Jacques Palumbo

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Oeuvres / Le Génératif / Signes, aquarelles


The Rules of the Game:
Jacques Palumbo's Art


IRWIN GOPNIK





Language is the dominant metaphor of our age. It is to our times what clockworks and engines and atoms were to former. From symbolist poetry to the genetic code, creative ferment and critical fervour have attached themselves to the concept of an order of marks which communicates information through a structured system. That this structure might have mathernatical properties inspires hope that the sciences of man, and the arts, can be brought into the domain of the formal sciences. Sensibility could be translated into the forms of communication and these forms could be understood in precise terms. And this whole process of 'reading' and 'transiating' would become itself the valued object of a new aesthetic sensibility.

In the visual arts this movement toward rule-governed systerris is best exemplified in the constructivist tradition from Malevich to De Stijl to the minimalists to the computergenerativists. Its salient features - perhaps the defining ones from the synchronic point of view - are the simultaneity of creation and analysis in the same work and the resultant self-reference. However, these are the very characteristics which ail formalized languages must eschew - if we mean by a formalized language one in which we can both differentiate the well-formed statements from the illformed ones and can also distinguish the true statements from the faise.

Here is the paradox on which the whole constructivist tradition is based: it aspires to a state of formai analysis from which to synthesize a pure essential language of visual perception - but it must use the same 'symbols' and the same 'statements' for the analysis and the synthesis (Le. for the object language and the meta-language). Therefore it is irremediably self-referential. But while this would be a grave defect from a logical point of view, it is the source of a new and exciting sensibility from an aesthetic point of view - a sensibility which has come to dominate our understanding of the visual arts.

The appropriate method of proceeding in this tradition is to first specify the elements of the system. In the visual arts these elements, as one might expect, are usually the basic shapes of geometry and the basic colours of the spectrum (plus black and white). Then one gives the rules of combination and transformation of the elements - usually invoiving juxtaposition in a two or three dimensional space and controlled variations in colour (hue, intensity, etc.). Then these rules are carried out to the limits of the space, time, material, etc. that are available in a particular physical format.

If the elements are very severely restricted and if the rules are limited so that they cannot be reapplied infinitely, it may be possible to display the entire output in one work or series of works. But this is the exceptional case. Normally, the part of the output which is displayed is-to be understood only as a particular example (statement) of the language. It is the language itself which is the intended object, although naturally as wîth ail phenomena in a complex historico-cultural context it is impossible to control this intention once the work becomes public. That the particular statement is an example of a whole language rather than an exhaustive listing of ail the statements is generally independent of the extent of the lanquage, except that in the case of inf inite languages it is obviously the case.

The work of Jacques Palumbo, is clearly to be seen, understood and appreciated within this 'linguistic' paradigm. He has worked out unique ways of coming to terms with the rigours of this discipline. Although the choice of elements is usually determined by geometry and colour, since these are essential to visual perception, theoretically the choice is wholly arbitrary so long as the set of elements is consistent and finite. Palumbo, for example, sometimes chooses as a set of elements the alphabet in one or another of its typographical realisations. Since the alphabet has its own iconic and symbolic significations this contributes an additional Ipunning' level to the work. In addition, the possibilities of virtually infinite mechanical reproduction of these marks emphasizes the rule-like generation which is an underlying theoretical principle. This is just as true in other works where the sensuous surface which is peculiar to mechanical reproduction is simulated by a craftsmanlike care in drawing. In the same way, the actual, as opposed to the possible, use of a computer to work out the rules and/or to produce the finished print-out or plot is simply another way to insist on the systematic, language-like properties of the work, and as such, the computer is simply another tool - like a pencil.

In general, in coming to terms with work like Palumbo's, the viewer, like the artist, is always making the distinction between discovering the actual underlying rules of generation and making up his own hypothesis about the structure of the surface. A sense of ingenuity and play is experienced in th is process which contrasts with the apparently mechanical nature of the production. Therefore, there are always at least two planes of opposition: 1. between the abstract underlying rules and their realisation in a particular form; 2. between the 'intended' interpretation, Le. the one specified by the rules, and the interpretative hypothesis supplied freely by the ingenuity of the viewer, including the artist-as-viewer.

In the present exhibition we see the working out of Palumbo's visual statements from conceptual schemes to printouts to ink and pencil drawings to a suite of silk-screen prints to a series of water-colours.

The working papers on display give some insight into the processus of generating sequences of elements according to rule: in one case a nine rows by ten columns grid in which each row is the same sequence of numbers written in the decimai to the binary system. From a mathernatical point of view the grid is of no particular interest, but it serves as a rational, non-arbitrary, source of structures to which the artist can apply his pattern-sensitivity. In this case he inspects not only for visual patterns, but even - on an entirely different plane of signification - for rimes, because the phonetic level is necessarily present even if it is not written into the rules, that is, even if it is not an 'intended' level.

The other working paper on display shows an array of angles as elements with their associated number labellings: the potential input to a plotter. This is followed by a computer print-out of numbers which provides both a code for later works and a line and texture study in its own right. The textural possibilities of the point plotter are evident in the blown-up section that appears on the computer-photo-silk-screen HtJgf/gc 1973.

Next in the development of the work are the two series of nine black ink drawings, Open System Séries nos. 1 and 2 and the seven drawings of Red Séries no. 3. The dominant visual experience in these drawings is set up by a two way grid of spatial oppositions: one set of oppositions is between discrete and connected and the other which plays against this involves an opposition between straight and modulated. In addition, there is an overall rythm of movement produced by the varying patterns of openess and density of marks, both within each drawing and between the drawings.

All of these devices, plus an alternation of black, whiteand gray line-ground distinctions, come into play in the opulent portfolio of six silk-screen prints: Open Signs. These prints are the culmination of the work to this point and in them one gets the full impact of the line-open figure-closed figure-surface movement-system.

After Open Signs there is a distinct shift in system to the water-colours where columns and blocks of colour vary in proportion, frequency and hue. Since the colour introduces a much greater degree of perceptual complexity and a kind of lyrical indefiniteness in its soft-focus interactions, there is a necessary simplification of the geometry compared to the drawings and prints. We still participate in a rule-governed game but the rules have changed.

In this kind of art, as in all others, the tasks of the artist are manifold: to select interesting elements from ali those possible; to discover or invent clever rules; to find and use the appropriate medium of realisation over the range of available materials and techniques; to edit the output for relevancy and representativeness. Ail of these Palumbo accomplishes with intelligence, skill and great sensitivity to the nuances of surface detail. He demonstrates, as an artist working in this tradition must, the fusion of austere underlying principles and sensuous surface realisations.

Montreal, 1975





































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