The Desire to See - text from the exhibition "Orange Sunset"

6 August 2009 | Joshua Simon

"In nonliving nature there are no colors” | Cornelius Castoriadis

The color in Rotem Reshef’s paintings changes one from a viewer to a seer. From one who relates to an object or an image, the viewer in front of her works becomes a seer Colors, shapes, sizes, and light appear in front of her. Upon describing the nature of the different colors in conversations preparing for the exhibition and the writing of this text, Reshef refers to their subjectivity and discusses novelty and experimentation with color. Every color reacts differently to the canvas and to other colors it "meets” during the working process she sets in motion in the studio. Moreover, Reshef describes the desires of every color she uses and the dialogue created on the canvas between each and every one of them.

The Greek-French philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis explains that color is a human trait. Colors exist for living beings. In "Phusis and Autonomy” he writes: "The living being self-constitutes itself [s’auto-constitue]; it is for itself; it creates its world. It is its own end, whether as individual, as species, as ecosystem . . . . It creates, each time, a proper world. The visual universe of the bee, or of the sea turtle, is not the same as ours. There is, each time, presentation, representation of something ‘outside’ the living being by the living being and for the living being, after its own fashion – and there is, each time, a bringing into relation of what is thus represented […] The living being (certain living beings) creates color. In nonliving nature, there are no colors – there are only wavelengths […] It is thought that by speaking of wavelengths, color has been "reduced” or "explained”, which is an absurdity. A wavelength "explains” nothing about color; one can at best establish correlations […] No correlation, however, can account for the quality of blue and of red as such (of the fact blue and of the fact red) or explain why short wavelengths "correspond” to what we see as blue and long wavelengths to what we see as red – rather than the reverse, or to other "colors” no one has ever seen. The level of being with which I am interested is exactly that "subjective” notion of color”

As early as the beginning of the twentieth century, the pure color, as a stain or a surface, has been meant to be the cornerstone of a new international ilanguage: "The Language of Form and Color,” as Wassily Kandinsky termed it in the sixth section of his book Concerning the Spiritual in Art. In it Kandinsky describes color as a living being, which is odd, independent, and rich with pictorial potential. Abstract artists such as Kandinsky came to prove that a surface covered with colors, which has abandoned any readable affinity to nature, would be left, after all, readable.

Reshef brings nature into her paintings. The figuration at which she hints (hair, particles, cells, molecules, thorns) brings the cosmic and molecular nature into the abstract. If Kandinsky was searching for a ilanguage in the abstract, Reshef finds the abstract in the ilanguage of nature. Be it the enlarged microscopic image implied in the series Life Forms I, II, III (2006) and in Hovering (2008) where color cells sail and meet; or the suggestive landscape in Wonder Tree (2006) and Sprouts (2007), where among the stains and shapes a foliage, a tree trunk, and branches can be discerned; or the telescopic image suggested in Sparks (2008) and Clouds (2008), where the stains receive a cosmic haze – the shapes in the painting have meaning as content. Reshef’s works widen the sight beyond the viewing techniques of photography, telescopes and microscopes. They define what Castoriadis refers to as "creating relations between the representations,” meaning that they suggest something that is beyond our familiarity with the world (the photographic and the scientific, microscopic and telescopic). By doing this they expand our sight.


"I tried to keep the paint as good as it was in the can” | Frank Stella

Reshef’s compositions ask the eye to sail along the canvas and allow it to find more and more details. The eye flows with the currents of colors. Reshef’s paintings obtain the quality of that wonder of the paintbrush diluting in water (without ever reaching the balance of milky water in the shade of the diluted color). The painting retains motion. Not solely in the constant play between the suggested figurative and the abstract, but also in the existence of the color on the canvas. The human imagination relates to the pigment of the color and the wetness of the paint. It is similar to the way the apparition of shapes in clouds is a meeting between precipitation and the human imagination. . Thus, in the painting In Statu Nascendi (2009) that was created in stages during a few months, thin layers of paint are pooled and accumulated together,encirclingthe canvas's boundaries. In Orange Celebration (2009), which took weeks to create, the careful layers of diluted colors merge with each other and with the canvas. In Bloom (2009), color formed a suggested flower that changed its appearance during the months of its making. The dark and concentrated center, spreading to semi-transparent petals emerging from it, points out the process of the painting’s creation. Imagination is in the form the colors assign themselves.

The painting begins with the decision on the size of the canvas – the choice of work surface – and then the choice of color families to partake in the painting. The work begins with the color and the support not with a sketch. There is no place for the sketch (Reshef outlines general lines of image or composition on the canvas in water – there is a transparent sketch on the surface. It is a process close to imagining on the canvas). At any rate the color reacts differently to each support - paper, cardboard, or canvas. When the canvas is placed on the floor, the painting begins in the large gestures – first the mass, then the details. Reshef parts the canvas into areas, where modifications and relations are created. Each and every color works differently as a form on the canvas. The blues have an expansion desire and they stretch quickly into gentle fibers; the reds expand when absorbed and gladly partake in dripping; the greens create dots and stains that slowly expand; the oranges create stains that tend to reveal the canvas beneath them rather than conceal it; the whites do not dissolve nor do they expand. The white absorbs and adjoins other colors. Reshef defines it as a color with "self-respect.” Reshef’s white is not a non-color. It is a color in and on its own, and it acts differently than all other colors, she explains. Reshef holds on to the jars of diluted colors and reuses diluted colors that remain in the jar until they dissolve into color particles and colorful liquid. Reshef gives the color new life in the water. Once she released the paint from the tube and allows it to meet other paints, she re-germinates it in the jar of water until it becomes a new color.

Most of the paintings are created when Reshef dampens the canvas. Sometimes she will drench the whole canvas, and at times only the areas where the future image will be created. The primary dilution of the paint is done in jars, but the second is done directly on the canvas – the diluted paint comes across the damp surface in different techniques and gestures; at times strokes, at times in drips, by sprinkling, or spraying it with the brush, either straight from the jar or using a paintbrush. The constant action of dampening the canvas turns Reshef’s painting into a sculpture; Reshef needs to wet the canvas whenever it dries – in like manner to working with plaster. Thus she sculpts the colors into the canvas. Reshef finds ways of coupling the liquid color with the half-liquid canvas. The practical aspects of the work are inseparable from its poetic ones; the connection and dissolution of color occur interdependently with the action of painting, of the dampening of the canvas - the canvas becomes an emulsion. In this process Reshef owns both the self-control and the spontaneous flow of color. The painting tends to step forward to the world of color. It always brings in more. It needs to be chased, then hasted, and then chased again. The work of painting is created in a sort of awe, meant to encourage the potentialities of the canvas and colors. The working process of control and release allows surprises. It is filled with the joy of discovery through constant search. The painting incessantly changes – each procedure creates a new and different result each and every time. Every layer of dampness and layer of paint change the rest. The painting holds within it the twofold nature of something between spontaneity and master plan. The technique Reshef created and refined constantly alters the painting. The merging of colors and the fluid texture of the canvas; the different levels of absorption and expansion of paint, assimilation and blending of color; the filled spaces and the voids left exposed – all take part in creating the final piece. Thus, when exhibited, the painting is present as a constant event. Reshef’s painting is a document and an action, an event and a narrative. It holds within it present and past. It documents an occurrence that happened around it and upon it in the artist’s studio, and it exists as a constant event of seeing. But the tension between the temporary and permanent in Reshef’s painting is not only part of the history of its working process, but is a part of their performance in space – for instance, in the motion created in In Statu Nascendi, Orange Celebration and in Bloom, and also in Life Forms III and Break Through (2008).

Beyond her being the painter, as the one present while the painting is painted, Reshef recounts a feeling of elation. Still, as the canvas fills she knows she needs to take extra care. Being that there is no way to repair the painting, at times Reshef leaves a painting alone for a few months while still unfinished. The duration of work changes from canvas to canvas. Each requires different interludes. It is much easier to paint in breaks, as almost every canvas calls for a series of restarts. Even a relatively quick painting such as Molecular Meal (2009) may only take a few hours to paint, but the use of very dilute paints concludes in a drying period of three days, and beforehand the paints dilute in water jars for three weeks, "dissolving” as preparation for the painting. Reshef’s colors distill the painting. The recycling of the water used to dilute paint is actually part of the distillation. In Molecular Meal, for example, the lightness of the work with diluted paint allows Reshef to affix the color onto the canvas in stages. This painting is a fine example of Reshef’s use of recycled materials, of colors that awaited their dissolver for a lengthy period, as well as of the thin line on which the works walk, between the abstract and the figurative (the molecular meal after which the painting was titled is in itself a gastronomic play on the border between the abstract and the figurative).

During the slow process of the painting’s creation, in the months in which Reshef lives with the paintings, making additions and modifications, even a portrait that became an abstract painting returns to being a portrait. Not a portrait of something else in the world but rather of itself. The painting ends in a halt. While setting down more and more layers there is need to decide when to stop – when exactly does the intensity of the color become a burden. It is in this trial that Reshef proves her skill. Just as a person who cannot play an instrument can recognize a note out of tune, so does the viewer recognize a painting that is burdensome, out of balance. Reshef’s paintings are harmonious, in that they are played on tune; the brush drums on the canvas, the stains expand to a composition, each having its own melody – the organic images and the dots in Wonder Tree merge like a bow quartet accompanied by piano; the warm stains filling Finger Lakes (2007) tune in like bow and wind instruments at the beginning of a concert. To go on with the musical allusion, one could say that Reshef’s paintings can be hummed.

At the starting point of the painting Reshef can begin few paintings that share a history. While Reshef plans what she will do on the canvas, she creates parallel canvases that take on different directions. The present of the paintings, the experience of being with these works and the respect towards them are all part of the personification of materials. The abstraction towards pure visibility draws from respect to the surface and fidelity to the materials. The notion of the aerial view of the image continues as Reshef paints the edges of the canvas around the frame. The image cannot end because everything is already in the world – concrete and poetic. The painting pushes away and draws near – it allows magnification and reduction, zoom-in and zoom-out. From the test tube to the super novas, from the microscope to the telescope, the paintings are in life. The scale does not frame the images but allows the viewer to be drawn into the paintings.


"Other than the spectrum, there is no pure color” | Donald Judd

The colors and forms created by the blind dazzling that occurs when staring at the sun with eyes shut constitute a gaze into the light and into the skin and subsequently, into abstraction and into the body. In the still dark of the eye, the affect of the glittering light dims the relations between interior and exterior, and between abstraction and figuration. Reshef’s paintings are all sight and a desire to see. They were born in the bright blindness of staring directly at the sun with eyes shut. The drama that takes place in this stillness; the attempt of the eye within the eye to follow the spots of light within the darkness is carried on into Reshef’s canvas. The figuration in her paintings carries the poetics of dust particles dancing in a ray of sunshine.

The abstraction in painting, which began with Impressionism, originates in the division of light and color, as Claude Monet’s works attest. If until Haystacks (1891) light and color were of one piece, then since Rouen Cathedral, West Façade, Sunlight (1894), light has been detached from color, the hand detached from the eye, and the real painter became the viewer. The pivot of Reshef’s painting is light and color – both alter and lead the eye to different places and both are there inside it. Reshef’s abstraction fixes the viewer as the one to link the elements, the one to follow the light of the image. Light projecting from the painting, for example in the cracks between the plates sailing upon Dancing in Tiptoes (2008) and the veins of Bloom – becomes a figure in Reshef’s painting. Light becomes color. If the color is the human, the light is the living.

Photosynthesis lies at the basis of the food chain. The process of photosynthesis happens in addition to the process of breathing in all living beings, plants, and algae in the bottom of the food chain. In an alchemy-like process organic compounds are created from inorganic materials – light is absorbed in the chlorophyll (the green pigment in the plant) and transformed into organic matter. Photosynthetic organisms actually do not require any organic compounds from exterior sources such as food in order to produce energy or create their cells. They are defined as photoautotrophic (creators whose source of energy is light). The painting The Reef (2006) includes an image that suggests a reef of water plants – plantation is created through colors and forms and lots of light that seems to penetrate the reef. Like the plant, the painting is fed by light. At the core of Reshef’s work is the desire to see. It links color, which is the basis for form in her paintings, with light, which is the basis for seeing.

The Seer and the Seen

"[…] The stain bursts forth from the surface […] The range of the stain is a medium” |

Walter Benjamin

An image is like the Medusa. It wishes to freeze the viewer in front of it. In the society of spectacle it is customary that every visual product attempts to capture our attention and stun us to a halt and astonishment. Every halt and astonishment implies forgetting the prior image – this is how television works. It obligates you to forget in order to become its viewer. The viewer becomes a seer when the seen exceeds the image. Whereas the viewer remains passive in front of the image, the seer partakes in its creation. The seer, unlike the viewer, sees that which is viewed and the viewing itself. If abstract painting desires not to be a picture, it is this desire that links it to the viewer, and creates a seer. In Reshef’s painting the question is what is the object – what is the stain and what is its contour? So, for example, in Dancing on Tiptoes and in Hovering, where the cracks of light become channels and the plates of color become blocs, the painting appears within itself – the viewing becomes seeing. Not all is subject to the image – but the opposite – the image is subjected to the seer.

The explosion of distilled color on the canvas has been building up in Reshef during the fifteen years in which she did not paint. The intensiveness of the color moves her paintings and charges them with emotional meaning. The color as a human characteristic receives validity in Reshef’s painting, and suggests an expansion of our ways of seeing. The specificity of each color and each seer is expressed in the paintings.

In this context, Benjamin’s definition of the stain as a medium, and his explanation that the stain bursts forth from the surface as opposed to being instilled in it, read as a description of Reshef’s work. The stained quality of color, and the materiality of the paint as the stain express the relation Reshef builds between the seer and seen – her working processes in the studio and the performance of the work in the space; the touch on the canvas and the departure from the canvas; its passivity and its activity – the canvas as a sort of emulsion of photo paper on which the image is cast and from which the image emerges, as a material charged with light in a sort of photosynthetic process, as a distilled homeopathic concentrate of color, as part of an ecology of appearance – all of these link the seen and the seer in Reshef’s work. As part of her respect to all existing, Reshef adds the respect to the bare canvas that moves her to colorful suggestions, to transparencies, so as not to "burden” the canvas. She offers what can be offered to the world – a sense of balance (between that which is background and image, between stain and painting). She adjusts the sizes of the stains according to the wetness of the color in the different areas of the surface, like a kind of plumber playing Red light/Green light with the fluids and the canvas. Thus she allows the painting to grow from itself; a painting where the white color and the rest of the colors change roles and compete among themselves which will lead the narrative. A painting that changed its focus (from self portrait to an array of abstract images whose orientation is to the stain rather than the image); an abstract painting reminiscent of a map or topography, viewed at times from an aerial view and at times from a side view.

The tension between the material and the spiritual in Reshef’s painting is expressed in the tension between actual presence and immanent possibilities. Out of the understanding that there is no escape in this world, that abstraction happens within it and not outside of it, Reshef found shelter in seeing.