Rojo I Negro (Red I Black)
The Line Between Rojo ⁄ Negro by Carlos Colín
Catherine M. Soussloff
Professor, University of British Columbia
Rojo ⁄ Negro (2013) investigates a unity and a space where red and black are joined in one giant rectangle of nylon fabric, 426 x 609 cm long. The installation with the transparently denotative title, Rojo ⁄ Negro [Red ⁄ Black], takes on the aesthetic issues of colour – the red and the black of the title – and the definite form of the rectangle in the art gallery, which the artist Donald Judd referred to in 1964 as some of the “most objectionable relics of European art.” Colour and the rectangle were also among the dominant elements of Abstract Expressionism that led to the postwar refutation of painting. The story is familiar, and referenced here in Rojo ⁄ Negro by the artist Carlos Colín it asserts his claim for the lineage that broke with the aesthetic imperatives of a European tradition in favour of material and conceptual practices of the 1960s that offered a critical purchase on contemporary art making.
Judd abandoned abstract painting that concentrated on colour for its own sake in order to make constructions that repetitively insisted on materiality. Even earlier, Jasper Johns had taken another route that disassociated itself from Europe and its aesthetic remains – through the encaustic paintings known as symbols of their own representations. If Rojo ⁄ Negro conjures up both Judd’s manufactured “specific objects” and Flag (1954-55) by Jasper Johns, then it also endorses their perspective critiques: the critique of the institution of the gallery made possible by minimalism and the tripartite critique offered by Conceptualism, neatly identified by Helen Molesworth as its “refusal of visuality, its negation of the art object as a commodity, and its challenge to the traditional role of the gallery within the distribution system.”1
With the machine-stitched line that simultaneously joins and separates the two equally-shaped 213×609 cm long section of the rectangle, and the bar that divides their titular terms, Rojo ⁄ Negro places itself in a position that unites two postwar art historical traditions and joins their narratives with the space of a contemporary politics. Hung straight from the ceiling of the Gallery without the support of a flagpole, this particular flag declares itself to be neither canvas nor banner. Michel Foucault likened this crucial position of being in-between to “the grammatical posture of the ‘and’.”2 Precisely because it joins and separates, this posture or position cannot be taken as ambivalent. Rather, it is partisan and divided. The line between the red and black colour fields gives us the space of continual rupture, while simultaneously presenting us with what Foucault called “the enigma of similarity.” Last year Carlos Colín laid different lengths of wooden slats on edge on the floor in the corner of his studio and called it Antibarroco. In this refutation of replication the dialectics of Bernini’s sculptural group of The Ecstasy of St. Teresa (Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome, 1647-52) were revealed in the ruptured golden rays that had fallen, like an angel, to the floor. Just as the fold marked the space between the Baroque and its antithesis for Deleuze, so too the line in Rojo ⁄ Negro opens onto the plentitude of meaning.
The line in Rojo ⁄ Negro is the border beyond which we see the redness of the red and the blackness of the black in their monochromatic and iconographic purity. (See, again, the shades of Minimalism; hear, again, the echoes of early Conceptualism). Red is the colour of blood, or of life; black is the colour of night, or of death. This red is the colour of the red star of Lenin, the flag of Communism, and the red banner of the Socialists and union members on strike. This black is the colour of the Anarchists and of a negative dialectics. Colín says: “Together the red and black collaborate in shared social goals and integrate themselves and their art practices in social movements, public resistances and civil subversions.”
The line is also the membrane through which the meanings of those colours in the rectangle permeate into our political consciousness, in a manner that troubles aesthetic reception of them. Through the associative process of visual and linguistic translation that occurs as we view Rojo ⁄ Negro installed in the Belkin Art Gallery at UBC on the unceded territory of the Musqueam and Coast Salish people, Colín addresses the representations made by red and black in the specific cultural contexts of his native home, Mexico City, and his adopted city, Vancouver. According to the Spanish dictionary, to be un rojo is to have extremely liberal and socialist views. In English to be “a red” means to be a Communist or a left-winger. In English, the racialized term “red man,” the literal translation of un rojo, designates a person of First Nations descent. There is no equivalent racialized colour term in Spanish. However, the colour term un negro in Spanish equates in English as “a black” or “black man,” which designate a person of African or “mixed race” descent.
Dictionary definitions of such troubling words that resonate as both politically and culturally specific have prominence in Carlos Colín’s recent work. In the installation called Definiciones [Definitions] (2013) the artist juxtaposed twenty words with definitions taken from the Oxford English Dictionary and the Diccionario Real Academia Española in order to expose the cultural differences between Canada and Latin America. For example:
Statement or action expressing disapproval of or objection to something.
Confesar públicamente la fe y creencia que alguien profesa y en que desea vivir.
To publicly confess the faith and belief that someone claims and that he/she wants to live. (Translated from Spanish)
In Rojo ⁄ Negro the artist expands upon the task of the translator to reveal “the enigma of similarity” that manifests at the limits of art, history and language where the politics of resistance resides.
1 Helen Molesworth, “House Work and Art Work,” in Art After Conceptual Art, ed. Alexander Alberro and Sabeth Buchmann (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006), 76.
2 Michel Foucault, “The Father’s ‘No’,” in Aesthetics, Method and Epistemology, ed. James D. Faubion (New York: New Press, 1998), 18.