Seeing Red

By Colin Bredenberg

Nothing suits a critic’s nose better than the smell of fresh meat. True to form, we vultures most prefer the newly deceased. In this article, I have the pleasure of displaying my newest discovery—Olive Haverly—whose story is tragic to the casually acquainted, but hardly worthy of frequent regard. Few have seen her genius, and fewer her raw vindiction—both have driven me continuously since I first discovered her Self Portrait #1, and my redeeming hope, as a member of the critical class, is to be her vindicator.

First, I should note: this manuscript is to be the first of a pair, with the second constructed by Dr.

Ilya Radvich, also of Brinmouth University. Though I feel Dr. Radvich has performed the lion’s share of the work here, he has requested that I publish this preliminary report, because he believes the general public will find my background in the arts more palatable than his predilection for mathematical exposition. Readers will surely find my prose equally intractable, but I will indulge him regardless.

We will begin with a quote from renowned art critic Hugo Tant, published shortly after the debut of Haverly’s posthumous exhibition, Seeing Red:

 

In a post-Fregian society, I am shocked to encounter such unabashed praise of pandering

detritus amongst fellow critics. My faith to the craft demands I call it art, but it pains me to even refer to the late Ms. Haverly’s efforts as ‘paintings’. Her previous work is unimaginative, poorly constructed, and belies a fundamental misunderstanding of color balance; this work cannot have poor color balance, because it only has one color; it has ceased to even be worthy of judgment, and I have given it the attention of a review only because others, clearly influenced by her death, have lauded Seeing Red as some high-minded variant of abstraction. It is not. It is unconscionably poor: to even view it is to disrespect your own tastes.

Yes, dear reader, in what follows, I will be defending a woman who chose to paint eleven canvases entirely in red—mostly mottled mixtures of brick and carnelian. Though widely panned as both thoroughly unoriginal and aesthetically dull, Ms. Haverly did receive some mixed-to-positive reviews from the monochrome art world, from critics such as Ul Hosteray:

When I first viewed Olive Haverly’s Seeing Red, I felt overwhelmingly that there had been a jest,

and that I was the butt of it. Haverly’s lack of originality is practically spiteful, and the clear laziness behind her splotchy coloration is offensive. However, as a follower of paths first tread by both Brendt and Veal, I am not so easily deterred. There is a form to Haverly’s lack thereof: close examination of her brushstrokes reveals the slightest hint of structure, mockingly demanding that the viewer construct their own image. The ideas in her work are by no means new, and the execution is weak, yet I did find myself oddly compelled by her cynicism and desecration of form.

Both Mr. Tant and Mr. Hosteray are thoroughly wrong. However, Hosteray is correct about one, and only one thing: he was being mocked.

I attended the Oxhorn Clearance Auction with the express intention of trawling for undervalued art. A pittance gained me entry to the Auction’s reserve storage container, guided by a quite fortunately inattentive host. Haverly’s work was nestled in a corner of the pitch black space, completely disregarded. Yet, when I first panned my LED flashlight across Haverly’s Self Portrait #1, I caught the flicker of an image hidden within that red canvas—so subtle I almost missed it. But I did not miss it, and I have since found myself unable to forget it: Olive Haverly’s ghost, staring at me out of that mottled red canvas.

I saw the shape for a split second before flicking off my flashlight; the auctioneer noticed nothing. I bought the painting for a paltry sum and immediately called Olive’s brother, Michael Haverly. He was more than eager to meet with me, so we arranged for a time the following week. I found him, a heavyset young man with dark eyes, in a loud coffee shop near Tingley Village. I ordered a tea and we exchanged pleasantries; upon its delivery my interrogation began.

“So, Michael. Tell me what you think of Olive’s art.” He paused, having been in the midst of some inane story regarding his dog. Realizing that I was about business, he brushed aside a moment of indignation and began:

“She wasn’t Veal, that’s for fucking sure. But she was sick, man—she went too deep. Her first exhibit went to shit, and she didn’t leave her room for a week, and when she came out, she was completely fucking different.”

“Different? How?”

“Obsessed, that’s how. She went through three guys because she kept on having them compare colors on her palette. She kept saying shit like ‘they don’t see things the way I do,’ as if that’s the most original thing a girl’s said about a guy. I told her that, you know, but now she’s gone…”

I allowed the silence to ripen, until he leaned in: “Listen, she put too much work into those paintings, you know?”

“What do you mean?”

“Like—alright, let’s be fucking real, either one of us could have painted those things in half an afternoon. Not that hard.”

I played dumb, though I had a pretty good idea where all of her time went. “So? If you or I could have done this, where did all of her work go?”

Exactly. She took weeks on each one of these. There was so much effort, I can’t imagine she was just painting red fucking canvases. She was completely distracted—I barely even saw her the week before that dumbfuck driver went and—” He paused to collect himself.

 

“And I just want to say, you all treated her like shit. I really do think she saw the world differently from how we do, and you all attacked her like a pack of fucking dogs.” After this outburst, Michael seemed somewhat less willing to talk about Olive, so I blithered a bit more until I was properly positioned to ask if I could see her former room in the family house. He was reluctant, but he took me to the site: a cozy brownstone nearby, with children’s toys strewn about the interior. He led me through the house—by sight, quite ordinary, middle class—and up a flight of stairs to her door.

“Okay, we’re here. Don’t touch anything inside.” Olive’s room was frozen in time. The carpet had been pulled up to reveal a poorly varnished floor; splotches of paint peppered it liberally. Original Haverlys covered the walls, and given Dr. Radvich’s and my research, they are soon to be worth a considerable sum. Several of the unsold pieces in her room were from her first exhibition, Oblique, which I have spent much time thinking of how to properly describe. To me, the paintings in Oblique are extremely unsettling: not due to their content, but rather their disconcerting disparagement of form and color. They are mostly landscapes, described by our good friend Hugo Tant as, “myopic aspirations to Finch.” Few found Oblique appealing.

I asked: “Did she make these paintings uncomfortable on purpose?”

“No. She was caught completely off guard when the reviews first came out. I didn’t have the heart to tell her I agreed with the critics, but she might’ve trusted me more if I was honest. I think she could tell I was lying.”

I said nothing, encouraging his monologue.

“She just gave me this look. Eyes real wide. Asked me what color my eyes are—weird fucking question right? As if she doesn’t know! And then she’s off to her room, and we can’t have another normal conversation ever again without her making me match colors together and saying shit about how I ‘just don’t see it’—”

I was not quite listening to him: I was looking at several red paintings which somehow looked less uniform. There were complicated swirls of shapes, some that even looked like recognizable forms, as though the work lent itself to pareidolic effects. These looked much more interesting, but they were not included in Seeing Red—why?

Her desk was littered with engineering manuals and color swatches: The International Handbook for Visual Display Calibration, Perceptual Psychophysics II: Color, Linear Algebra for Beginners, the list goes on. There was such clear intention, but the intentions seemed misplaced: why would she try to produce a nearly uniform color with such similar paints? Was her choice of color so specific that she somehow required mathematics to aid her precision? I had never heard of any such technique.

“—and this whole time she was looking through this fixed mask, and her eyes got really fucking scary, man. I didn’t know her anymore for those last few months. I don’t even think she slept.”

“I’m sorry to interject, but would you mind turning off the lights for a moment?”

“What? Yeah, okay, whatever.” After he turned off the lights, I produced my LED flashlight and shone it on one of the red paintings, verifying my suspicions.

“What the fuck did you just do?” My light shone on a completely new painting—still red, but some parts were less red, or more red as the light’s angle shifted, hinting at the curves of an abstract form—much closer to a Bonheim than a Brendt. My intuition upon first seeing Olive’s ghost in Self Portrait #1 was confirmed: somehow, she had hidden her paintings from us.

I can see it now: she was encouraged by friends and family at first, year after year, supporting her through her mediocre performance in art school, suggesting that she self-finance Oblique, with no one quite willing to warn her that the critics would tear her apart, and none quite able to reassure her when she did fail. None of them understood her, and she didn’t understand why—her paintings looked beautiful to her, but nobody else seemed to think so. Who in their right mind would think, in such a situation, that it was everyone else who had been wrong? It took hundreds of failures and insults for her to finally realize, possibly while glancing at the color of Michael’s eyes, possibly while noting a particularly beautiful color to a friend, that she was different. When I left, Michael was still weeping.

Having found myself out of my own depth, I contacted Dr. Radvich: a close friend, bioinformatician, and geneticist, who happens to harbor a passion for aesthetics. It was he who confirmed, upon my request, that Olive Haverly was a tetrachromat. He was able to identify, based on hair samples from her room, that she possessed DNA for a fourth, heretofore unseen, mutant cone protein on her X chromosome, which was almost certainly the source of her enhanced sight. Because she had an extra cone type, there are entire families of colors that she could distinguish completely normally, but which look as though they are all the same color to ordinary people—for us regular folk, such colors would be called metamers. Upon realizing this, she set about constructing paintings that only she could see properly, the first step of which entailed designing her palette.

We retraced her process: her obsession with asking her friends and lovers to discriminate colors was an effort to replicate early psychophysics experiments, which produced a mathematical description of the range of colors ordinary people are able to see. She repeated the experiments on herself, and as her notes confirm, found that by comparing the two mathematical models, one for her and one for normal individuals, she could hand-pick a spectrum of paints which all appear to be the same meaningless mash of brick and carnelian to ordinary viewers, but which were quite distinguishable for her. Dr. Radvich realized Olive was a tetrachromat when I described these experiments to him, recalling work he had done in graduate school.

Unfortunately for Olive, but fortunately for the rest of the world, her experiments were only conducted in a select few natural and artificial lighting conditions. Her paints can still be differentiated in artificial light, which my LED flashlight provided. But the flashlight had only hinted at her intentions. With this cruel palette in hand, she painted with a savage beauty that wasn’t present in her earlier efforts. By leveraging the mathematical model that Olive constructed from her own visual capabilities, Dr. Radvich was able to develop a video display that distinguishes the different reflective properties of her paints. With some calibration, he can approximately render her work in colors that those of us without this biological gift can appreciate.

The results are wondrous. The ecstatic swirl of shape, just barely defined, splatters itself across each canvas, mocking in its invisibility. Her works are a hidden garden: it pains me to think of the beauties she must have experienced in her life, which we can never witness. It is quite clear that Olive had withdrawn into her work, curling behind her own eyes and quietly repairing herself where she could not be seen. I often caught myself staring deep into these canvases, wondering if part of her is still there, alive and well, within Self Portrait #1, protected from our ravages.

After exhausting Seeing Red, Dr. Radvich turned his algorithms to other works we found in Olive’s room: some from Oblique, some that were never shown to the public. Because Seeing Red is cast entirely in colors that ordinary people cannot distinguish, it is unlikely that we will ever be able to capture the paintings exactly as Olive saw them. Oblique also makes liberal use of her too-subtle coloration, but it was crafted prior to Haverly’s epiphany, and as such, still employs a variety of standard colors. Dr. Radvich’s machine learning algorithms have, with no small success, leveraged this fact to map Olive’s errant colors to a comfortable range. The result is instantly striking, twisting these uncanny images back into human form. The paintings are suddenly beautiful, reflecting a refined eye and a practiced hand.

Olive’s last complete painting, Self Portrait #2, was finished two weeks before her death. Unlike Seeing Red, this painting is visible to an ordinary observer—or so it seems. Olive is gazing out at you, staring into your soul. Her face hints at a smile, freckles pepper her face, her hair is pulled back just how she wears it when she paints, brush in hand, preparing to paint you. It is an odd painting, almost clever, devoid of Haverly’s discomfiting sense of form; I posit that with extreme effort, she forced this image to appear normal. But through Dr. Radvich’s adaptive monitor, her face transforms: that smile becomes thinner and crueler, the eyes flash now, rather than sparkle; the veins on her arm are accented and her gaze no longer caresses. She slices you with her eyes, dissecting you, flattening you into her two-dimensional painted world. She is evoking the feeling of being painted by a person who cannot possibly see you, who masks their malignity behind a clinical air of appraisal.

There is little need to belabor Olive’s point: if it is your desire, I strongly encourage you to attend her exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, where we have paired her work with Dr. Radvich’s adaptations for your viewing pleasure. I firmly believe that this would have been her desire. Though she hid herself within Seeing Red, her Self Portrait #2 is fundamentally an act of communication. I have no doubt that had she lived, she would have shared her gift with us in time.


  1. For the uninitiated, Paul Fregé (1901—1975) was a poor French immigrant who, in his late 60’s, murdered his wife and children. Upon receiving nationwide attention for his crimes, his lawyer (at Fregé’s behest) auctioned his schoolboy coloring book drawings for the modern equivalent of $600,000. The unwarranted profitability of this venture spawned the post-Fregian movement within the artistic community, which endeavors to suppress art whose value is determined only by its biographical associations.
  2. Claus Brendt (1874—1911) was an early pioneer of Abstract Texturism, whereby an artist strives to embed a work’s meaning and emotion solely within a painting’s texture and brushstrokes, eschewing color entirely.
  3. Dubious Veal (1933—2008), often reviled as a Hippie Exploiter, charged visitors to his exhibit throughout the early 1970’s for the privilege of spending up to an hour in a sensory isolation pod, within which the complete darkness often prompted hallucinations. Whether Veal has the right to claim these hallucinations as his art has been much debated, and the word ‘dubious’ has since become entrenched in the modern lexicon.
  4. Cara Finch (1949), a master of rustic American landscapes, is renowned for her intensely detailed depictions of cows and other farm-related objects. Popular works include: Dung #37, Sad Country Folk, and Goat Implement. Her latest work, Cowardly Child, sold to tech mogul Howard Chambers for $1.5 million.
  5. Otto Bonheim (1982—) has been dubbed ‘The Father of Contemporary Abstraction’ due to his penchant for producing utterly incomprehensible abstract art, which looks just the same as all other abstract art, but which is distinguished by being, in an undefinable but unanimously agreed upon way, much higher quality.
  6. A tetrachromat is a person with four distinct cones on their retina, compared to the usual three. Each cone is capable of absorbing its own spectrum of light, which is then relayed to a person’s brain as a color signal. A tetrachromat is capable of distinguishing far more colors than an ordinary person.

 

 

Colin Bredenberg is a graduate student at NYU’s Center for Neural Science, freshly graduated from the University of Pittsburgh. Born into a family of writers, he’s been in love fiction his whole life, and writes extensively in his free time. His sole interest is the human mind, which is to say, he’s interested in everything—his writing focuses on unifying neuroscientific ideas with our daily experiences.

2018-05-07T21:53:41+00:00