Colour Maps

Colour Maps, 1999
Published by Duncan of Jordanstone College, ISBN 1 899837 36 1
Alan Woods

The last time I wrote an essay for Jim he was just beginning to work on this series which continues with the picture/constructions in the present exhibition. One of these early works has been hanging in my office wall since then, and, more than any other piece I own, it has attracted delighted comment. Nor – living with it almost daily – does its initial attractiveness evaporate; these works feed into one of the most basic delights of painting – illusion.

This is illusion on the edge of trompe lóeil but, because Jim has long worked with abstraction and collage fragments so difficult to read as to drop into non-figuration, there is no ‘life’ that his paintings are ‘like’ or with which they might be confused beyond the already abstracted life of geometric objects. (The one exception, early in this series, ultimately derived from Renaissance headwear, but this was a reference to perspective drawing by Uccello; hardly an equivalent for a trompe lóeil violin hanging – apparently –from a door; or for anything else in the trompe lóeil tradition.) What we get is what we got in earlier paintings, marks and colours rushing forwards or backwards in relation to the picture surface and each other; but this time with the use of shaped stretchers (canvas or muslin stretched over wood) that carry the image proud of the wall and use the sides of the picture not just to continue the painting but also to cast real shadows, which mock or echo those painted shadows which are already giving the images an almost parodic sense of depth and tangibility. Classic trompe lóeil (unlike normal representational art) is unresolvable; the brain knows it sees a painting but the eyes tell it otherwise and force the brain back into a series of tests it knows to be futile and idiotic; tests which never prevent the eyes from seeing a violin rather than paint. Jim’s work squares this circle through the artificiality of the playful object it creates; the illusion is constant but delusion is held at bay.

If these are games long played out in the history of painting (and its often crude accompanying anecdotes of realism as deceit) they are uncannily reworked in the virtual world of computers where the image may be less than a copy of an object than a first step towards it, a bursting-out of an initial idea into virtual three dimensionality – and testability. This series of works begins in sketchbook drawings of forms with one or two elements – forms imaginatively existing on almost any scale, though some seem architectural, while others, we feel, are more like smallish sculptures or even toys from some Renaissance playpen. Selected forms are then fed into the computer, where the 3-D imaging programme allows experiments with colours, viewpoints and shading. (these experiments being potentially endless, strictish discipline is required entering into this phase.) Once this final configuration- or generally pairs of configurations – is settled, the stretcher can then be made.(Since Jim began working with Bob Finlay on the stretchers, the possibilities for new shapes have been greatly extended.) The painting is then based on a squared up print-out, although the key decisions regarding nuances of colour necessarily remain intuitive rather than slavishly imitating the print-out (itself a mere echo of the colour as light seen on the computer screen). This dialogue between traditional methods, particularly technical perspective drawing, and the computer’s mimicry of these forms carries over into ambiguous end products, anything but virtual, but with a solidity at once parallel to and distant from the spectacle they offer; conjuring tricks that transparently display their slight of hand without prejudicing their claims to be marvellous.