Full Circle: Cornelia White Swann's Fugitive Color

By Céleste Wackenhut

There is an intentional intimacy in the way Cornelia White Swann has kept the beginning of her Fugitive Color series small in size—first and foremost, for herself as she becomes familiar with the materiality of natural pigments, but also for the viewer in reflecting upon the subtleties of her paintings.

 
Cornelia white swann, madrugada, 2015. hibiscus on paper, 7 1/2 x 5 3/4 inches. documented february 2015. 

Cornelia white swann, madrugada, 2015. hibiscus on paper, 7 1/2 x 5 3/4 inches. documented february 2015. 

 

Swann’s work is rooted in the study of psychogeography and the dérive, allowing her work environment to be the driving force of her compositions, as her hand follows desire paths based on a crack in the floor or the curve of the paper. Additionally, Swann has spent her entire career investigating dichotomous relationships and the tension that exists between harmony, dissonance, convergences, and nuances. These juxtapositions are visible through her application of thick, acrylic gestures paired with loose, watercolor stains, her manipulation of positive and negative space, and even her purposeful use of meeting an attractive color with a color considered possibly more grotesque. 

 
Cornelia White Swann, untitled (Convergence 1), 2009. Acrylic, enamel on synthetic paper, 32 x 60.

Cornelia White Swann, untitled (Convergence 1), 2009. Acrylic, enamel on synthetic paper, 32 x 60.

 

Much of Swann’s previous work is large scale, with some paintings reaching heights of nine feet, engulfing the viewer and taking them on this same desire path as her gesture. The product of Fugitive Color I, though, is not only a shift in size and medium, but also one that breaks from the study of these philosophies surrounding psychogeography.

Fugitive Color I begins with a minimalist series of vertically arranged diptychs, two small paintings hovering above and below each other, a sliver of tense white space between them. Certainly an investigation of dichotomous relationships remains here. There is still a manipulation of positive and negative space, and a joining of two opposing colors. The change, though, is an absence of gesture. 

 
Cornelia White Swann, Drifting Away, 2014. Elderberry, red onion on paper, 13 x 8 1/2 inches. documented FEBRUARY 2015.

Cornelia White Swann, Drifting Away, 2014. Elderberry, red onion on paper, 13 x 8 1/2 inches. documented FEBRUARY 2015.

 

The composition comes primarily from a submersion, paper dipped in a dye bath. In the diptych Drifting Away, Swann pairs a painting made from elderberry, a light blue-green color, with red onion, a strong yellow. The blue-green pigment covers roughly half to three quarters of the small paper with darker hues toward the bottom where she dipped the paper in the dye two or three times more than the initial submersion. The yellow pigment covers the entire paper but, again, it has a faint trace of the same technique being applied to allow for darker hues. Together the images form what can be seen as a beach landscape, complete with sand, sea, and horizon. 

The piece calls to mind the work of James Abbott McNeill Whistler and his painting Harmony in Blue and Silver: Trouville (1865). Shockingly similar, Whistler, whose distinct, borderline abstract style rests in the moments just before Impressionism and the era of Modernism, responds to the seaside light of Normandy, creating a composition of almost pure blue and yellow color blocks, with slightly darker or lighter hues approaching the horizon or foreground. To the bottom left is a man looking out. Donald Holden writes of Whistler’s work, “Whistler expected his audience to respond simply to what they saw on the surface of the canvas: light and shade, color and texture, the subtle interplay of shapes on the picture plane.” [1]

 
cornelia white swann, manzanilla en la Iluvia, 2014. beet root, chamomile on paper, 13 x 8 1/2 inches. documented february 2015.

cornelia white swann, manzanilla en la Iluvia, 2014. beet root, chamomile on paper, 13 x 8 1/2 inches. documented february 2015.

 

This same response can be expected from a viewer observing the subtleties of Swann’s work in Fugitive Color I. The outlines along the edge of Swann’s paintings appear darker or lighter as the paper thins, similar to the beet root in La campagna y madrugada or the hibiscus in Madrugada 2. Textures appear from the use of henna in Cosas secreto or from the bits of chamomile filaments that refuse to be brushed off in Manzanilla en la Iluvia, as well as the way that same chamomile causes slight marble-ing in the color treatment. The surface of her paintings have an almost three dimensional quality to them as the paper dries with slight curling at the sides.

However, these paintings call to more than the landscapes of Whistler. There is, as well, a clear reference to Mark Rothko. In fact, Rothko was an early influence on the work of Swann, which resurfaces maybe subconsciously as Swann breaks from what she knows and starts again with Fugitive Color. Like Swann, Rothko too explored dichotomy, his paintings tense with color blocks hovering above and below each other, juxtaposing the Apollonian and Dionysian aspects much discussed in his work. But this relation to Rothko can be argued not just through the visual composition of color blocks, but also through another theory considered in his work: the sublime. 

 
Cornelia White Swann, Beyond the Horizon, 2015. Marigold, madder tood, and henna on paper, 7 1/2 x 5 3/4 inches. Documented February 2015.

Cornelia White Swann, Beyond the Horizon, 2015. Marigold, madder tood, and henna on paper, 7 1/2 x 5 3/4 inches. Documented February 2015.

 

The sublime in art can be described as feeling simultaneous awe and terror, witnessing infinite vastness while realizing one’s own mortality. It is often depicted through a tremendous landscape juxtaposed by a solitary figure. In Robert Rosenblum’s essay “The Abstract Sublime” (1961), he discusses the development of theories on the sublime from the Romantic Movement and places the work of Rothko and other Abstract Expressionists within the same arguments. He states that the sublime “can be found in the simplest natural phenomena, whether a blade of grass or an expanse of sky.” Continuing, “In the abstract language of Rothko, such literal detail—a bridge of empathy between the real spectator or the presentation of a transcendental landscape—is no longer necessary; we ourselves are the monk before the sea, standing silently and contemplatively before these huge and soundless pictures as if we were looking at a sunset or a moonlit night.” [2]

Like Rothko, Whistler is much discussed in theories of the sublime. Whistler’s painting mentioned previously could depict the sublime through the presentation of a boundless landscape countered by the man to the left, serving as the stark mortal contrast. [3] But with Swann’s Fugitive Color I abstractions, there is neither the option of the mortal figure nor the option of falling into the vastness of the canvas. The works are small. To serve as the “monk before the sea,” the viewer is required to observe closely, intimately. 

In approaching Swann’s works, a viewer might look toward the label first, reading off the various materials used: blueberry, hibiscus, marigold, rosemary. Each of these pigments brings about a dynamic or soft color and picture. And while the image can be utterly moving in its subtle approach, striking the page in a way that eludes any suggestion of a manipulative hand, the work more immediately confronts the viewer with the reality that these colors are fleeting, their life is not permanent. From the moment the work is created, it starts to change by the effects of air and light. In seeing the work, an observer witnesses but one moment in the life of the painting. It mirrors the human condition of aging, the inability to stop time. It is a realization of one’s own mortality. It is a contemplation of the simplest natural form, the “blade of grass.”

 
Cornelia White Swann, time and essence 1 (side one), 2014. hibiscus on paper, one week, 7 1/2 x 11 inches. documented february 2015.

Cornelia White Swann, time and essence 1 (side one), 2014. hibiscus on paper, one week, 7 1/2 x 11 inches. documented february 2015.

 

In addition to the diptychs in Fugitive Color I, Swann includes paintings made from a solar dye process called Time and Essence. Swann begins by mixing pigment into a jar, rolling a piece of paper, and setting it inside the vessel. She places the work on a windowsill, allowing the sun to transfer the pigment onto the paper. In some instances, the jar is left for a week, maybe two. The result of the two-sided painting—another dichotomous relationship—presents small waves of pigment as well as the evaporation of the liquid as bands on the image from hibiscus, for example, turn from a purple to a magenta.

 
Cornelia White Swann, time and essence 3 (side one), 2014. Pomegranate on paper, three months, 7 1/2 x 11 inches. Documented February 2015. 

Cornelia White Swann, time and essence 3 (side one), 2014. Pomegranate on paper, three months, 7 1/2 x 11 inches. Documented February 2015. 

 

In other works made from the solar dye process, Swann left the works in the jars for months. In Time and Essence 3, a painting was left in pomegranate for three months. The result leaves thick, dark, sedimentary remains of brown pigment, molded over and decomposed. Swann cleans and rinses each of these pieces before laying them out to dry, leaving them exactly as they are. Or rather, leaving them to continue their process.

During the presentation of Fugitive Color I, eight jars of pigment sat on the windowsill of the gallery for the duration of the eight-week exhibition. Viewers could witness the process as the pigment marinated with the work. The cochineal created bursts of deep maroon, leaving vein-like lines as the color crawled up the paper. The sheep sorrel sprouted mushroom after mushroom that collapsed onto the work. The fresh marigold fermented, eating at the paper, while the neighboring dried marigold created similar bursts to the cochineal, but with a deep yellow. The hibiscus grew bright green mold, and the elderberry swarmed with fruit flies. 

solar dye jars in process during the exhibition cornelia white swann: Fugitive Color I at French & Michigan Gallery. Documented March 2015.

solar dye jars in process during the exhibition cornelia white swann: Fugitive Color I at French & Michigan Gallery. Documented March 2015.

Solar dye jar in process for Time and Essence 10. Documented March 2015.

Solar dye jar in process for Time and Essence 10. Documented March 2015.

The process of exposing artwork to natural phenomena, or the natural phenomena itself being the artwork is not unusual, thinking back to earthworks of the 1970’s—which are also discussed in the realm of the sublime. But to see an artwork, a painting, exposed to the environment can be challenging. Art is made to be archival, to stand the test of time, to live on in collections and museums. As all the works in Fugitive Color I are expected to change into more muted hues of browns, creams, and tans—in some instances even blanching—the question arises of what significance that holds. Does the meaning attributed to the work at its conception remain, or does the meaning change with its evolution?

It brings to mind conceptual ideas by Robert Rauschenberg with Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953), a work left with mere faint traces of a drawing that used to exist on paper. Rauschenberg made a label to incorporate the title into the matte and frame, indicating not only what the viewer is looking at, but the entire experiment as well. Swann, while not incorporating a label into the actual object, is clear in her notation of the medium that what a viewer sees are the traces of elderberry and beet root or rosemary and pomegranate on paper. In the expected transition of the work, this information for the viewer will serve the same purpose as the label “Erased de Kooning Drawing,” indicating what it is you see or perhaps do not see.

The difference between Rauschenberg and Swann is that the passing of time enforces a conceptual notion to Swann’s work that, while perhaps not intentional, is the result of her experimentation. The question will be how or if she adjusts her own interpretations of the work as it changes. Rauschenberg commonly made slight adjustments after the fact to reinforce ideas. Initial reproductions of Erased de Kooning Drawing did not incorporate the frame. However, more than 20 years after its creation, a reproduction appears with the frame and inscription included, and after a conservation treatment Rauschenberg instructed an assistant to write on the back “DO NOT REMOVE DRAWING FROM FRAME FRAME IS PART OF DRAWING”. [4] Even his White Painting series (1951), work rooted in the absence of his hand, ended with him cheekily signing, inscribing, and adding a red thumbprint on the back before his 1997 retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum, a jab at the critics who identified the work as a failure because it lacked any trace of his hand. [5]

Currently, the removal of Swann’s distinct gesture in the series of Fugitive Color I is not a statement, but a complete submission to the material, allowing it to be used only at its will. Swann is letting go of any artist ego, allowing herself to be guided by the medium and the freedom to experiment. While previously, Swann allowed the driving force to be the environment from which she painted, the crack in the floor or the curve in the paper, it now is the color found in the material itself and the effect of everyday elements. 

As Swann continues to explore the process of using natural pigments and the concepts associated with this material, she will no doubt continue to value and uphold the philosophical writings relating to psychogeography and desire paths. However, the unknown is how the base of this new practice will continue in her application of paint to paper, how she treats theories related to new creations, and how she looks back on present work that is in the process of changing.


Cornelia White Swann begins the Fugitive Color series with curiosity, allowing her experimentation to progress organically. From the start of her new process to the completion of Fugitive Color II, Swann works for more than two years in search of natural color, patiently learning her material. She pushes through the unknown, seeming to veer off course from her previous work, but eventually, she finds herself coming full circle.

 
cornelia white swann, a thorny gesture, 2016. marigold, cochineal, and madder root on watercolor paper, 11 1/2 x 15 inches. documented january 2016.

cornelia white swann, a thorny gesture, 2016. marigold, cochineal, and madder root on watercolor paper, 11 1/2 x 15 inches. documented january 2016.

 

Swann places her paintings prior to Fugitive Color within theories of psychogeography. Broken down as a joining of psychology and geography, this philosophy is the realization of one’s surroundings, a new awareness. A person becomes affected by place, be it a building or how one navigates their way to that building. Most follow the desire path, the worn, eroded passage through the park signifying the simplest route. But psychogeography encourages one to stroll à la dérive, to experience the landscape in a different way—to explore perhaps a bit deeper what one think one already knows.

Swann’s practice sits in this realm of observation. The desire paths that describe her earlier paintings are found on the surface from which she works. As the pigment moves along a crack in the floor, Swann watches and counters its movement creating a push-pull scenario—a tension between the desire path and the dérive. However, the early experimentation in Fugitive Color I brings about primarily isolated color blocks from dye submersions. In testing material after material, she finds herself moving away from her ability to manipulate paint. 

As Swann describes in her statement, natural pigments have a rich history that are used widely today by the textile community. These specialized artists have crafted recipes for dyes that span centuries, using many of the same materials Swann has been testing throughout Fugitive Color. What textile artists add to their recipe, though, is a mordant, a mineral to lock in the color. [6] The trick that Swann masters in Fugitive Color II is how to apply the recipes of these mordants and tailor them to her smaller batches of pigment for works on paper. Thrillingly, she arrives at this successful incorporation, solving not only how to hold color longer, but how to regain her distinct gesture as well.

 
cornelia white swann, Of the Earth, 2015. Madder root on watercolor paper, 11 1/2 x 15 inches. Documented January 2015.

cornelia white swann, Of the Earth, 2015. Madder root on watercolor paper, 11 1/2 x 15 inches. Documented January 2015.

 

Since Fugitive Color I, the paintings have grown in size, though Swann is still working at a small enough scale to sit at a table rather than her previous use of the floor. With that, the role that psychogeographical theories played on Swann’s early series returns as the lines in the table affect the application of paint. But while Fugitive Color I technically marks a break in the study of this philosophy, it seems as if Swann took the same principles applied by psychogeographers and adopted those ideas into her search for color. 

When psychogeographers come together and explore a city, they go about it through an algorithm. They force themselves to take on the role of the flâneur, and to move away from the direction that one is typically drawn to, like the town square. A writer attending a walk describes the experience:

"The pattern had done more than simply lead us to hidden surprises. It had also conferred significance on seemingly insignificant spaces like an empty alley, a fresh tree stump, a set of hidden stairs… In either goal-oriented walking or ordinary strolling, we might have ignored or discounted these things. If we had been striving to get somewhere, we would have been thinking only about our destination. And if we had been following our own noses, we might have been consciously or unconsciously searching for things and places that were more beautiful, restful, or obviously significant…" [7]

Swann went from simply following and countering desire paths to uprooting her entire practice for a new way of creating. To fully explore her revised process, Swann was forced to navigate a previously familiar environment—making art—in search for unique sources. She began planting her own materials and moving through the seasons. All the while, Swann did not have a set agenda other than the exploration of color. The browns and tans that result from Fugitive Color I brought about at first a resentment in Swann, a frustration that the vibrant natural colors she discovered were changing. But as Swann worked through the process, an appreciation grew for where the color came from and the subtleties it created. 

 
Cornelia White Swann, The Desert Calls her Name, 2016. Cochineal and marigold on watercolor paper, 11 1/2 x 17 inches. Documented January 2016.

Cornelia White Swann, The Desert Calls her Name, 2016. Cochineal and marigold on watercolor paper, 11 1/2 x 17 inches. Documented January 2016.

 

The palette Swann has fallen into for Fugitive Color II consists of four materials: primarily cochineal and marigold, followed by hibiscus and madder root. The colors produce variations between bright pink and yellow, velvety gray and blue, and an earthy brown. With these, Swann creates topographical-like images bursting in a way that leaves slight textures and stains. In A Thorny Gesture, Swann incorporates marigold, cochineal, and madder root for a work that feels like a celebration of her return to the brush with full gestures and heavy trails of sediment. In Of the Earth, Swann plays with the simple but deep range of madder root. In The Desert Calls Her Name, Swann pulls from cochineal and marigold, the softness of the yellow and pink swirl in and out of each other in a way that one cannot be sure where one color ends and the other begins. 

While Swann’s underlying use of these pigments is based on the color they produce, she is also clearly moving toward highlighting the cultural meaning, history, and origin of her material. Cochineal, an insect found locally from the paddles of the prickly pear cacti, has been collected for dye as early as the second century B.C. in Mexico and South America. [8] The marigold, grown and harvested straight from Swann’s garden, also holds great meaning in Mexican culture, as it is displayed widely in November during the holiday of Día de los Muertos to commemorate the deceased. Swann is already pushing past the experimentation phase and arriving at a full and permanent incorporation of natural pigments into her practice. As this shift formalizes, viewers can expect Swann to emphasize the significance of these geographical locations.

Our writer on the dérive continues:

"There was something about tracing out this strange, secret, but inevitable itinerary through the landscape…that turned just about everything into a significant marker or a station on our way. We felt as if we were constantly on the verge of discovering something that would give us secret knowledge of the town—and, of course, we were right. Our consciousness of what was important and unimportant, beautiful and dull, in a small town had been completely altered. Our psyches had a new relationship with geography."

This relationship with her art occurs in Swann. Between Fugitive Color I and Fugitive Color II, Swann solidifies the envelopment of an entirely new process into her practice. With the second series she returns to her distinct gesture and her color palette. But it only comes after Swann physically experiences psychogeography, rather than just attributing its philosophies to her paintings. This full emersion is one that brings her back to the familiarity of the known path, like the comforts of returning home after a long journey away. Swann can return to her years of expertise as an artist with a revived consciousness, not only with her material and her work, but also with her surroundings and the place from which she pulls her ingredients. It is the embodiment of psychogeography and the exemplification of coming full circle.

And what a dynamic, handsome object is a path! How precise the familiar hill paths remain for our muscular consciousness! A poet has expressed all this dynamism in one single line:

    O, mes chemins et leur cadence

        Jean Caubère, Déserts [9]

 

Cornelia White Swann: Fugitive Color is a two-part exhibition featuring the artist's recent exploration in hand-made natural pigments. Set one year apart, Fugitive Color I was presented in spring 2015; Fugitive Color II opens at French & Michigan Gallery on Saturday, March 12, 2016 and remains on view through Saturday, April 30, 2016. These two curatorial essays reflecting on the series are included in the exhibition catalogue alongside essays and statements by Cornelia White Swann, Liz Pearson, and Kathryn Zimmerhanzel, and full documentation of the artwork presented in Fugitive Color.


Endnotes

1 Donald Holden, Whistler Landscapes and Seascapes (New York: Watson-Guptill, 1969) 12.

2 Robert Rosenblum, “The Abstract Sublime,” Art News, February 1961.

3 The figure to the left is Gustave Courbet, painted when Whistler worked alongside him in Trouville, France. 

4 Sarah Roberts, “Erased de Kooning Drawing,” Rauschenberg Research Project, July 2013. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

5 Sarah Roberts, “White Painting [three panel],” Rauschenberg Research Project, July 2013. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

6 Mordant comes from the French word mordre meaning “to bite”. It is said that the mordant bites into the fiber to allow the color to seep into the fabric. M. Clark, Handbook of Textile and Industrial Dyeing: Principles, processes and types of dyes (Philadelphia: Woodhead Publishing, 2011), 412.

7 Joseph Hart, “A New Way of Walking,” July / August 2004. Utne Reader.

8 Elena Phipps, Cochineal Red: The Art History of a Color (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2010), 9-12.

9 Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994 edition), 11.