Representing Rainbows

Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God...
Woooo … oh wow … wooooo … yeah … Oh my God
Oh my God … look at that. It is starting to look like a
triple rainbow. Oh my God … Oh my God … What does
this mean?

YouTube Video
"Yosemitebear Mountain Double Rainbow 1-8-10"

Annie Ewaskio, “Totem,” Oil and acrylic on canvas, 36” x 36”, 2011.

There's no arguing with Rainbows. A rainbow is a fact of life. Pots of gold, Judy Garland, magic, and wonder are all encapsulated in the image of the rainbow. They recall childhood memories, folklore, and middle school science, while holding a firm place in legend due to their beauty and the impossibility of explaining the phenomenon. Venerated as god and goddess, dreaded as demon and pestilence, and ground zero for optical theories—the rainbow's image is woven into the fabric of our past and present. A utopian song by a socialist lyricist, "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" speaks subliminally to all of our longings.

From antiquity to the 19th century, the rainbow has played a vital role in both inspiring and testing new ideas about the physical world. And while scientists understand its optics fairly well, subtle variations in its nature have yet to be fully explained. Historically the rainbow has been seen as a symbol rather than as natural phenomenon: Greco-Roman mythology situates the rainbow as a path between Heaven and Earth; Chinese mythology, heralds it as the goddess Nüwa who sealed a slit in the sky with five different colors; in Armenian legend it is regarded as the belt of Tir, a Sun god; in Norse mythology, as connecting the realms of humankind and the gods; in the Dreamtime of Australian Aboriginals, as a rainbow snake, the deity governing water; and in Hindu philosophy, as a representation of the seven chakras with seven colors. The rainbow's comprehensive symbolic presence is worldwide.

Imagined, emblematic rainbows thrived in European art: from Albrecht Dürer's "Melancholia I" (1514), to the religious painting of Joseph Anton Koch's "Heroic Landscape with Rainbow" (1824); as fleeting effects of light in the Romantic landscapes of Turner and Constable; as a division between the serene elect and the frantic damned in Hans Memling's "The Last Judgment" (1467-1471); as a Christian symbol of peace and promise in Caspar David Friedrich's "Mountain Landscape with Rainbow" (1809-1810); as a biblical reference in Peter Paul Rubens "The Rainbow Landscape" (1636). Even though these artists' rainbows embody symbolism, science played a role in inspiring and testing new ideas about the physical world.

But this is not true of the crudely painted and videotaped simulacrums of rainbows cropping up, for example, in the work of my current MFA students. There is not a hint of science or naturalism to be found. These rainbows are more akin to Peter Coffin's "Untitled (Rainbow)" (2007), or Ugo Rondinone's "Hell, Yes!" (2008), or the multitude of rainbow paintings by Peter Doig, resembling various symbols in pop culture. Are these simulacrums visual, symbolic shorthand for peace, cheerfulness, and joy? As pleasing as this interpretation may be, its very agreeableness puts it on the road to trivialization, banality and the loss of any meaning. From visual shorthand to visual cliché, such maneuvers ultimately raise the possibility of future generations seeing the rainbow as trite rather than as archetypal.

Carlos Rigau, “Flatten Copy 2,” Multimedia, dimensions variable, 2013.

Perhaps the power of the rainbow, as a symbol, provides a useful form of thought surrounding post-Duchampian visual art, which has existed within an aesthetic of wonder and has triumphed with its strangeness, novelty, and attention-seizing unexpectedness. As in the Wizard of Oz, perhaps the rainbow has provided my students with a metaphor for escape.

My work needs to be fun for me
My work needs to feel like play
My work should not look like "art"
My work needs to toy with surprise and the unknown
My work looks dumb but reveals intelligence
My work reveals a deeper identity over time/closer inspection
My work needs to reward/entertain/mystify the viewer
My work is not poetry but has poetic threads
My work embraces absurd beauty

Charlie, a current MFA student, has described these desires for his work. He and his fellow students are living and learning in a time of quasi-replication and near-duplication of works, made to satisfy the art market's need to have "one of these." Yet he wants his work to be "about distorting familiar objects into something unfamiliar, strange, and uncanny." He creates "seemingly goofy juxtapositions that transcend the objects' original identity, somehow revealing deeper truths and meanings." "I seek to disarm the viewers and present them with a unique individual experience," he continues. Charlie is not alone in being "drawn to mastery, magic, mystery, and surprise." His peers are seeking the same by depicting rainbows shooting from indiscernible painted objects—rainbows painted directly on an arched human body, rainbows arranged with Primacolor pencils on a shelf, rendered chromatically with all the gum chewed in a year, drawn on a van and then videotaped, depicted shooting out of a woman's ass, and much, much more. In the cultural context of these students, perhaps the rainbow serves as a stand-in for strangeness or newness—a perfect combination of visual pleasure and that "rare, sudden and unexpected event."

Catalina Viejo Lopez de Roda, “Untitled,”,Mixed Media on Paper, 6” x 8”, 2013.

There are no rainbows without human observers—a fact that touches on the essence of aesthetic experience. Two people never see the same rainbow in the same way, for no two people can occupy the exact same place at the exact same time. The pleasure of its color, regularity, and geometric form lasts only briefly, and this precious transience is a decisive dimension of the experience of beauty. Philosophers and scientists from Aristotle to Descartes to Newton sought to describe and account for this alluring manifestation of light and water through the act of drawing, ultimately highlighting the limits and inadequacy of a visual explanation of the phenomena. The experience of wonder is at the core of the desire to represent a rainbow. Something between sensation and thought, between aesthetics and science. Wonder is a boundary line between the obvious, the ordinary, and the everyday, on the one hand, and the unknowable, the inexpressible, the unformulated on the other.

Carey Denniston, “Untitled (Econoline passing),” Single-channel video, 2:00, 2011.

So perhaps this is what these students seek, but can it be represented? After all, there is an inherent complexity in trying to represent a rainbow, perhaps too much of a task for pictorial representation. When it comes to the rainbow there is nothing physical to be translated into a representation. There is no object you can walk around, view from the side, approach or touch. The rainbow is not an object but an image, albeit a wildly distorted image of the sun, a phenomenon of light rather than matter. This means that the rainbow has no particular position in space, unless that position is infinity. And how do you represent infinity? The pot of gold that is said to be at the end of the rainbow, rich with promise, but impossible to reach, is an optical illusion dependent on the location of the viewer. Walking towards the end, it appears to move further away. The rainbow's image is affected by time; the time distorts location; nothing is fixed; all is fluid and subjective.

My students's desire to depict the rainbow is an acceptance of a path of sensuality, stepping from pleasure to pleasure of color, shape, scale, order. Here they can find a way to a moment of not fixing a work of art, but trying to know it—getting acquainted with it, having it reveal itself, not as mass product, but as a singular poetic experience—leading them back to self reflection, placing themselves in the Socratic moment of knowing that which one does not know. Throwing themselves into the experiential world, they are embracing how wonder, as described by Descartes, occupies a phase of the alert mind, in the process of learning while willfully avoiding systematic knowledge.

"Somewhere Over The Rainbow" has been described as a celebration of escape and a hymn of the Elsewhere. It is the story of a young girl in trouble, navigating between the dream of leaving home versus nostalgia for her roots. My students sense trouble in an art world full of soulless manufactured objects and have embraced the rainbow as a symbol of the aesthetic experience and the artistic journey: the non-object that ultimately they have to reconcile with ending up as one.

Somewhere over the rainbow Way up high there's a land I heard of once in a lullaby
Somewhere over the rainbow
Skies are blue
And the dreams that you dare to dream
Really do come true