The Colours

2008-02-11 00:00

When artist Deryck Healey died towards the end of 2004, he left a large body of unexhibited work, some of which he had been working on in his final weeks. These works, containing vast numbers of tiny dots and splatters, explore the physical construction of our universe at a subatomic level.

Healey, who was born in Durban and studied at what was then the Durban Tech School of Art and Design (it is currently the Durban University of Technology), rose to world renown as a colour specialist and textile designer.

When he moved into the arena of fine art, he initially eschewed the use of colour, presumably in an attempt to move away from his commercial reputation. But his love of colour and his remarkable grasp of colour relationships, both aesthetic and emotional, was something that could not be repressed and the work that he produced in the last decades of his life were bathed in intensity.

Healey’s legacy is large and geographically spread. His work is on show in Cape Town and Berlin and is represented in public and private collections around the world. This week, some of the last images are being exhibited at artSpace in a show entitled “Micrographs”.

I want to begin not with Healey’s canvases, but with a pair of sandals. A pair of simple white slip-ons that are no longer white. These are the shoes that he wore while he was painting his final works, many of which appear on the walls of the gallery. The shoes bear similar patterns to the paintings, layers of small splattered dots, each one almost incandescent in its autonomy but inseparable from its surface. But while the paintings might appear to be entirely random, closer investigation resembles strong structural intentions.

There is a paradox here. While Healey was painting with intent, he was painting randomness and the erratic order that always arises from it. As we now know, at the beginning of this 21st century, chaos and order are part of the same behavioural rules that govern every particle in his universe.

Graeme Roberts, Healey’s life partner, now wears these shoes on occasion. If Healey’s collected works have a massive value, both artistically and financially, the shoes are priceless; and Roberts wouldn’t exchange them for the world.

These sandals are not on display in the gallery, but they represent a beautiful expression of Healey’s position as an artist in the world. For him, the everyday world and the artistic space were one and the same.

Healey died from cancer in 2004. Although he had been working on some of these images as far back as 1999 — before his diagnosis — it was to the infinitely complex behaviour of the universe itself that he returned in his final months on earth.

This complex behaviour is reflected in the vastness of space and in the behaviour of the sub-atomic particles that lurk beneath our skin. The paintings were cata­lysed and inspired by the book Powers of Ten, produced by Charles and Williams Eames and Philip and Phylis Morrison.

The book begins by looking at Earth from billions of light years away. Moving through 42 different levels of magnification, we move towards our planet, which remains at the centre of the image long before we are close enough for the blue sphere to be visible. Eventually, we see Earth. We move closer, homing in on a couple lying on the grass in a park in Chicago. We move closer still. We see a man’s hand. Then the folds of his skin, the spaces in between, the structure of his DNA, the stable carbon-12 atom, the nucleus of that atom. Closer still and we are witness to the behaviour of the subatomic particles that constitute that nucleus.

That final image in the book bears similarities to the works that hang in the gallery. The caption for this image is hauntingly resonant. “What will we see, and what will we come to understand, once we enter the next levels?”

In both his art and his life, Deryck Healey was determined to break through the cynicism that defines much of modernity and post-modernity. While this was, in a sense, an existential position, for Healey it was far more than a position. It was something that he lived. He had perpetually wide and bright eyes that stared out into the universe without fear. And it is Healey’s unspoken tribute to his own bravery that in these pictures he was painting as the cancer spread, he was somehow able to stare with the same wide-eyed wonder at the microscopic mechanisms of his own destruction.

At the same time, the exhibition is a tribute from the heart of Graeme Roberts, who curated the show, to a man he loved. It’s not overly sentimental to suggest that the exhibition exists as an expression of the relationship that the two men shared.

Roberts is candid enough to say that he doesn’t really see the work in relation to the Eames/Morrison book at all. “I just see them as textures, I see them as abstract pieces, like Jackson Pollock, although at the same time, they’re not at all like Jackson Pollock. But I do see them like that … There’s one particular painting that appears to be one colour but is made up of dozens of colours. And I just think that there’s an incredible skill involved in being able to do that.”

I ask Roberts what he thinks Healey would have said if asked what the paintings are about. He replies that he always had the same answer to every question, which was “What do you think?”.

“He never answered. And it was always a big joke with Deryck, because he always said ‘What did it mean to you?’. It wasn’t important what it meant to him. What others see in the work is what’s important … Often, he would talk to different people, and they would say what they thought. And he would agree with them. And then he would have a conversation with someone completely different and agree with them as well.”

Which is perfectly valid. Healey, who was on the one hand so devoted to colour, and on the other devoted to a sense of universal freedom, would have considered the fact that the depictions of the sub-atomic matter that lie at the core of our being bear no relation to our outer physical and metaphorical skins. The small human differences of race, sexuality, class and gender all disappear under the electron microscope, even as the differences between ourselves and all other organic matter on Earth also dissipates.

What is interesting about both the final frame of The Powers of Ten and Healey’s Micrographs is that a detail of the image is visually and structurally much the same as the broader pattern. The scientific images of particle behaviour and Healey’s paintings are both representations. Even at the level of supermagnification, these particles cannot be rendered at the normal level of representation. Instead we can only mark their paths, their geometric tendencies.

At this level, science can only visually allude, it cannot represent. The movements of atoms that we see in diagrams are not accurate. Instead, they are constructed narratives of subatomic behaviour, a narrative that replaces one that is visually untellable.

At these two extreme levels of magnification, we have only artifice; and truth, in any factual or non-spiritual sense, becomes unknowable.

I never discussed spirituality with Healey, but underneath his dots is a portrait of reality. And I think of how in his final months, he must have stared into the canvas, deep into the essence of the universe that his body would soon be leaving.

In this Buddhist-like contemplation of matter, there is a reverence and a secular spirituality that is resonant of the writings of scientific explorers who have delved deep into space and matter and found something more moving than anything they have been offered by humankind’s theologies. “I am searching for a world consciousness through an art of concern,” said Healey. And looking into his carefully controlled chaos, it’s hard not to think of the Buddhist precept that consciousness and matter are one and the same thing.

•Deryck Healey’s “Micrographs” runs at artSpace Durban until February 16, which is open Monday to Friday from 10 am to 4 pm and from 10 am to 1 pm on Saturdays.

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