Black and White and Read All Over: The Virtus of Text and Image in “Gray Matters”

The current exhibition Gray Matters at the Wexner Center for the Arts brings together 37 contemporary artists (all women) who across a variety of media and processes have produced vibrant work out of the unassumingly neutral palette of black, white and gray. Curator Michael Goodson, writing in the handsomely produced gallery-guide, designed by Erica Anderson and including texts on each of the artists written by Goodson, Lucy Zimmerman and Marisa Espe, describes the affinities between the work in the exhibition and the technique of grisaille:

Classically, grisaille – the French term for rendering in shades of black, white, gray, and other neutral colors – was used as an expressive technique to capture the look and texture of a statue or sculpture, its varied shades creating the illusion that one could reach into the painting and feel stone. It was also used to map out oil paintings, to create an “underpainting” over which translucent oil paints would be layered, creating depth through an emphasis on deep shadow and shimmering light.

Goodson proceeds to remark on the ‘ascetic dimension’ of grisaille, that extends from the ‘liturgical sobriety’ of Jan van Eyck in the 15th century to the ‘disciplined embrace of these limitations’ by the contemporary artists in the exhibition. One episode in the history of grisaille that Goodson doesn’t mention, but which also seems to bridge the art historical tradition with its contemporary manifestation, is its use in illuminated manuscripts from the 13th century on. Here is an example of a grisaille library scene that shows the subtle variations of the technique with gold borders and highlights.

Grisaille was also used to make symbolic alternations within the same image, between brightly colored figures and scenes en grisaille. Such juxtapositions were either withing the manuscripts themselves, or as part of collages, compiling different images from different texts. A powerful example of the latter is this image of St John the Baptist which is part of the Fitzwilliam Museum collection in Cambridge, UK.

Here is how the work is described on the museum website:

The image of St John the Baptist, excised from a manuscript, has been pasted inside a roundel with eight medallions painted in semi-grisaille. Four of the medallions illustrate Christ’s Passion, the rest depict hermit saints who sought to experience Jesus’ suffering. Instruments of the Passion, alluding to Christ’s pain, loom out of the marbled background. The reduced palette harmonises with the sombre themes. The roundel might have been conceived as an autonomous devotional image.

Although the effect of color and grisaille makes a forceful message, the collage and juxtaposing of the gray grisalle images alone can also have a striking effect.  Consider Aby Warburg’s use of grisaille in his Atlas. According to Christopher Johnson, in the 44th panel of Atlas, Warburg is enacting an argument that he wrote about the insertion of Ghirlandaio’s grisaille panels in the frescos at the Sassetti Chapel in Florence. For Warburg, Ghirlandaio added these elements in grisaille, ‘faithfully copied from Roman coins’, to limit ‘pagan histrionics’ within a ‘Christian edifice’.

Warburg describes how the subtle markers of pagan Roman virtus are depicted in grisaille so as not to disrupt the contemplative and expansive focus on Christian imagery.

The way that Warburg brings attention to these low-key grisaille scenes of Roman virtus (which translates as both ‘virtue’ as well as ‘manliness’) within a Christian framework is informative to the dynamic between text, image and gender politics in some of the works of Gray Matters. Bethany Collins and Xaviera Simmons use text to investigate the patriarchal white-washing of racist violence and institutions. In A Pattern or Practice, Collins uses a subtle embossing technique to create a barely legible text of the US Department of Justice report on the Ferguson police following the murder of Michael Brown.

As if the verso to this white-washed work, Collins’ Southern Review uses a heavy black charcoal to redact sections from the prestigious southern literary magazine, creating a dramatic visual interplay of word and imageless space.

Xaviera Simmons epic installation Rupture unites a dictionary definition with the text of a commission to study slavery reparations in the US, wherein the shear scale of the work bears down on the viewer mirroring the weight of American history and the failures of our contemporary moment to rupture itself from the racist violence of the past and act to account for it legally and emotionally.

Perhaps the most explicit ancestor of the grisaille technique as used in books and appropriated by Warburg, is Suzanne McClelland’s incredible work Rank (Billionaires) – partially depicted below from the pages of the gallery guide. On the verso of two large abstract paintings, McClelland juxtaposes a collage of photographs of the richest men in the world, accompanied by printed and scribbled text of their ranking and the dollar-amount they are worth. This damning critique of the fusion of capitalism, patriarchy and value offers up an abstract alternative to this misplaced virtus on the recto.

Close to McClelland’s powerful critique of white male privilege in the gallery space, the grisaille of contemporary virtus takes another timely hit in the collage work The Answer is Matriarchy by Carmen Winant.

Here there is no text, but the source of the repeated image of two women kissing comes from the 1978 lesbian resource book Our Right To Love.

I can find no more eloquent way to end this post than by sharing a photograph taken of artists and partners Sheilah Wilson and Dani Leventhal in front of Winant’s work. It is an image that joins Gray Matters in showcasing feminist grisaille, and in doing so, it effectively relegates centuries of patriarchal virtus to the shadows.

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