The monochrome is the dumbest form of painting, and it's difficult to make a good one'. So says David Batchelor in Chromophobia (2000), his book citing literary and art-historical examples of colour being associated with all that is tawdry, superficial, cosmetic, feminine, queer, dangerous and alien. 'Shiny Dirty' at Ikon brought together a modest number but the full range of his trademark neon light-emitting works in the chapel-like upper galleries. Though all the works are undeniably sculptural, with Dan Flavin and Donald Judd acknowledged influences, all have a relationship with painting at surface, and with the monochrome at heart.
Frank Stella once wrote that he wanted to keep the paint in his art as good as it looked in the can; Batchelor's practice resonates with this and with the observations of J.K.Huysmans' Des Esseintes, who seeks only the most artificial representations of nature. Practically all the colour and light in 'Shiny Dirty' was artificial, emitted from objects and reflected 'naturally' around the walls and floors. Colours in rainbows look unnaturally intense in comparison with what lies at either end of them. In Batchelor's work colour transcends and makes ephemeral the objects bearing or emitting it, in turn draining the colour from the surroundings.
Batchelor has a Baudelairean relationship to his surroundings, to the city and to modernity. Colour is encountered in the spirit of the dérive. His evangelical resistance to the protestant blank white gallery interior extends to an antipathy to the Romantic and pastoral association with natural colours. He eschews them in favour of the industrial, chemical, electrical, plastic, metallic and neon versions encountered in the city, specifically London's East End.
The installation was sited over four rooms, beginning with Brick Lane Remix (2003), 32 'slabs' of different-coloured lightboxes neatly arranged on four Dexion shelving units to make a beautifully electric take on a certain type of formal painting encountered in the work of Hans Hofmann and others. In contrast, a carousel of slides projected The Found Monochromes of London (1997-2003), photographs of white empty billboards, faded notices and so on. Quite unlike the other pieces included here, they were none the less made in a similar way - collected from stuff thrown out, acting as a touchstone to Batchelor's investigations. He calls them 'monochromes of modern life', likening them to 'holes in the visual fabric, occasional voids in an otherwise saturated visual environment'. The white, of course, is never quite white, or the same from one slide to another.
Idiot Stick V - Candy Pink (2003) was one of two six-foot-tall totems made of plastic containers kebabed by strip lights. Sapping the colour from Chromophobia (2000) (two photo-graphs of a beaten-up panda bear in pink, purple and yellow, sprawled on a damp grey pavement), it flooded the room with neon pink, almost turning the walls a peculiar shade of green. Along with Idiot Stick I (2003) and the shorter Idiot Stick XI (2003), these covetable light sabres also recalled André Cadere's Barre de Bois (Wooden Bar, 1934-78), which were left surreptitiously in exhibitions throughout the artist's career.
By finding ready-mades, just as by putting a monochrome on wheels, Batchelor tries to 'put some of the stupidity back into the genre'. The Spectrum of Hackney Road (2004) uses low, flat trolleys with light emitted from beneath them, like the neon light sometimes seen underneath customized cars. Here the colours were reflected from neon lights beneath, and placed near each other for the tones to overlap.
Perhaps, as Dave Hickey has said, colour speaks for itself better than any attempt to do so on its behalf, and the mood became increasingly intense as the magic hour approached during my visit. Batchelor transformed a spectrum more familiar in less salubrious contexts into something not so far removed from the transcendental - evoking images, materials and forms of an urban sublime.