Serpent-Rising

The Colours of the Universe

The Colours of the Universe

In January 2002, two British astrophysicists at a Maryland university mixed together the light from over 200,000 galaxies and declared the true colour of the Universe to be somewhere between pale turquoise and aquamarine. I remember this made rather an impression on Nick, who had always had a bit of a thing for that part of the spectrum.

We used to talk a lot about colour during our years living together as an ensemble, first in Clinton Road, Mile End, and later above a lavender-painted curry house in Brick Lane. In This is What I Mean By Home, I see a familiar cast of characters: a fiercely playful drag queen and a pleasure-lounging cat; wide-hipped fairy princesses and priapic young hunter-gatherers; wired electric glow-in-the dark rabble-rousers and pale faces at the window. Home is clearly where the colours are. By the time I moved in and joined the gang, Nick had already transformed the white, beige and navy blue colour scheme of his father’s house with murals, floor-paintings, papier-mâché and fun fur, drawing on pretty much the same palette he is using today: fuchsia, mauve, chartreuse, slate-blue, sea-green, teal, pink, medium-violet-red.

Clinton Road was like an Omega Workshop chill-out lounge for 90s club kids - but given that Nick was combining an MA at the Courtauld Institute with working nights at Heaven at the time, that’s maybe unsurprising. Looking at The Bloomsbury Group, I recall they were a little like our house gods, and Nick saw in their intertwined experimental lives and passion for art and words a blueprint for our own milieu. Except we had mixing decks and the colours were a lot brighter. I confess I was simultaneously seduced and a little distrustful of Nick’s colours. Always straight from the tin, they brightly complemented each other across a range of home-spun artefacts and shoplifted home-ware. I remember the sea-green Alessi Diabolix bottle-opener with pointed ears and large grinning toothy mouth, and scowling on a sun-drenched patio drinking beer as Nick painted papier-mache balloons green and pink and gave them piranha-sharp white teeth. They were companions to a great totemic four-foot high sea horse, brilliantly woven from wire.

It may seem strange to be recalling a grinning bottle opener when reflecting on Nick’s recent painting, but quite apart from the fact that I still see the same shade of turquoise surfacing again and again in his work, it also feels like a key to some of the continuities of his distinctively animistic world. Alessi’s design meta-project of the 1990s called F.F.F. (Family Follows Fiction), “aimed to explore the affective structure of shapes and objects, starting from the idea of reproducing the object creation process followed by children and primitive cultures.” Nick’s response to urban life it seems to me was not dissimilar, and long before his shamanistic re-birth, he was attempting to transform his experience of it through a kind of proto-magical creativity. Cupboards were saturated with a bricollage of faces from the bright world of magazines; phones were coated – and rendered virtually un-useable - by a think coating of fuzzy fun fur. The colours he was most naturally drawn to were the vivid hues of tropical gardens and beaches, but living in the East End, they were only really available through the de-natured secondary sources of our manufactured lives.

During our years in Brick Lane, Nick’s colours and themes generally got darker. He and Giles Round painted the kitchen maroon, in the manner of Rothko. I think we called it suicide red. As the clock ticked toward 2000, Nick became increasingly invested in an apocalyptic reading of capitalist society, and countered the unmanageably complex and overwhelming powers at play in the world with bold and simple acts of personal creativity. Children’s authors and illustrators Roger Hargreaves and Tove Jansson were a particular inspiration, and unauthorised Mr Men like ‘Mr Hopelessly Romantic’ with blue faces and confused limbs started appearing on warehouse walls after night-time spray-can sorties. I remember well his visionary painting of Jansson’s Hattiefatteners, all yellowy massed beneath a midnight blue sky waiting for lightning to strike. After the storm had passed, Nick sat for weeks in his room sewing a giant rainbow from long lengths of coloured silk. Ostensibly it was being made as scenery for a production of Benjamin Britten’s Noye’s Fludde in a London church, but its meaning and the labour involved in its making were nothing short of cosmic. It was composed of six colours and I remember our conversations about the missing seventh colour. It seemed Isaac Newton had just decided there ought to be seven colours to the visible spectrum, in a divine mirror to the seven notes of the musical scale. Everyone seemed to be publishing books about the mysteries of indigo and the material histories of zero at that time. Perhaps it was just where our heads were at then. Nick and I spent a deal of time reading them, discoursing on the faults in our divine creation and its manifestation in our material world.

These recollections and the peculiar imagination of our shared history renders my readings of these paintings, with their brilliant and familiar colours, intensely personal. I see The Lady Cuts with her hair like spools of chartreuse wool, pinned into place with knitting needles, and imagine her caught between spinning out the fate of the Universe and completing an appliqué bed-spread in time for Christmas. The Morai at Rest are still glowing, perhaps after a night out on the tiles that will change the course of history, while The Queen of Snakes is having another bad hair day, but may yet decide to forgive all men for their impertinence. The Birth of Ganesh sees blue Shiva reincarnated as a rather tasty-looking baseball-cap-wearing thug in a primal scene of domestic violence that will see our hero complete his journey from turmeric-paste bath condiment, to elephant-headed god over all. I’m sure I found The Wood God in the kitchen making tea one morning in Clinton Road.

I searched for the colour of the Universe when preparing to write this piece. Interestingly the original scientists say they got it wrong. The colour of the Universe is not somewhere between pale turquoise and aquamarine, but actually something rather closer to beige, which they’ve called ‘Cosmic Latte’. The mistake it seems was caused by a bug in the software used to convert the cosmic spectrum into the colour the human eye would see if it was exposed to it. "There's no error in the science, the error was in the perception," says one of the scientists. I feel sure Nick asked the Universe to see its true colours a long time ago, leaving most of the rest of us to look into the clouds in our coffee, and wonder at the errors of perception.

Rhidian Davis (@rhidiandavis) Curator and Producer