When a tiny quantum particle of light hits some metal, I like to imagine it makes a tiny, slightly lonesome, “oof” sound.
You might (correctly) think that this is why I am better off writing about art than science, but there’s more of a link between the two worlds than you’d imagine. The teeny quantum particle - the smallest possible unit of energy that can occur in nature - doesn’t make an “oof” sound of course; Einstein showed that when it hits metal it makes a tiny zap of electricity, different for different colours of quantum particle. One tiny, lonely zap causes not that much to happen, but when a whole stream of colourful quantum particles “oof” their way into the right kind of surface there’s a whole photoelectric scene and there’s suddenly a situation where colour has actual, measurable power. The kind that can change channels from a distance, set fireflies to stun, or give you a sunburn. I am decidedly hazy on the whys and wherefores of the process, and indeed would urge you to double check my sciencey assertions, but knowing that the outputs of measurable power, beauty and change are baked in at an atomic level unlocks some ways of thinking about art, and perhaps even about advertising.
One quantum particle alone cannot create the beauty and power of colour and light; the phenomenon can only be explained when we think about untold numbers of particles acting together and think about them as subject to the same laws, and there are artists who have been thinking about the natural world in the same way, seeing the impact and beauty of life as all part of a whole, with no difference to be found between plant and person, between twig and toothpick, riverbank and packing peanut. In this time of divide and uncertainty it’s an approach that holds the promise of consolation, and poses a question about whether the work of the advertising industry can also benefit from an embrace of the universal.
In the smart Savile Row galleries of Hauser & Wirth, six huge, glowing paintings by the artist Frank Bowling
draw the gaze of passersby away from the street’s traditional, sober displays of tailoring. Light plays off the rippling surface of the large canvases, almost organic, with clotted gluey surfaces of impasto holding a mix of natural and found human objects above washes of colour, layers of fabric and paint tacked on, glistening here and there with touches of gold and silver. It’s a compelling sight, both impressive and rejuvenating, a pause in the quotidian that acts like the uplifting glimpse of a distant sunlit lake seen from the motorway.
Light is a powerful element in Bowling’s work; he is a river-based artist, with studios on both the Thames and the Hudson, his gaze daily taking in the everchanging waterways and the light moving on them. Now in his late 80s, he’s spent a lifetime immersed in the abstract expressionist movement, developing a style that is uniquely his own, yet recognisably within a tradition encompassing both JW Turner and colour field masters like Mark Rothko. Originally from Guyana, he first travelled to London to attend art college in the 1960s, where his experiences amidst the drear, declining colonial structures (highlighted in 2019’s extraordinary and overdue retrospective at Tate Britain), and his subsequent departure for a New York alive with the vibrant and essential civil rights movement can almost be read as a response to one country’s attempt to cling on to division, and another’s to finally become a united whole.
The work he created addressed the currents and eddies of shared and personal history, from the impact of Africa’s enslaved people on the development of America’s modernist art to the traces of childhood home, always experimenting with techniques from screen printing and painting to the dizzyingly colour soaked abstracts, and more recently, the impastos. Alongside series’ based around the rivers, he began to pull apart the components of impasto, using thick smears and spreads of milky glue alongside paints to hold in place artefacts of evanescent nature; moss, mud, leaves, and straw, alongside the unconsidered marks that humankind leaves embedded in them; scraps of plastic, ring pulls, cotton buds and the like. In his recent work, huge curds of paint and glue give up their meagre treasures, the dental picks and packing sponges of the artist’s life, amidst a naturalistic luminescence - the fierce glow of sunset, the rainbow light of an oily puddle. And it is in this use of light that universality appears, and with it the promise that what connects us might be as powerful as a natural law, rendering our divisions insignificant.
In drawing no distinction between the leavings of the natural world, and the human made detritus of our lives, Frank Bowling seemingly describes a world of universals; the way the light hits and the dissolution of the small marks we humans make on the world no different to the way a tree, a river, a wisp of straw does, we all of us together a part of the natural world and subject to its same laws.
This compelling, consoling, deeply humanistic approach doesn’t provide answers for those of us at creativity’s commercial coalface, but it does possibly open up new avenues for enquiry. If what makes us most content is universal, will placing our focus on the personalisation of advertising make it more, or less, of a contributor to our general wellbeing? Should we further atomise ourselves and our audiences into microsegmentations or reach instead for the kind of work that brings us together with one another, and the world we are a part of? And, to conserve resources most effectively, how do we build a model that balances conversion with contentment?
This feels like a topic where the voices of many will, like the quantum particles, be more powerful than the voice of one, so I would love to know what you think; please do be in touch.