Deanna Sirlin, Begin Again, 2023, Acrylic on canvas, 84 x 60 inches, (detail)
Neither Landscape nor Distinction:
On Light and Color in the Paintings
of Deanna Sirlin
By E. Hughes
I stand by this nonscientific fact: The variations of light and color of different landscapes can change a person. Light refracting against color has the capacity not only to flush everything with vibrancy but to also soften an object’s impact on human eyes. The way light reveals itself is particular to each site of living on this planet. As a self-proclaimed vagabond, I have allowed each place I have either lived or visited to work on me with its light. From these places, I have taken bits of brilliance with me—memories (for better or for worse) of the ways a particular light in its painful and tormenting radiance has altered me. I don’t remark too often on my relationship with light and color and the way it transports me to landscapes of a past that I am often keen to forget. The truth is that light and color are the first things to touch me and the last things to leave me: It is my mother pressing pastel yellow stars on my bedroom wall when I was a child and the persistence of clay red mountains against the edge of a harsh azure sky in Zion National Park. It is the lime green iguana crawling in the hot sand and up the brown bark of a tree in San Jose Del Cabo and the sun setting in a crying purple sky as I walked in orange groves in Porterville, California.
History, like all things that occupy the aesthetic realm, exists in a precarious location in my mind. To achieve or experience beauty, one must tend to the dammed and the exiled. In The Birth of Tragedy, Friedrich Nietzsche writes on “Transfiguration” by the renaissance painter Raphael that 1“eternal primal pain [is] the only ground of the world.” For Nietzsche, the ground of the world is our nothingness, our fear in unmeaning. Fervently, he argues that the suffering necessitated by our existence (our nothingness) suffuses art and drives us to live. If history is art, it is an art spurred by the most terrifying subject—disappearance, lack of distinction, unmeaning. History as art does not bring to light meaning, it destroys all meaning.
Unconsciously, these ideas about art, history, and light followed me to Deanna Sirlin’s studio. Having only experienced Sirlin’s work online, I was suspired by the visceral reaction that I had to the paintings in person. Color and light were the arguments—not a subject nor the action of a subject. Truthfully, this argument for color agitated me at first. I thought “What is color if it denies you shape or object? What is light if it refuses to shine itself upon a subject?” Sirlin, in her work, insists that color is enough.
Gripped by an assault of color in horizontal strokes across vertical canvases, I was disconcerted by the presence of dissonance in each piece: the dissonance of light and color, the sediment of earth and geological history, the loss and abundance of meaning. The artwork drove me to labor for answers. As I made my way slowly through the paintings, I carried the turbulence I felt about light in northern Georgia in my belly. Despite my frustrations, the pieces attached themselves to me as they moved in unison—one long gesture of color. Still, they remained elusive to me much like the light of history is elusive to me: a presence by way of absence.
It felt as if my very essence was being drawn by the compilation of cryptic strokes of color across the gallery. I stopped in front of one of Sirlin’s larger canvas (84x60 inches) titled Long For.The piece forced me to slow down and demanded that I swallow its dissonance. I allowed it to work on me; I allowed the unrepresentable elements of art to supersede my need for sense in those layers of color. In the piece, the lines of color are neither straight nor are they singular in hue. Both line and color fail into each other—they bow. The line forsakes its “line-ness” and no longer becomes a line but is altered by the weight of a line’s expectation. Color becomes all color: the forsaken boundaries between jade and crimson, sapphire and canary, teal and violet become the ground for something new and transgressive to burgeon. As I gave myself over to the art’s will for nondescription, imagination settled itself in the unconscious affects of my body where my need (my drive) for history had taken root. The painting became a bed shared by a family of sharecroppers: I saw children among their parents in the thick of night in a small home—the uncertainty of night and violence soothed by their togetherness. It became the side of a canyon, the sediment of billions of years in the auburn of the now. It became a map to follow, the mark of one’s journey. During those moments in the exhibition, I thought often of the poet Natasha Trethewey who writes about the landscapes of the American south. In the poem, “Theories of Time and Space,” she writes, “Everywhere you go will be somewhere/ you’ve never been.” Trethewey's poetry is indicative of the transportation that Sirlin’s artistry incites. Each painting became a landscape to which I had never been—a demarcation of time.
Through the subliminal work of Sirlin’s paintings, I was at once in a sea, then in a prehistoric desert, then in the cosmos, then in a bed. What is particularly cathartic about these paintings is the failure of their linear gestures. In many ways, Sirlin forces viewers to resist a quotidian perspective of the horizon as a destination or the landscape as an object in stasis: it moves—the landscape, the body. It must move. The paintings in the exhibition dramatized—without figuration—the presence of the earth and the world. Sirlin insists that color is enough to articulate the agency and sentience of the living. Each line of color is a portal through the sublime and into a new, an almost unthought perspective: What difference does it make if we are here or not? If we have control of the landscape or not? If we are dammed by light and color?
I have spent the entirety of my young adult life seeking clarity—answers and meaning that arrive at my feet without the sinew of my mind or the resolve of my body. Contemporary art calls into question this need, which I hold is a need for historicity and presence (a need for my presence) and a rejection of the dammed. There is a way that the affects of art come into being without necessitating form. Sirlin rejects form. Her use of the horizontal line across a canvas is always at once a semblance of the landscape, of the distance and the near, of the earth and the sky. In an indistinct landscape, which is to say a new and sublime landscape, light imposes itself across color. Color, in response, opens itself to be changed by light. Color, like the branches of a tree, required that I work for the image, which is to say light. Color and light are concerned only with one another and remain unconcerned with a need to be thought. They say unmeaning is the way to true meaning. They demand that the human become comfortable with its arbitrariness, which is to say its nothingness. It insists that an I is unnecessary—that it be dammed. What does it matter if an I is here are not? Everything and nothing is here. This is the ultimate work of the sublime in Sirlin’s art: It is to, in the terror of our nothingness, provoke us to life.
Light in Sirlin’s work demands that I become settled in uncertainty—to see the way unmeaning alters things subtly: the way it can turn the sky auburn in heat or embolden the ochre in a hawk’s wings as it flies or the way a slight ascendent gesture in a stroke of color can become the wakes of a wave. Light implores that I embrace ambiguity, that I forsake the terror spurred in my body about a lack of distinction and unmeaning, that I forsake my fear in a stroke of color.
E. Hughes is a poet and PhD student in Philosophy at Emory University.