When John Torreano began his talk about his exhibition, Dark Matters Without Time, on March 24, 2018 at Lesley Heller Gallery, he did so from behind a black curtain. Like a performer entering the stage, Torreano pushed the curtain aside and his head appeared. It quickly disappeared leaving only the covered doorway in view. The audience laughed. Torreano repeated the peek-a-boo gesture several times and then emerged with his arms wide, welcomed to a burst of applause. He said, dryly, “Now, for this talk I wanted to start with one of my earliest pieces. It’s a performance piece. I call it peek-a-boo.” When the audience laughed again, John said, “You’ve heard of it.”
Torreano delivered his remarks with humor, irony, and an impish smile, all qualities familiar to those who have followed him throughout his career. “His joy is infectious,” said a viewer. Then the artist continued, in a more serious tone, “I like the idea of peek-a-boo because for me it serves as a kind of template for the rest of my life as an artist. Because it has another aspect to it that I like to have be a part of art. It appeals to everybody. You can go to little kids in the rainforest and do peek-a-boo with them and they will get it. You can do it with little kids on the streets of New York.” After a pause, he said, “Apparently you can do it with adults too.” The audience laughed. “So what is it?” he asked. “It is artwork because it is a disruption of your expectation of constancy.” He likened this structure of expectation to comedy. Audiences often laugh at jokes because of the disruption of constancy when the teller strays from expectation. He also speculated that peek-a-boo probably has psychological origins from when all of us were children, and that is why it is universal.
What does it mean to say that art is a “disruption of your expectation of constancy?”
What is constancy and how does it relate to art?
Constancy, in perception, is a term used to describe the tendency to ascribe unchanging attributes to phenomena in spite of changes in position and/or luminosity. The size, shape, color, or brightness of persons, places, and things appear to be the same even though they may be farther away, interrupted, or viewed from different angles or in different kinds of light.
Here is an example: One day while I was driving along a familiar roadway, I realized that what I was actually seeing was quite frightening. I noticed the roadway was getting smaller. The cars parked on the side of the road also appeared smaller, and the cars farthest away were very small, too small for me. Had I actually believed what I saw, I would have turned around and started to drive back home. Only then, I would realize the road back home had the same strange appearance; it too seemed to get narrower and narrower.
If I actually believed what I saw, I would never drive down that road, or any road for that matter. I would stand, frozen and afraid to move. Because every place I looked, I would see everything getting smaller. People would walk away from me and as they did so, they would appear to shrink. Even those familiar to me, the greater their distance from me the smaller they’d appear. Buildings and trees all would appear to diminish in size. If I did manage to get back to my house, and to a safe haven, I would see it too was a very odd shape and size. None of my rooms would look rectangular. The ceiling would seem to converge away from me, just like the roadway. And, if I turned around, I would see it sloping the other way. I would think I was going crazy.
Each human eye sees a monocular, flat world. With two eyes, we can see spatially. However, we all have had to learn to see depth. We have had to learn that we do not see the world as it is, nor do we see it as it visually appears—the world is not always changing every time we move our head or eyes—and even though familiar people, places and things may appear to change, we expect and assume constancy. The constancy principle seems to relieve our anxiety about the visual information entering our retina and the brain overrides and re-organizes the information into coherent, reliable objects and spaces, people, places and things. Constancy underlies perspective and most of the other visual cues in painting and drawing.
We all develop our perception as we learn to know and understand the world. What we “see,” believe, and know may be very different from one another, depending on nurture, our environment, and culture, but our perceptual systems are more similar. Torreano would argue that is why art can appeal to everybody. The constancy factor operates regardless of environment and culture. If any of our familiar people, places and things are interrupted, especially when we expect them to remain constant, there may be tension, contradiction, delayed gratification, mystery, emotional joy, fear, or anxiety, depending on the context. For Torreano, this is one of the conditions of art. He said, “To a certain extent I think that’s how art works too. You expect certain things, and then you are surprised, you get something different.”
Later in his talk, Torreano discussed the title of his show, Dark Matters Without Time, and his process in relation to his subject. Dark Matter and outer space have captured his imagination for years, providing speculative, unanswered questions and contradictions. The fact that scientists can identify where dark matter is, but they do not know what it is, fascinates Torreano. They picture it as black or dark blue biomorphic shapes, but they invent the color. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle provides another example of apparent contradiction: scientists can know where a particle is located, but they cannot measure its speed. Conversely, they can measure speed, but cannot know, at the same time, location. In painting and drawing, if a viewer sees materials, they will lose sight of the image and the illusions. If they concentrate on the image and the illusion, they will not see the materials. These and other simultaneous contradictions are precisely where Torreano’s thinking is most vibrant, his artistic choices challenging, and his art practice speculative, questioning, and contradictory.
John Torreano, DMs & Hot Stars, 2015, Acrylic paint & gems on plywood panels, 84 x 84 inches
Throughout his career, Torreano has continued to question categories and resist labels. He had on his studio wall the following sign, “Less is less, and more is more. No more, no less.” His arguments about the definitions and categories of art — whether it is a painting or a sculpture, flat or spatial, craft or fine art, myth or fact, mysterious or rational, evidentiary or superstitious, decorative or plain, opulent or crass — are fuel for thought, creative stimulation, rather than ideas or positions to be defended. Torreano sees art making as an intellectual process of inquiry, not just a visual process. In this regard he is like a scientist, interested in questions as well as answers. He has been a comedic performer, a teacher, made paintings, sculpture, wall objects and columns, jewelry, glass vases, installations, and is the author of a book on drawing. Torreano’s work, like the work of one of his mentors, Richard Artschwager, is very difficult to categorize. As he says of himself, “I am an odd-ball.”
As an abstract artist, he aligns himself with Modernism, but is not a Greenberg essentialist. Modernism’s essentialism argued that when photography replaced painting as a descriptive function, that function was no longer necessary. Therefore, painting should feature its essence, its means— surface, texture, paint, color, and flatness—rather than use those means for other ends. With Modernism, the means became an end in itself. However, Torreano reasoned, if an artist followed the Greenberg path, the rules would lead to a loss of particularity, as the tendency to integrate overwhelms diversity, and the kinesthetic cliché pervades.
What might this statement mean—the loss of particularity, as the tendency to integrate overwhelms diversity and the kinesthetic cliché pervades?
To answer this question, here is another story. One artist I knew had a habit. His habit concerned his hand. Every time he made a mark with his charcoal, his other hand smeared the mark. Every time he made a drawing, he used the same marking pattern; he smeared and blended his marks. All his drawings looked consistent, and integrated, because all the marks were smeared, but the drawings lacked contrast, contrast the artist wanted but could not achieve. He was stuck with his habit and he knew he was stuck—no matter what he tried to do his drawings always looked the same.
His habit was a kinesthetic cliché, caused by an unconscious muscle memory pattern. By smearing every stroke, he gained the satisfaction of unity and a consistent “style,” but he could not do anything else. The kinesthetic cliché only prompted him to do more of the same. His habit overwhelmed his intentions.
Why didn’t he do something else and stop smearing? Artists, like other human beings, are pattern-seeking animals. When we hear “Dah dahdah, dah-dah,” we have a strong tendency to want to complete the pattern with dah-dah. Once a pattern is established, we respond by wanting to complete it, and to do so quickly and in the simplest terms. Marking habits create visual patterns. Holding onto the gap between the emerging visual pattern and its completion, suspending the desire to finish it, and tolerating the anxiety of not-knowing are required for the practitioner to overcome the kinesthetic cliché in painting and drawing. This is determined by the laws of visual perception. When a visual organization integrates, as for example when kinesthetic clichés dominate, the only new marks that will also integrate and “work” are marks consistent with the underlying visual organization. In other words, kinesthetic clichés want more of the same.
John Torreano, aware of the kinesthetic cliché and the organizational principles underlying their power, has adopted a strategy he calls “Impossible Collisions.” By superimposing layers of dissimilar information, and using tools of both painting and sculpture, he creates an epidermis that is complex and contradictory. Then he resolves the collision. Specifically, he begins his eight-foot square paintings by layering a field of dark matter, biomorphic shapes derived from scientists’ images of black holes, onto four 48” plywood panels. Next, he introduces another marking pattern, often from a very different astronomical source such as a Nebula. On top of that, he superimposes configurations borrowed from another source, such as a Cézanne painting. Next, he introduces physical layers. He will paint in a field of colors, often duplicating the tones and color choices he discovers in scientific astronomical data. Using a router, he will then cut into the panel, exposing a layer of the panel plywood, use a sander to “erase” color marks, drill holes for jewels and balls, and paint thickly and thinly. As the painting develops, colored marks, holes, jewels, and balls provide location points for other marks, holes, jewels, and balls. The diversity of accumulated visual information is formidable, complex, and, at times, overwhelming.
In his process, he tolerates a great deal of uncertainty and anxiety. By allowing different marks, configurations, types of contrast, figure-ground flips, materials and color to live on his panel, he avoids the kinesthetic cliché. Then he has to try to figure out how to resolve the work, to give it a central tendency. He does so using his painting and sculpture tools. For the viewer, the panels are a delight, full of discovery and surprise; they reveal the artist’s process. Contrary to the exhibition title, there is a sense in which the paintings are temporal; by carefully examining the surface, the viewer can follow the sequence of actions and the color events, much like reading a narrative.
John Torreano, DMs & Hot Stars (Detail), 2015, Acrylic paint & gems on plywood panels, 84 x 84 inches
Torreano suggests that his approach is analogous to contemporary consciousness. Stimulants from many different worlds, simultaneously chaotic and contradictory, fill our minds. We struggle with knowing and not knowing; angst, doubt, and apprehension are palpable in virtually everyone today.
His capacity to tolerate anxiety and contradiction may be one reason Torreano seems quite comfortable teaching and working at NYU in Abu Dhabi where he has taught every year for one semester for the past seven years. In fact, He made several of the works in Dark Matters Without Time in Abu Dhabi. His choice of scale, jewels, and gold leaf create the impression of sophistication and elegance, luxury and affluence. An artist friend, Gary Bower, wrote to me after seeing the exhibition: “Perhaps as interesting as the show was his positive and enthusiastic description of his life in Abu Dhabi. The glowing report caught me. Of all of the examples of late capitalist, obscene excess– oil oligarchy– is there anything that competes with it? It hasn’t bothered John…”
The limitations of the human mind, the inability of language to be precise, and the realization that human perception is always conditional are existential facts of human experience. Torreano knows that nothing is certain, that much in this world arrives by chance, and it is up to us to connect the matters, dark as they may be.
Michael Torlen, Target (from Memento Mori), 2018, Acrylic and Flashe paint on canvas mounted on panel, 30 x 27 inches. Photo: Jay York
 Using a field-marking approach as a guide for additional and approximate marks is a characteristic of many abstract, Modernist paintings, such as Jackson Pollock’s.
Michael Torlen, Professor Emeritus, Purchase College, State University New York, earned his BFA at Cranbrook Academy of Art and his MFA at Ohio State University. He maintains a studio and lives in Westbrook, Maine.