Lucas Michael: Black in Three Colors
by Adam Barbu
“What is an adjective? Nouns name the world. Verbs activate the names.
Adjectives come from somewhere else. […] They are the latches of being.”
- Ann Carson, Autobiography of Red
Black: In three colors, meaning unfolds beyond the frame, beyond itself, into difference. In three variations, an impossible description of color in its absence: black.
Lucas Michael’s Red, Yellow, Blue is a triptych of black panels that recalls the art historical legacy of the monochrome. At the same time, the work emphatically refuses traditional definitions and distinctions of aesthetic purity.
Michael’s reading of absent color operates at the limits of visual recognition. Each page is marked with textual and diagrammatic inscriptions that source from memories and experiences of color. Color is described in fragments as an orientation, feeling, and affect. Color as a state of being. On the immediate surfaces of the pages, Michael applies an even, dense coat of graphite, which blurs and obscures the inscribed words, charts, and schemes. These three studies are individually unique, yet from a distance one is hardly distinguishable from the next.
Red, Yellow, Blue is not a scientific examination of color, but rather a non-visual meditation on color.
Color withdrawn from the optical. Color as the extension of its withdrawal. Color without essential content. Color without final destination. Color as the impossible adjective of everything at once and nothing in particular. A latch that will not lock, that cannot but remain unlatched, open, swinging.
Much has been written about the discontents of abstraction as a form of political expression.
Joseph Henry begins his bold essay Queering Queer Abstraction by suggesting that Michael’s minimalist sculptural work Redress is an example of “queer abstraction.”1 Throughout the text, Henry highlights various applications of this term and examines the ways in which “illegible” non-representational practices commonly frame queerness as a utopic apolitical category.
Michael’s nuanced body of work provides us with the opportunity to question this general claim about the supposed political virtues of legible queer content. How might we begin to locate the ethics at stake in Red, Yellow, Blue, a work that, along with Redress, appears to embody the very mode of presentation Henry critiques?
Red, Yellow, Blue sustains illegible descriptions of color as a state of being. The work can therefore be read through and against ideas of cultural signification and identity formation.
Michael’s textual and diagrammatic inscriptions are expressions of personal memories and experiences of color. By blurring and obscuring these markings with the application of graphite, he inserts himself into the work as an abstract presence. The artist is simultaneously present and absent, resting behind the immediate surfaces of the pages in a state of visual undetectability. This sense of visual undetectability not only makes Michael hard-to-see but impossible to describe as anything or anyone. As spectators, we face effacement: a missing body evidenced through fragmented ruminations clouded in fields of black.
A body withdrawn from the optical. A body as the extension of its withdrawal. A body without essential content. A body without final destination. A body as the impossible adjective of everything at once and nothing in particular. A latch that will not lock, that cannot but remain unlatched, open, swinging.
Red, Yellow, Blue interrupts that faithful moment of coalescence when descriptive adjectives latch onto proper nouns and produce cultural associations, inferences, and truths. In this space of symbolic dislocation, presuppositions and categorizations of identity begin to lose their grip. The “to be” of being is arrested in a state of unbecoming, of becoming-unlatched.
Three absent colors enact a deferral of self-image and self-knowledge—a deferral of what we have been taught about who we are. In a world of cultural assimilation and outright erasure, this deferral is the performance of a wish to remain outside, divergent, and queer. Deferral is grace.
Michael’s particular motivations as a queer poz artist are not directly at stake within the space of this discussion. In three absent colors, AIDS itself is rendered an impossible object of representation. To borrow from the writer and curator John Paul Ricco, Michael makes a decision to “not visualize.”2 Far from Henry’s claim that illegible abstraction supports lofty, baseless utopic readings of queer futurity, Red, Yellow, Blue suggests a loss of faith in representational logics that is queer. In doing so, the work underlines“the ethical-political dimensions of visuality itself.”3
Red, Yellow, Blueis neither an expression of absolute visibility nor absolute invisibility. It operates outside the calculus of this binary relation by visualizing the fundamental disconnect between the thinkable, the sayable, and the seeable. On the one hand, Henry’s argument about the dangers of apoliticizing queer art, writing, and curating is well taken. On the other, Michael’s strategically illegible work reminds us that we must not to lose sight of the work that representation cannot do, and that an embrace of this very impossibility remains an honourable gesture in its own right.
Now, as ever, our task is to resist rigid cultural essentialisms and face each individual work with the care and attention it deserves – no matter how difficult it is to detect the artist behind the surface.
1. Henry Joseph. “Queering Queer Abstraction.” The Brooklyn Rail, October 2017. https://brooklynrail.org/2017/10/artseen/Queering-Queer-Abstraction
2. Ricco, John Paul. The Logic of the Lure. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002. 42.
Adam Barbu is a writer and curator living between Toronto and Ottawa, Canada. His current research focuses on intersections between queer thought and curatorial practice.