Ruben Nusz: Reinventing the color wheel

Categories: Art
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L-R: Severed Hue (Magenta), Mixed Study, The Setting Sunrise
For "Severed Hues," a new exhibition of paintings and drawings at the Weinstein Gallery, Ruben Nusz experiments with color theory -- not based on the traditional Isaac Newton color wheel, but rather on photographic color negatives. Nusz, who is a writer as well, is working on a book that outlines his theories, some of which are manifested in the exhibition itself.

City Pages chatted with Nusz about some of his theories about color and about his work.

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City Pages: So, you're working on a new theory about how to sever accepted ideas about how we view color. What's that about? 

Ruben Nusz: Yes. Based on an original idea by Isaac Newton, the wheel has been updated by artists and scientists since. But one of the major misconceptions is that there is only one color wheel, where light mixes and pigment mixes are fundamentally different.

A more accurate color wheel is based on how colored light mixes because color by definition is the light wavelengths that are reflected back to the eye based on the composition of the material struck. So, artists traditionally use complementary relationships -- colors that are opposite on the color wheel -- to create dynamic color in paintings. Van Gogh was a master at this.

However, I believe that the true complements of colors are actually their inverses. One can find this inverse by making a color negative of an image or using an action in Photoshop. On a traditional color wheel the complement is violet, but in reality the complement of an agreed upon yellow (RGB yellow on a computer or a hansa yellow light in pigment) is blue, and somewhere between a cobalt and an ultramarine.

What this means is that for painters to understand color in the 21 century, they should fully integrate a computer into their daily practice and comprehend the difference between additive and subtractive color mixing. 

Why is our view of color important to you?

I think in some ways that's like asking why understanding harmonies are important to a composer. Color is a necessary ingredient for making music. Complementary colors create both harmonious and disharmonious relationships. I'm interested in excising value judgments from my mental lexicon and integrating these new terms as a means of thinking about the world in a less negative way. Disharmony isn't necessarily bad; in fact it's necessary in painting to avoid clichés. 

How did you become interested in color theory? 

I first became interested in color theory many years ago when I studied the subject in college. I think my recent interest came about because I found that my past paintings lacked a certain structure. If you look at a Delacroix or a Matisse, they're integrating the most up-to-date color theories of their times in their paintings to create a certain weight and to balance the paintings.

Many painters today use mid-20 century color ideas and throw the newest, brightest fluorescent colors into the mix and call it a finished work. The results, to my eyes, often look structurally inadequate and rather thrown together. I'm merely attempting to break painting down to its essential elements and then build a painting up, conscientiously, piece by piece. 

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Is your concept of creating paintings based on photographic color negatives and "inverses" something that's ever been done before? And if not, is this something you'll try to patent?

My concept of the inverse isn't necessarily new. The color photographic negative was invented in the 19th century. Maxwell documented the additive color mixing process (which is different than pigment mixing). I think more graphic designers use inverses than painters because their primary tool is a computer. But their conversion from an RGB color space to CMYK causes certain problems. The advantage of painting is that color isn't theoretical, but rather very actual, very physical. So, in the book that I'm working on, I hope to outline how painters can integrate light and theoretical color mixing into a pigment-mixing practice. As far as I know, this hasn't been done in a way directed specifically for painters. 
 
Tell me about Hans Hoffman. How did you get interested in his work, and how has he inspired you?

Hoffmann was a 20th century abstract painter who emphasized creating works of art not in imitation, but in parallel with nature. He also popularized the well-known idea of a push/pull in painting. As Western painting moved further away from linear perspective in painting, the idea of using colors to move space forward and backwards in a painting became important techniques for artist to communicate ideas in color.

I'm especially interested in using the push/pull qualities in color, and contradicting them with the push/pull qualities in value. Further, I like the idea of integrating movement into stasis. Paintings are static objects (unlike motion pictures) but there are tricks and tools that can be used to create an experience for the viewer based on movement.
 
What does "objective" color mean to you? Why was this important to you? What was your process for discovery, and how did you come to your ultimate conclusion? 

Objectivity doesn't seem to be an idea I'll be able to corral anytime soon. Nevertheless, one can approach color through a scientific process of inductive logic and achieve a certain objectivity. Measuring color with a spectrometer, for example, is one way of categorizing color using a certain standard. Language is another way.

However, color is fundamentally a subjective experience. For example, the way one sees a color is affected by the color placed next to it. Isolating color is virtually impossible. There are also the factors of one's mood, the lighting, and whether or not one is colorblind. The importance of the subjective/objective relationship lies in how one reconciles the self, who is fundamentally subjective and the non-self, who is potentially objective. I'm very interested in how to continue to align myself with the broader version of the self. 

Andy Warhol had this great quote about Coca Cola. In a nutshell, he sees Coca Cola -- and to a certain extent, capitalism -- as an equalizer of sorts (even though we know this is not the case). He says that the Coke that you drink is the same Coke that the Queen of England drinks, the same Coke that Liz Taylor drinks, the same Coke that the bum on the street drinks. He goes on to say that no amount of money can get you a better Coke. There is only one Coke.

However, if you break this down and apply color theory to the scenario, you can see the patent falseness of Warhol's concept. If you have all of these individuals looking at the red on a can of Coke, that red will look different to every individual. While there might be a certain quasi-objective agreement on the color of the can -- that it is red with white text -- each individual will see the red differently based on an endless list of variables, such as lighting, mood, and even how much money they have.

And lets not forget, that not everyone likes Coke; it's terribly unhealthy and pretty gross if it's been in a hot car all day. But the can is red, isn't it? I'm not even sure what red is anymore. Plus, I prefer Pepsi. 

IF YOU GO:

"Severed Hues"
Friday, November 2 through January 11, 2014
The Weinstein Gallery
908 W. 46th St., Minneapolis
There will be an opening reception from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday, November 22
Regular hours are Tuesday through Saturday from noon to 5 p.m., and by appointment



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