Time, Colour, Sound and AI: What Happens When Paintings Sing

by Christina Donoghue on 3 May 2024

Last month, the art world gathered in Venice for La Biennale di Venezia 2024. Among them is 61-year-old American artist Shane Guffogg, whose experiments in AI have made the impossible, possible.

Last month, the art world gathered in Venice for La Biennale di Venezia 2024. Among them is 61-year-old American artist Shane Guffogg, whose experiments in AI have made the impossible, possible.

My one hope when people see my paintings is that they're confronted with the silence of colour. - Shane Guffogg

In 1911, a then-little-known artist Wassily Kandinsky made steps to unite colour and sound through his seemingly unfinished painting Impressionism III (Concert) which, at its core, acted as an artistic exploration into the neurodiverse condition synaesthesia. Depicting abstract figures and onlookers in a concert setting, it's said Kandinsky was inspired to paint the picture after attending a concert by the composer Arnold Schonberg, feeling compelled to translate the sounds he heard into colour, hence why half the frame is awash with a distinct canary yellow. Despite marking the art world's first attempt at bridging multiple creative disciplines by uniting sound and colour, it certainly wasn't the last, as proven by the California-born and raised artist Shane Guffogg's current Venice Biennale exhibition At the Still Point of the Turning World - Strangers of Time, which uniquely marries all of Guffogg's interests AI, music, painting and poetry.

'Impressionism III' (Concert), by Wassily Kandinsky, 1911

Inspired by TS Eliot's Four Quartets poem, the series is made up of 21 kaleidoscopic paintings, spread over two rooms the first titled Reach Into the Silence and the second, Neither Flesh Nor Fleshless. Dense flushes of colour swirl, bend and melt into each other in quick succession and, depending on their layering, affect each piece's overall hue. While beaming with equal feelings of nostalgia, joy, sorrow and elation, (depending on which colour you hone in on first), each one radiates its own signature rhythm, a feeling magnified via the dimly lit room they're placed in which is nestled within the historic 15th-century Venetian palazzo Scala Contarini del Bovolo in Venice.

'We looked at a lot of different spaces' Guffog tells me when I meet him at the exhibition opening in Venice, an implication that getting the space right was as paramount as the work's creation; something that becomes obvious when you're stood in such an impressive structure as this one. Dating back to 1300, the palazzo lies equal distance from Rialto and San Marco, the commercial and political hubs of the city. What's more incredible is the building's miraculously delicate yet sturdy spiral staircase, commissioned by Pietro Contarini in 1499 to embellish the building even more. Contained inside a 26 meter-high cylindrical tower built in Istrian stone, the series of steps features exposed bricks and is perforated with a number of arches that are flanked by lodges connecting the structure to the adjacent building. 'I like this space, mainly because of the history of it and the staircase's circular movement. This is the context i want my work to be seen within', Guffogg declares.

'Reach into the Silence', by Shane Guffogg

It's at the end of the staircase on the second floor where you'll find Guffogg's paintings, nestled tightly together in one room. When speaking of the emotion he wished to evoke with the works, Guffogg made it clear he wanted to stop people dead in their tracks 'and be confronted with the silence of colour' upon walking into the room, similar to how the artist felt when he first read T.S Eliot's Four Quartets poem, something that's reverberated through him ever since. 'There's a line in the poem' he begins, before reciting:

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered.

'I’ve been reading those lines for about 30 years', Guffogg recalls. 'It’s a blend of East and Western ideologies. And the way Eliot talks about time flickering back and forth, between the past and the future, it's taught me that I, we, need to learn how to be in the moment; these paintings for me are about being in the moment.' It's through wanting to pass on this knowledge to people that has directly informed Guffogg's creation process. 'I knew I wanted these paintings to bypass an intellect of sorts and just force you into the moment. Each work took between three and six months to make and involved me painting day after day, all freehand. I started with a wider brush for the bottom layer and as the painting built up, transferred to using smaller brushes. I kind of think of them like a camera lens that’s focused on the middle where everything is clear but the edges are out of focus; these paintings are intended to quite literally bring you to that still point T.S Eliot comments on.’

'Neither Flesh Nor Fleshless', by Shane Guffogg

As for the poem itself, Beethoven's Opus 132 is widely credited as an indirect influence of Four Quartets, creating a tenacious link between both Eliot and the composer that many music and literature scholars have tried unpacking in recent years. Of course, Guffogg's own attempt at bridging the gap between different creative disciplines isn't new, especially when you consider the aforementioned Kandinsky, 'or Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition' composer and music lecturer Anthony Cardella points out to me when I speak to him about his involvement in the musical process, but the way in which Guffogg has intentionally channelled his synaesthesia into making paintings sing, is. 'There’s never been such a specific case of this', Cardella continues. 'There’s been famous pieces derived from art and vice versa, and we know that Mussorgsky's reasoning behind Pictures at an Exhibition was meant as a tribute to his friend, the Russian artist Viktor Hartmann. But there's one stark difference, those pieces were inspired by the painting, they were not the painting.'

'Neither Flesh Nor Fleshless' by Shane Guffogg

Working together, Cardella and Guffogg - along with AI software programmer Jonah Lynch - have come up with a series of musical compositions that are directly linked to the paintings by translating each colour into a specific note. 'Each painting has its own voice and we wanted to translate that physically so everyone else could hear colour along with Shane'. As for the process behind composing music in tandem with the paintings, AI remained a useful tool but didn't take the 'hands-on' feeling away from all those involved. 'It started with zooming in onto a painting and picking just one shade and blowing that up until it covers the entire laptop screen', Cardella tells me. 'It's important to note that for Shane, every colour has a different function. It’s never, "This blue is bread" it’s, "This blue helps us to transcend our current state of emotion", "This red brings us to the depth of our understanding of the way the world is". It was these functions that I felt echoed how in Western music we treat harmony: a cord is never in a vacuum, it has to have a function if it’s in a Western song. So, throughout this process, we were fishing around until we found the right note. And once we got there, it was always a snap moment for Shane, he would know in an instant whether it felt right or not.' Whenever that happened, Cardella would write the note down that belonged to the colour on the laptop screen and before long, something remarkable started to happen... 'we noticed that each shade of colour belonged to the same family of harmonies, just with subtle differences. That was really a penny-dropping moment', admits Cardella. 'Because it was like, "Okay, we're not crazy", you know? These colours really do all have their own sound.'

'Reach into the Silence', by Shane Guffogg

Not only do the colours used have their own sound, but they also take reference from the architecture specific to Venice. 'The yellows you see in my paintings represent many of the buildings in Venice, so really, it's a site-specific piece of work', Guffogg Chimes in. 'I've been coming to this city for 20 years and so I was thinking about the different times of seasons and how light changes throughout the day. When you come in the wintertime time, you’ve got this cool greyness with the fog rolling in, which is a stark comparison to when it's summertime here. So I wanted to create this fusion of colour that reflects the way the canal's greenish hue changes to blue and back to green, each line is a memory that embodies this city, its shades and façades...for me, the paintings become a series of memories compressed into one moment.'

When you piece all this together, the prevalence of Kandinsky's life and work in art becomes all the more ubiquitous. Particularly when you hark back to the artist's Colour Theory taught alongside Johannes Itten at the Bauhaus, where the pair adopted a synesthetic relationship with color, associating particular colors with both specific geometric shapes and with musical tones and chords. For them, yellow was best expressed as a triangle and a middle C played on a brassy trumpet. In his book, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Kandinsky wrote: 'Colour directly influences the soul. Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another purposively, to cause vibrations in the soul.' Although Guffogg refutes the idea he looked at Kandinsky as inspiration for At the Still Point of the Turning World - Strangers of Time, those vibrations Kandinsky speaks of pulse all around the Scala Contarini del Bovolo, thanks to the energy embodied and the poetry reflected.

At the Still Point of the Turning World - Strangers of Time is open to the public at the Scala Contarini del Bovolo until 24 November.

'Reach into the Silence', by Shane Guffogg



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