Paintings In Five Dimensions: Luke Frost
Tony Godfrey

A cursory glance at one of Luke Frost's paintings may well lead us to the mistaken assumption that these are paintings like those made long ago in the Sixties: very flat, abstract paintings concerned with formalist issues only. But this is far from the case: a more thoughtful and responsive walk towards them (notice: no passing glance this) will discover that these are not formalist paintings at all, indeed so far are they not in thrall to flatness that they are (as I shall explain) in fact not two dimensional at all, but operative in at least five dimensions.

The most noticeable feature of most of his paintings is the vertical stripe, what Barnett Newman once called a zip and which Frost prefers to call a "volt". A volt refers us to electricity: that which strikes from the heavens or from the power station that one has inadvertently walked into and has lit up the scene in an instance - or just to a faulty, sparking connection in a dark room. It is the way such a volt of lightning or electricity transforms the space around it that matters: it does not sit there pretty like a stripe or bar.

As we approach a painting such as 'Volts no. 20', the volt in the middle quickly resolves into two volts and as we get very much closer each of those volts opens up into a pair of blue and mauve volts; finally we realise that the gap between these two double volts is itself the self same width and divided into two slightly different shades of red. Our visual palette has by now gotten highly refined and we further realise that the two blues and two mauves are each subtly different from one another, for they adapt to what we finally realise are the two differing reds of the painting left and right.

What has happened? We have been sucked in by the detail. (Interestingly two contemporary painters who create a similar effect are Nigel Cooke and the Indonesian I Nyoman Masriadi - but they use miniaturised human figures to create this pulling-you-in effect.) This experience is through our own body movement in space and time, or in other terms phenomenological. To note such differences is to refine our visual palette: we know the cliché: "Surely not the 96 vintage Chateau Je-ne-sais-quoi with that tinge of blackberry? Surely it must be the vintage 98?" And it is no idle thing: learning to differentiate subtle distinctions is to gain a more complex, richer experience of wine, paintings, the world itself.

But perhaps still more importantly, with their pulling you into the detail, these paintings are about that opening-up moment - an experience in time - or richness in apparent simplicity. These little surprises, tweaks in symmetry and perception take on unexpected significance.

Perhaps the simplest piece of music the great Estonia composer Arvo Pärt's has ever written is his 1976 Für Alina for piano. It is so simple that even I can play it - indeed it is the only piece of piano music I can play. At the critical moment in the score where the simple mathematical sequence, a two note sequence followed by a three note one up to seven and then down again is slightly tweaked at one point by adding a note out of sequence: he inscribes above it in the score a flower, as if to say the music here blooms. It is a moment of transfiguration. Acrylic paint, synthetic material, here blooms too chromatically, momentarily. (What scent would that be were it a flower?)

Similarly we could quote William Carlos William's justly famous 1928 poem with its emphasis on a colour moment enlightening a whole scene, giving plangency and purpose to an apparently banal passage in time:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

However with Williams we are tracking back like a movie camera from a scene, with Frost we are zooming in.

The environmental or phenomenological nature of his work is most apparent (programmatic even) in the corner painting, 'Volts no.21': for as we approach the red volt at the centre, checking its symmetry, looking for variation, the blues to either side seem to swing out in our periphery vision, enveloping us. It becomes a room, a little universe in its own right. (As Elaine Scarry has pointed out, the room is a refuge, its walls in effect an extension of our body: the way, for example, in the two triptychs the volt bends round the canvas to touch the wall itself makes us aware that the wall itself is integral to these works, a membrane or skin between us and the outside world.)

These phenomenological experiences are much like those have we have in looking at certain minimal sculptures, especially those of Dan Flavin - an artist Frost much admires and who is an acknowledged influence. In Flavin the object, a neon tube or group of neon tubes, are simple discrete things, but they induce complex environmental experiences.

The light or the experience of light spreads across the whole room; in his later more complex installations faint shadows in complementary colours to the lights are thrown off the viewers, so that they, the viewers, quite literally become part of the work too. This does not, obviously happen, in Frost's work, instead we have this pulling into the detail.

The two 'Supervolts' triptychs are about an unexpected harmony - is it just I who read them bottom to top? The top panel is like the final movement of a symphony returning to the original key of the first, but changed. This also makes explicit what is implicit in the single panel paintings that there is a progression in colour - a movement. We cannot but join up in our mental perception the three nearly central vertical lines: we have to make these three canvases into one big painting.

In effect the area of wall between them becomes part of the painting. And that is probably true of all his works, that the visual experience extends out over the white wall around - Robert Ryman has said of his white or near white paintings that because so much of the drama or statement is in the edge and in how the edge is formed against the wall that his paintings effectively extend out about 18 inches onto the wall in all four directions. This seems true of Frost's work - explicitly so in the case of the seven foot painting where the incident is on the outside edge facing the wall. Indeed if we should allow ourselves time for our eyes to sensitise themselves sufficiently we will be able to see the colour reflected from the painting's edge out across the nearby wall.

So let us approach another painting again, this one the large grey square painting with volts vertical in reds at the edge, 'Volts no.18.3'. Again this dance: the bright volts pull us to each side - sidestepping: we go in close to get the colours right in our head, we note the way the colour reflects on the wall. We step back again and then move in once more until the grey immerses us and becomes our universe.

When asked what distance was the correct one to view his paintings Barnett Newman's answer was "Eighteen inches". He was only partially true, of course: we do need to experience this grey - under which we can maybe sense some other colour, a red perhaps? But also, importantly, as we step back once more we become more aware of how the painting is affected by the light of the room. The grey will rarely be even right across the canvas: the light coming from left or right or above will modulate it. The painting is a thing in itself but is also highly sensitive to its environs: it wakes and lives with the light.

And there are the brush-strokes: it is important that one looks hard enough at this painting that one can start to see them - innumerable horizontal marks. These not-quite-monochromes have a living surface…

Again and again, we close in on these paintings to see if these are exact and precise straight lines. Invariably, they are so. But not always dead centre: the centre may be at the edge of a volt not the centre of it. Repeatedly we find subtle differences between areas of apparently identical colour. There is a notion of perfection here, but one that is complex, indeed, paradoxically, variable. Things look just so, just right, and then we realise they are not quite as we assumed: they have a movement, a shift, a difference from one part to another.

Given his apparent commitment to geometry to what extent can we see Frost as having a connection to the St. Ives painting tradition? Do we see a connection to nature and landscape here? Not directly, but the attention to colour and the relationship of colours and to how light makes colour visible, his concern with space and our place as moving viewers in it, suggest a deeper relationship than is immediately apparent.

Does his colour, we may ask, have more to do with colour charts than the nuances of nature? If we look at the later coloured sculptures of Donald Judd we see an approach to colour that owes more to the paint manufacturers colour charts than the traditional colour wheel.

Likewise Gerhard Richter in his colour chart paintings has identified and laid out in a deliberate manner the 4000 individual colours that are supposedly the most a human can differentiate. Richter's colour chart paintings lack - almost by definition - any drama. Announcing one by one all four thousand actors in a play hardly whet one's appetite for any of the dialogue. In contrast colour is always dramatic in Frost's work: it is always doing something, always singing stridently, or backing up implacably against another colour.

In his studio Frost has a dozen or so small studies on card, sometimes bent inwards or outwards so he can imagine them as corner paintings. They are much rougher, far less perfect than the finished paintings. But they serve to remind us of how complex those completed paintings are. They do have a special quality of their own. The German painter Blinky Palermo referred to his small blue triangle paintings as being the alarm clock of the spirit. These small studies of Frost's have the same clarion quality.

Frost thinks of his volts as electric, but one can also think of them as sound, the noise and its echo or reverberation. Or one could think of them as stones thrown in a pond, the splash and the effect after this as the waves run away in concentric circles and fade. We can imagine the American composer Charles Ives sitting in the bell tower as down below in the square marching bands go by, they are playing the same tune, but because of the laggard speed of sound are always slightly out of time with one another: he relishes the slight dissonance. You can only record these moment by imagining it in your mind's eye - or singing or dancing it, albeit inwardly. In the way that these paintings make us enact a complex dance with colour and shape, they provide a physical equivalent to these intense and precise moments and movements.

You tune a drum by tightening the keys on the rim. So it is with the edges in Frost's paintings. So it is with the volts - as perfect and perfectly placed as a small rounded pebble thrown exactly in the centre of a pond - or deliberately just off-centre. This is fine tuning.

At a time when the most hyped and bought painting is so noisy and (dare we say it) vulgar, paintings like Luke Frost's act as crucial voices - like those of Vija Celmins or, from a different century, Pieter Saenredam - asking us in a very undemonstrative way to slow down and pay attention to exactly how we see the world, how we experience colour, space and time.

© Tony Godfrey 2008

Tony Godfrey is the author of 'Painting Today' published by Phaidon.