Stay static: Through colourful and detailed patterns, Richard Penn invites viewers into a space where they can get lost in the minutiae, studying his lines and marvelling at them. Picture: SUPPLIED
Stay static: Through colourful and detailed patterns, Richard Penn invites viewers into a space where they can get lost in the minutiae, studying his lines and marvelling at them. Picture: SUPPLIED

Marriages, families and friendships probably broke up when TV screens flickered with static, instead of images. Static was what the pulsating black-and-white worms were called that filled the space between TV channels back in the analogue days, when people argued and raged as they were woken from their blissful zoned-out TV-induced slumber.

It signalled an unpleasant inbetween state, a disturbing aural and visual experience. It was a sort of sensory limbo, as though if it were left on for long enough, while some poor person was hanging on to the edge of the roof trying to get a better signal, it would grow on you and the static of the static-ness became curiously comforting.

In his exhibition at Circa Gallery Cape Town, appropriately entitled No Signal, Richard Penn offers all shades of "static" in a series dubbed Noise.

Rendered in pretty retro-colours of lime green paired with orange, or yellows with browns and orange, Penn’s oil paintings of "static" veer more to the pleasing, comforting side.

Stay in this sensory limbo, he seems to be saying, there are things here to be found above and beyond familiarity with nothingness. Penn discovered that lurking in this no-man’s retro-TV land are leftover signals from the birth of the universe. Google it.

Richard Penn's art. Picture: SUPPLIED
Richard Penn's art. Picture: SUPPLIED

Grandness and banality collide in the quirky though poetic and beautiful visual experience Penn presents in this exhibition. His mode of art-making encapsulates this; everyday and simple activities such as drawing a line or circle accumulate, resulting in awe-inspiring art.

Penn’s art has to be seen to be "believed". It is the precision with which he produces lines and patterns that astounds. His drawings, watercolours and oil paintings are all united by lines, marks and patterns that appear to be so perfectly executed, it is hard to believe that they are not digitally generated. This is part of a trend in abstract art.

Circa Gallery Cape Town recently hosted an exhibition by Andrzej Urbanski, who sets out to supersede technology through his hard-edge abstract paintings. Cameron Platter’s large-scale abstract works in his recent solo, Zol at Blank Projects, also parade like digitally created compositions.

With Penn’s drawings you have to be told they are drawings to believe they are such and even then, you sort of want to see him do it to believe it. His drawings consist of tiny uniform lines repeated almost endlessly to create dense, abstract patterns. The simplicity of this method is perhaps best detected in Foam 4, defined by small circles that grow in density to create patterns. From afar, these read like microscopic studies of organisms. His art is linked to science, or perhaps draws from the visual aesthetics associated with it. The precision with which Penn generates and replicates lines affirms this link.

The belief in science, and its findings about the world, human bodies and the universe hangs on precision and uniformity.

Consistent visual representation of phenomena such as the interior of bodies, or how the universe is structured allows the grasping of very abstract concepts. You only have to have an ultrasound scan to know that organic life doesn’t quite live up to the visual representations that scientific illustrations offer. In a way, scientific imagery operates like a screen; the thing looked at instead of the actual thing.

There is so much information that nothing can be understood. He opts to detect and study the patterns, aestheticise them

We accept this because we can’t see everything with the naked eye and it can’t be contained in one view. We don’t know what stars really look like as they are too far away and even if we got close their form would be hard to grasp as they do not have the clear, pointy silhouettes customarily used to represent stars. Penn grapples with this contradiction through his art. He is interested in knowing and seeing things he can’t see, in capturing the micro and the macro, which seem to be made of the same stuff.

In ink drawings such as Foam, or in charcoal ones such as Ones and Zeros, which bring microscopic views of skin to mind, he explores small organisms. Larger perspectives, macro views of the universe that quantum mechanics delivers through abstract representations, come to mind through the series called Noise. But perhaps it is the collection or abundance of data about reality that Penn "processes" too via works such as Ones and Zeros 4.

There is so much information that nothing can be understood. He opts to detect and study the patterns, aestheticise them.

It is about embracing complexity though admiring the simplicity that perhaps underlies it. He delivers this contradiction most succinctly through the compelling series of oil paintings in Noise. It is interesting that oil painting would be a useful medium to think about science in the information age. However, since the early days of art (the Renaissance) painting has been used to reveal reality and function as an illusion of it. Penn’s oil paintings contain this contradiction and he channels it through science and delivers commentary on the information age.

It isn’t only scientists who are flooded with information and images about the world — through the internet and social media, everyone is exposed to an excess of data. There is no static space anymore — we are permanently tuned in. It is with a sense of nostalgia or longing that we think of the days when our TV sets lost a signal.

Through Penn’s sometimes colourful and detailed patterns, he opens up a space where we can get lost in the minutiae, studying his lines, marvelling at them. We can try to detect the patterns in the patterns. Or we can take comfort in the fact that there is nothing to see — we are hovering between images and realities and that is just okay.

• No Signal shows at Circa Cape Town until November 30.

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