Following a wave of interest in astronomy triggered by Carl Sagan’s Cosmos book I took an observational astronomy class as a curious undergrad despite the fact that I was at NYU in light-polluted downtown Manhattan. As the guru like instructor showed us, the visual truth was that all stars being so distant appeared as mere points of light and had no visible surface, just small simple glowing white specks. Yet they were described as having a color related to the type and temperature of the star they were. As we neophytes were unable to see any difference in color in the large star field, we were directed to find stars on a list of binaries, which were stars that appeared to the unaided eye as a single bright star but through a telescope were revealed as two stars. In binaries there was often enough color difference to be visible with a simple telescope. Once these formerly white objects’ colors were revealed, the whole night sky became a jewel box of fleeting gem-like colors. Such is the experience in McKay Otto’s art work, which far from the reductive white first impressions they make show their jewel-like intensities for those willing to be schooled in the active action of perception.
McKay Otto is a teacher and his art works will edify anyone paying attention to what their senses are actually telling them (and ignoring the equal impulse to classify and be done). Yet they are also tricksters too and can flip in unexpected ways. To explain those seemingly contradictory statements, a little cultural history is required. When reductive art works became a meaningful expressive form around 1912 with the invention of the first monochrome artworks and radically reduced sound fields in music, the field of artistic production cleaved in two.
On one side were the cynics producing art works that were the logical endgame of the experiments begun by Manet around the goal of achieving literalism and flatness. Their products were taken to the point in which they were questioning the very possibilities of meaning in art through extreme reduction and industrial manufacture. On the other side were the mystics who through engagement with non-Western thought realized that not only could these works function as triggers for meditation and prayer but that in their contemplation they could be mirrors of our busy minds. Their contemplation could reveal to us humans trapped in our sensorium how we experience reality, how we live in the world and how we know anything at all.
In his new artworks, Otto has achieved his goal of making timeless artworks that are no more “minimal” than a sunset yet appear as insistent rectilinear blank forms on first viewing. The human mind automatically classifies objects into groups and since Otto’s art hangs on the wall where a traditional painting would live, we assume that their reality is paint, applied by brush on a fabric support.
It is not difficult to see the many ways in which that is not true, and that the skin is in fact a translucent scrim. Trying to get your eyes to force these works to reveal their physical truths (what and how they are made) will be less joyful considering how our eyes are working and how our minds are processing the information that both is and is not present. The more we try to pin down facts the more we will learn there is literally noThing there in a phraseology important to the artist’s own conception of these works.
Just as seeing the color in those binary stars changed my ability to see colors in stars that had been “white” before, I invite you to participate in an active seeing experiment. Do whatever you do to slow down, counting breaths or repeating sounds, sitting on the gallery floor, and let these catalytic paintings work on your eye/mind interface (and I remind myself often that my eyes are merely extruded parts of my brain reaching out for visual connection with other beings’ realities). Then for the rest of the day, drinking tea or walking dogs, find external stimuli you would call “white” and ask yourself out loud what color am I really seeing there, is there a yellow, blue green or grey hiding there just awaiting your post-Otto quietude? I have even found blacks lingering within whites, making me reconsider my visual reality through the lens of the contradictions of the limited sensorium available to me. The simplest white wall becomes a sensual smorgasbord. Otto’s art is far from hermetic art of refusal and will instead enrich your external reality profoundly if you let it.