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Penn's 'static' art

This story was first published in Business Day

Marriages, friendships, families probably broke up when TV screens flickered with static, instead of images. Back in the analogue days when the space between TV channels was filled with black and white pulsating worms called static, people argued and raged as they were woken from their blissful zoned-out TV induced slumber. It signaled an unpleasant in-between state, a disturbing aural and visual experience. It was a sort of sensory limbo land, though if it was left on for long enough, while some poor person was hanging on the edge of the roof trying to get a better signal, it would grow on you, become familiar and the static of the static-ness became curiously comforting. In his exhibition at Circa Gallery Cape Town, appropriately titled No signal, Richard Penn offers up all shades of ‘static’ in a series dubbed Noise.

Rendered in pretty retro-colours of lime green paired with orange, or yellows with browns and orange, Penn’s oil paintings of ‘static’ veer more on the pleasing comforting side. Stay in this sensory limbo-land, he seems to be saying to us. There are things here to be discovered above and beyond, familiarity with nothingness. Penn discovered for instance that lurking in this no man’s retro TV land are, were, left over signals from the birth of our universe. Google it.

Grandness and banality collide in the quirky though poetic and beautiful visual experience Penn presents in this exhibition. His mode of artmaking encapsualates this; everyday and simple activities like drawing a line or circle accumulate, resulting in awe-inspiring art. You have to see Penn’s art to ‘believe’ it and even then, it is hard to wrap your head around it. It is the precision with which he produces lines and patterns that astounds, confounds and intrigues. His drawings, watercolours and oil paintings are all united by lines, marks, patterns that appear so perfectly executed it is hard to believe that they are manmade and not digitally generated. This is part of a trend in abstract art.

Recently this gallery hosted an exhibition by Andrzej Urbanski, who sets out to not only mimic but supersede current technology through his hard edge abstract art paintings. Cameron Platter’s large scale abstract works in his recent solo, Zol, at Blank Projects also parade like digitally created compositions. You have to study Platter’s works closely to detect that the lines are hand-drawn.

With Penn’s drawings you have to be told they are drawings to believe they are such and even then, you sort of want to see him do it to believe it. His drawings, consist of tiny uniform lines repeated almost endlessly to create dense abstract patterns. The simplicity of this method is perhaps best detected in Foam 4, a circular work defined by small circles that grow in density in certain areas to create patterns. From afar these read like a microscopic studies of organisms. Indeed his art is linked to science, or perhaps draws from the visual aesthetics we associate with this discipline. The precision with which Penn generates and replicates lines affirms this link.

Our belief in science, and its findings about the world, our bodies, the universe, hangs on precision and uniformity. Consistent visual representation of phenomena such as the interior of our bodies, or say how the universe is structured allow us to grasp very abstract concepts.

You only have to go and have an ultrasound scan at the doctors to know that organic life doesn’t quite live up to the visual representations that scientific illustrations offer. In a way scientific imagery operates like a screen; the thing we look at instead of the actual thing. We accept this because we can’t see everything with our naked eyes and we can’t contain it in one view. We don’t know what stars really look like as they are too far away and even if we got close their form would be hard to grasp as they do not have the clear hard pointy silhouettes that are customarily used to represent stars.

Penn grapples with this contradiction through his art. He is interested in knowing and seeing things he can’t see – this is what compels visual artists. He is interested in capturing the micro and the macro, which are seemingly made of the same stuff. In ink drawings like Foam, or in charcoal ones such as Ones and Zeros, which bring microscopic views of skin to mind, he explores small organisms. Larger perspectives, macro views of the universe, that quantum mechanics delivers through abstract representations come to mind through the Noise series. Perhaps however, it is the collection or abundance of data pertaining to reality that Penn ‘processes’ too via works such as Ones and Zero’s 4. There is so much information that nothing can be understood. He opts to detect and study the patterns, aestheticise them. It is about embracing complexity though admiring the simplicity that perhaps underlies it. He delivers this contradiction most succinctly through the compelling series of oil paintings called Noise.

It is interesting that oil painting would be a useful medium to think about science in the information age. However, since the early days of art (the Renaissance) painting has been used to reveal reality and function as an illusion of it. Penn’s oil paintings contain this contradiction, however, he uniquely channels it through science and delivers commentary on the information age. It isn’t only scientists who are are flooded with information and images about the world. Through the internet, social media we are all exposed to an excess of data. There is no static space anymore – we are permanently tuned in. It is with a sense of nostalgia or longing that we think of the days when our TV sets lost a signal.

Penn’s abstract art appears to offer us something certain, through the level of precision in its delivery, however, belying this is the ideal escape – a break from facts, figures and (even) images. Through his sometimes colourful and detailed patterns, he opens up a space where we can get lost in the minutiae, studying his lines, marveling at them. We can try and detect the patterns in the patterns. Or we can take comfort in the fact that there is nothing to see, we are hovering between images and realities and that is just okay.

  • No Signal showed at Circa Cape Town in November 2017. Penn is showing two new works at the 2018 Investec CTAF


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