by Veronica Ceci
Does artist Jeffrey Dell believe in the existence of aliens? “Yes, absolutely!” He doesn’t focus, though, on what exactly they might look like: “I just assume it’s beyond what I can imagine.” Dell’s most recent exhibition, Sightings, goes far beyond what one might imagine could emerge from the deceptively simple idea of color on paper.
“These works exist less as objects to be examined than as generators of perceptual responses in the eye and mind of the viewer.”
The 1965 Museum of Modern Art exhibition, The Responsive Eye, included paintings and constructions from artists whose work approached the picture plane from a new angle. As William C. Seitz, curator of the show, stated, “These works exist less as objects to be examined than as generators of perceptual responses in the eye and mind of the viewer.” Although many artists had been playing with these themes for years, the display made what they were doing a legitimate movement. Artwork which confused the eye came to be known as Op, short for optical, Art. Some artists within the movement, such as renowned color theorist Josef Albers, preferred the term perceptual art.
Fifty years later, Jeffrey Dell expands on what was then a new kind of subjective experience. His work both depicts an object and creates effects that are real to the eye without necessarily existing in the work itself. Dell chose the name Sightings, because “[I]t references both the spotting of a UFO and an attempt to fix on a particular thing visually.” The merging of these two notions is apparent in A Date with Ambivalence, where the delicately toned surface is marred by things indecipherable. Whether one thinks the specks are dust or flying saucers says more about the viewer than the artist.
Dell did not deliberately set out to build on the foundation of the perceptual artists but recognizes the connection. “I realized the Op Artists were a big reference for this work, and I started looking at them more closely . . . I began to understand how much of what we see is determined by our own faculties of perception…and how our brains process the data that we get. The Op Artists gently turn some attention back to the viewer, since what we see is created as much in our own heads as in front of us.” Flat Bow Violet appears dimensional despite the viewer knowing, and the artist emphasizing in the title, that it is flat. The more time spent with it, the harder it becomes to decide exactly how in space that bow is arranged. We begin to understand how much sway our physical faculties have in relation to the brain’s process.
The notion of perceptual illusion spread beyond the world of fine art, infusing everyday life. Fabric patterns inspired by Op Art marched down the runways. Color interaction was a key component of the psychedelic rock posters popular in the seventies. The commercial outgrowth of what started as pure visual experimentation is acknowledged in Dell’s work. He is not concerned if his concepts are eclipsed by the striking visuals.
“The immediate impact is meant as a sort of feint; that’s part of the nature of seduction. And I never want to be the artist that dictates how the work should be understood.”
The artist hints at the commodification of the visual experience by including desire, a key component of every consumer interaction, amongst his central themes.
It is with the idea of expanded space that Dell’s unique take on perception is most apparent. The artist tells a story about one source.
“Not long ago, I was driving through west Texas, among the thousands of windmills. It was night, and I was far from any cities, so it was very dark. The windmills have small red lights at their top . . . and they blink in synchronicity. The night will seem utterly black and opaque, then suddenly all these things will blink, and I’m aware of not only how many there are, but also of how far apart they are, stretching to the horizon. Those lights articulate the space in a unique way. I think there’s something very basic in us that responds to that, and I think it’s possible to access that in something very small and insignificant, like a folded or blowing piece of paper.”
In rendering images of papers that seem to pop off the page with their sharp creases and vivid palette, Dell pushes against the physical edges of the work. The fact that the depth and placement of these volumes is then further confused by color doubles down on the legerdemain.
Playing with optics has remained a constant in art, although the strength of its presence fluctuates. Dell has many contemporaries. Cory Arcangel’s Photoshop Gradients modernizes the notions through the use of software and screens as means of production. Although chromatically rich, this work of Arcangel’s exists without a hint of dimensionality. Sculptors such as Keith Lemley use literal light in the form of neon and reflective surfaces to trick the eye in three-dimensional space, corralling the physical territory around us to beguile. Jeffrey Dell, however, is distinct in his use of the completely flat surface of paper to create the illusion of three dimensions through the optical effects created by a carefully chosen color interaction. The mass of a sculpture is evoked through the planar. The result is visually stunning.
There is a bit of magic involved, a synthesis of the two camps, mystical and technical, into which the original Op Artists were so often divided. Dell expands on this idea saying, “As a print person, there is a certain amount of motivation I get from technical challenges . . . but I’m very interested in making something that feels both magical and completely grounded, even a bit mundane . . . [M]agic is really always in the perception, not the thing we’re looking at.” One of the most readily accessed forms of magic in our world is that of beauty. Inherently subjective and at times even controversial, beauty has the power to stop us in our tracks and trump our better judgment. Dell uses that charm as an entry point into more complex themes: “Beauty tells us a lot about ourselves, about what we long for, what we desire, what we think will complete us, what we want to possess. It seduces us into believing things we might shouldn’t.”
“…I’m very interested in making something that feels both magical and completely grounded, even a bit mundane . . . [M]agic is really always in the perception, not the thing we’re looking at.”
Beauty in these works is color. One might be surprised to learn that for years the artist worked only in grayscale. The shift was relatively sudden, occurring over a holiday break. “I was feeling very constrained by the nature of how I was engaging intaglio and mezzotint,” Dell recalls. “I couldn’t push myself out of working a certain way with it. So I just left it and started working in a very different direction, and color was central . . . it asserted itself immediately after the switch and has remained that way.” From pieces as delicate as Stacked Sides to ones as bold as Paradise Ranch, hue is the main language. The shift to color may have been rapid, but mastery of it took “years and years” of work. The artist cites a residency at the Charles Adams Studio Project in Lubbock, TX, as being particularly helpful, giving him time to perfect his method.
Jeffrey Dell’s chosen medium is serigraphy, utilized by Responsive Eye artist Gerhard von Graevenitz without achieving Dell’s level of technical sophistication. The artist explains the method: “[The prints are] made by pushing ink through fabric with a form or stencil on or in it. I mix the colors on the screen to create the gradient effects.” The paper stays flat while printing, and the ink is applied in thin, flat layers. This gives the artist an advantage over the perceptual painters of the 1960s, many of whom spent years perfecting the technique of creating perfectly flat, brushstroke-free paintings in order to not distract from the other optical devices.
The production in no way involves the digital, but the exploration leading up to creation takes it into account. For each piece, Dell’s initial thoughts on the palette come from historical sources, “I’ve been looking at a lot of Tiepolo and, strangely enough, Maxfield Parrish.” The artist adjusts his traditionally sourced palettes for maximum impact by creating situational color studies. “I will make maquettes and look at them in different lighting situations, mixing warm and cool, natural and artificial. But I also look at how they photograph, which is a particular way of ‘seeing.’ We are so surrounded by photography, and by the particular ways that our cell phones capture color and light, that we’re not even aware of how these affect our vision.” The photographic image has become a new kind of truth, one that the artist sometimes accesses in order to extend his illusion.
In a time when the image captured is the event actualized, Dell utilizes that presumption to his advantage: “I think it’s possible to appropriate certain color casts from digital photography . . . and trick the viewer a bit: [if it] looks like a photo [it] must be optically correct.” That which has occurred is only made real through photographs, but the photographs themselves are a type of unreality. Dell’s work, like the existence of aliens, teeters between these places of evidence and unbelief.