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Oeuvres / Le Génératif / Aquagrammes

Existing as a function of a given structure


The Montreal Star, my 14th, 1977

JACQUES PALUMBO'S current exhibition at the Galerie Gilles Gheerbrant comprises five works, each a series of either six or seven panels executed in. watercolor on paper. Each panel is -composed of horizontal bands of two hues and represents one variant of a pre-determined mathematical formula which describes a visual equilibrium

based on balàneing the quantity of one color (expressed in the varying widths of the bands) with the tonal quality of the other color (expressed as changes from light to dark and obtained by laying down one to nine coats of the same color). The artist refers to this balance as an çquivelency of density and weight. The formula and the two constructing colors' change from one series to the next.

Seven pages of highly technical notes, as well as a chart of the fifteen colors of equal luminosity used, accornpany the works, as ifto prove Robert. Morris dictum, that "Simplicity of shape does not necessarily equate with simplicity of experience", Indeed, Palumbo's works offer an astonishingly, rich visual experience, although their "reading" doesn't involve nearly as much work as the notes (or the tortuous description above) might seem to ' indicate.

The description is necessary cily because the equal luminosity of their colon means that black-and-white photographs of these works would come out as nothing more than a blur. And if the notes inform us that his quality was achieved by testing the luminosity of each hue with a densitometer that in no way lessens - or heightens - the direct,almost lyrical, impact of these délicate greys, blues, greens, ochres and reddish earth tones.

The spectator's problem - as opposed to that of the artist, which is clearly stated in the notes and neatly resolved in the works - is to decide exactly how far his own, intuitive perception of the work ought to be guided by the mathematical formula. This dilernma is always an intrinsie élément, in generafive art, like, Palumbo's.,To follow the notes-too closely wouId mean an attempt to identify each band of color with its équivalent number in the progression, but that would treat the art as a pedantic illustration of a formula and reduce the expérience to a matter of dogged problern solving.

On the other band, to ignore the cognitive content by perceiving the work as nothing more than sensory stimulus would be obtuse and hedonistic in the extrerne. Clearly, a balance bas to be struck between the two attitudes: A clear-cut choice would only imply that the notions of cognition and pleasure are necessarily antithetical. All art criticism (which is to say ever informed spectator) is continually conf ronted with this problem, but, by including his notes, J.Palumbo gives it such urgency that he almost overshadows other considerations.

In the little catalogue the gallery has published for this exhibition, art historian François-Marc Gagnon warns us to resist any temptation" to compare Palumbo's works with other paintings, such as those of the American minimalist or the Plasticiens of Montreal. Renotes that the horizontal bands of color are an arbitrary vehicle - the ideal could have been presented using any kind of unit, including a threedimensional one. In an recent conversation, Palumbo added that, at one time, he even considered translating these progressions into music, thus bypassing the visual element entirely.

The innovative aspects of generative art like Palumbo's can perhaps be approached through the terminology of linguistics, the science whose recent discoveries - Chomsky's generative grammar, especially - are of great interest to this artist. Traditional painting - Molinari's color bands, for instance - may be likened to the notion of morphology, in that it involves the manipulation of the basic units of the visual language into composition, dérivation and inflection: Molinari's use of surrounding cow stripes to influence our perception of the central stripe is essentially inflective. Palumbo opposes morphology with syntax- His units have no separate identity of their own, they exist only as functions of a given structure. The construction is above all, a mental one in which the units are components of a relationship rather than independent entities.

Palumbo's structures can be grasped (if not precisely "read") even without slavishly following the notes by an inductive process Valéry defined as "a kind of creative seeing by which the understanding fills the gaps in sense perception," although here it is more a matter of sense perception filling the gaps in knowledge. The best guides are the earlier, columnar works which are hung apart in the gallery from the main body of the exhibition. In these multiples, the upward progression of dark to, light of one- color is accompanied by a similar, progressive increase in the quantity (surface area) of the ether color.

In the new series, this progression is complicated by the introduction of a pivot-element, or fulcrum, which is surrounded by two areas of unequal dimension in which the quantities of density and surface are, nevertheless, in balance: Each series is a démonstration of six or seven of the thirty-two different equilibria one formula is capable of generating. More important from the spectator's point of view, each combination is an exhilarating balance - a reconciliation? - between the pleasures of seeing and knowing.

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