Peacock feathers made Charles Darwin sick. He said so himself in a letter to Asa Gray: ‘The sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick!’ It seems they taunted the observational scientist about his inability to account for beauty. He ascribed gorgeous plumage to sexual selection, but as with all truly great minds he was acutely aware of his own shortcomings, and knew that his theory of evolution didn’t adequately deal with aesthetic experience. The biological function of the peacock’s iridescent and cumbersome tail was that it aids seduction, but much to Darwin’s dismay, this told him nothing about how or why the colours were appealing in the first place.

In any case, biologists have since established that all efforts to theorise ornithological colour have been doomed for failure, since birds see completely different hues than we do. They generally possess both ultra violet vision and tetrachromacy, so any attempt to consider a bird’s exuberant pallet, or lack thereof, is an anthropomorphising projection of our very limited optical capacities onto a perceptual system that is functioning completely separately to our own.

The notion of seeing colours outside the standard human RGB spectrum has preoccupied American artist Tauba Auerbach for years. The title of her current touring show, Tetrachromat, refers to the speculative theory that there are women alive in the world today (only women, on account of their having two X chromosomes) who have four instead of three retinal cones, giving them radically increased chromatic perception. Through a series of highly considered explorations of chromacy and topology, Auerbach’s work proposes an analogy between the spectral fourth dimension and the spatial fourth dimension – both of which are beyond normal human perceptual capacities and thus remain in the realm of the hypothetical.

A series of book sculptures called RGB Colourspace Atlases (2011) attempt to bring us closer to tetrachromatic perspective by slicing into the volume of the RGB-cube and situating our bodies outside this trichromatic spectrum and the confines of its length-width-breadth axes. Also on show are Auerbach’s recent experiments with woven canvases, in which she has burrowed into the material of the pictorial surface to facilitate co-existence of two planes that continually intersect and change places. By creating optical distinction where normally none would exist (on a blank white canvas), these monochromes come back to the idea that the tetrachromat can see great variation in colours that look the same to us. Uniting all the works in the exhibition is the notion that there are spectral possibilities and hyper-spatial territories that are inaccessible to our senses but might be made accessible to the imagination. By merging the properties of two-dimensional states and three-dimensional states, her work makes room for thinking about crossing the boundary into four-dimensional space – and four-dimensional colourspace – even if perceptual experience of this remains a physical impossibility.

For her Fold paintings, many of which are on display here, Auerbach crumples up her canvases and spray paints directly onto their creases, before flattening them out on stretchers. As two-dimensional territories baring traces of their former folds, they appear as scintillating pictures that move back and forth between graphic and plastic. In contrast to the trompe l’eoil tradition of constructing illusory depth on a surface, this is a creation of optical three-dimensional space on a flat plane that refers to actual depth that previously existed there, so the pictorial space is at once on, in, and of the canvas. Distinctions between abstract/concrete and presentation/representation become irrelevant: there was no abstraction involved in their making, since each crease is a physical index of the canvases’ previous spatial configuration. So they may look abstract, but in this way they’re more representational than anything from the history of figurative painting.

None of which says anything about how beautiful they are. Especially when grouped together, the Fold paintings have an arresting and dynamic radiance that is almost entirely lost in the transferral to jpegs. With previous bodies of work having dealt with aspects of semiotics, causality and chaos theory, the braininess in Auerbach’s art is never a cheap appendage to the visual splendour, nor the other way around. With deep reverence for craftsmanship, fine-tuned aesthetic intuition and an admirably broad curiosity about the world and the universe, the former sign writer seemingly works with left and right brains tightly fused. Tetrachromat is an audacious display, whose beauty remains somehow inexplicable. Darwin would spew.


Review of exhibition at Malmö Konsthall published in Frieze Magazine #148 June 2012