What’s Black and White, But Gray All Over?

During PSYC 307: Sensation and Perception lectures, Dr. Mounts regularly stresses that “the more you learn, the less you understand”. While Dr. Mounts refers specifically to the complexity of the human mind and brain, this idea can also be applied to human behavior and the social environment. As it turns out, this idea is also applicable to the nature of Steve Prince’s art.

I am often visually overwhelmed when studying Steve Prince’s work.  Steve’s art often depicts numerous objects and figures that are clustered together to make up one chaotic composition. In an interview, Steve was asked to elaborate on why he constructs his art to be about multiple things rather than one singular thing. He explained:

“I am utilizing a design mechanism called “dense-pack” whereas I force the viewer to encounter several things all at once and they have to sift through the image like an archeologist to extract meaning and make sense of the controlled chaos. The art is meant to be viewed multiple times and meditated upon. When encountered at different cognitive points in one’s life the work has different meanings and understanding… The artwork is fixed but we are ever evolving and in a state of becoming, therefore the art is being reborn daily, and so too should we be reborn and in pursuit of a deeper understanding of self and everything around us” (.https://everybodyscoffee.com/interview-with-artist-steve-prince/   )

Steve’s work is complex. He interweaves different visual objects into one unified composition and presents multiple themes and subject matter coexisting. To some, it might not make sense for Steve to withhold color when conceptualizing the complexity of his art. However, I believe that his use of black and white is more than just an aesthetic choice. The use of black and white causes a strong emphasis on value and contrast, which forces the viewer’s eye to work harder in order to pick up details. In Sensation and Perception, we learned about how the eye adapts to different levels of light.  The retina of the eye consists of photoreceptors that convert light into neural signals. Photoreceptors in the retina are made up of retinal neurons called rods and cones. Rods provide black and white vision in low levels of light, while cones provide color vision and require bright light. Rods only react to the presence or absence of light, and are therefore better for detecting shape and movement rather than finer details. If Prince used more color in his work, our eye would have an easier time picking up on the smaller details.

Prince urges his viewers to “sift through the image like an archeologist to extract meaning”.  While his work is visually black and white,  it forces the viewer to look in between the gray spaces of the piece. Prince’s work demands reflection. His prints are seemingly simple in color (or lack of), but their layered messages and meanings are anything but. Prince intertwines the past and the present, life and death, grievance and celebration, justice and injustice. To quote Dr. Mounts: “the more you learn, the less you understand”. The more visual content Prince presents to his viewers, the more there is to explore and reflect upon. Prince provides the “black” and “white”, but asks the viewer to fill in the gray area.

Prince not only asks the viewer to reflect upon the themes and ideas he presents them with, but also to reflect on their self. Do we find his work important enough to study and “put the effort in” for?  What do we feel when looking at his prints, and why are we feeling that way? How do we fit into the “larger picture” he is presenting us? Is there another perspective to look at his work from?  Prince invites the viewer to continue connecting and interacting with his art long after initially viewing it.

As I am fleshing out this post over a cup of coffee, Cricket’s is playing a cover of Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors”. The “lack of color” in Prince’s art plays a significant role – the viewer projects color into the work. The art has to be in black and white in order for the viewer to project their own meaning onto the work. As Prince stated in the aforementioned quote; “the work has different meanings…[when encountered at different cognitive points in one’s life]”. What the viewer focuses on, what the viewer doesn’t focus on, what knowledge the viewer holds, what the viewer has experienced, what the viewer knows about Prince – these questions are all at play when one experiences Prince’s work.

The “more” that is learned doesn’t necessarily cause a “lesser” understanding of Prince’s art; rather, it opens up more questions and the urge to continue the learning process. While the physical piece itself might be stagnant, it is ever changing and evolving. Steve Prince explained that his art is constantly “evolving” as the viewers are “ever-evolving and in a state of becoming… the art is being reborn daily, and so too should we be reborn and in pursuit of a deeper understanding of self and everything around us”.

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