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Fugitive Colours

Colours Bleed.
At some deep linguistic level, we've given to colour some of the same words that also describe the breakdown of our bodies. The loss of colour is also the loss of life - "the colour drained from her cheeks." Colours can fade, decay and seep away.

In Western art, time and light have scoured the crimson, azure and obsidian black from Greek sculpture, Roman buildings and the facades of Britain's pre-Reformation churches. Antiquity is white. We've been left with the blanched bones of our formerly intensely coloured past.

This show is one artist's monitoring of the effect of time and light on colour. "I want to work from a position of knowledge," says Jake Tilson, and what we see here are, in effect, his working notes.

These are tests and experiments literally taken from the artist's attic. Over the years the paints, paper and photocopied images that he has used in his work have been mounted and labelled and submitted to the effects of the sun. The acrylic and oil paint tests have been hanging in direct light for six to seven years, while some of the colour photocopies have been left for up to sixteen years. His attic, I should add, is lit by a large, south-facing skylight.

Some of what you can see in the show is expected: a laminate's deep sunset-red hue has been rinsed to a cloudy pink. The strong chlorophyll green of one test has been turned into the yellowy-green of parched grass. Other effects are more vivid - the lines of a Pantone marker have disappeared, a piece of Mohawk 100 lb cream paper has turned white and the red "FRAGILE" of a packing sticker, used in a construction of 1989, looks as old and weather-beaten as some inter-war lettering painted on the side of a disused brick building.

Churches have learned the lessons of the past. After centuries of commissioning artists they have now built up tough specifications of what colours and paints can be used. Artists are limited to "non-fugitive colours". The colours that seem to flee the quickest are reds and purples.

But what of our new images based on the technology of photocopied reproduction? In the last ten to fifteen years, artists have incorporated these new technologies into their art. Normal entropy and time would reveal the effects in the next twenty years or so but the accelerated entropy of these tests has given us the future now.

The rich, saturated colour of laser photocopies is a look which has influenced our contemporary visual culture - in film and TV ads and in magazine lay-outs - but we can see that the reds and purples and blacks of first-generation photocopies will eventually collapse into a monochrome baby-blue tint. Our memories of the early part of the century are black and white and sepia-toned. Will the memories drawn from colour photocopies of the late 80s and early 90s be blue-toned?

Photocopied memory is bound to fade but digital memory is forever. Reduced to the ones and zeros of the binary code, images can be stored so that they remain crisp and clear indefinitely. The price we pay, though, is that they will also be infinitely open to manipulation.

Like looking at an artist's notebook, or the story boards of a film director, these tests show us the nuts and bolts of someone wrestling with the tools of their trade. What we have here is the evidence of a forward-looking artist thinking hard about the ultimate effects of time on his work.

London - 1996