Getting Buzzed on the Color Black

Few artists unlock the optical potential of black better than Joan Witek, whose compositions hum with subtle illusions.

Joan Witek, “Camouflaged by Frailties (PS-27)” (1984) , oil and graphite on canvas (image courtesy of Minus Space)

Convalescing from an illness, the Egyptian poet Constantine Cavafy once boasted “I have seen the absolute Black; it was unspeakably beautiful.” He can keep the purity. What’s more electrifying is how black behaves in relation, coming alive optically. Black shapes can vibrate when placed in stark contrast to neutral hues. Few artists unlock black’s buzzing potential better than Joan Witek.

For example, “The Road at Night (PS-28)” (1984), on view in her exhibition at Minus Space, was inspired by an evening walk along a dirt road on Shelter Island. Witek wrote “As I stayed longer in the darkness, I began to see into the night…With time, my senses were becoming more aware of the night’s subtleties.”

Joan Witek, “The Road at Night  (PS-28)” (1984), oil and graphite on canvas, (image courtesy of Minus Space)

Just as nightvision takes time to switch on, Witek’s works reward patient looking. As the eyes become more attuned to their dark subtleties, they amp up. That humming on the edges gets louder, though never as stridently as Bridget Riley’s compositions — Witek’s are more enchantingly subdued.

Tantalizingly, this buzz resists digital reproduction. The center column in this image of “That He Be Known and Loved and Imitated (PS-22)” (1984) gets close. The jolt hits hardest in person.

Joan Witek, “That He Be Known and Loved and Imitated (PS-22)” (1984), oil and graphite on canvas, (image courtesy of Minus Space)

Joan Witek: Paintings from the 1980s continues through October 24 at Minus Space (16 Main Street, Suite A, Brooklyn). The exhibition was curated by Jason Andrew.

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