Oct 20, 2022 - Science

Artist Alteronce Gumby paints with prisms to redefine color

Alteronce Gumby, left, and his work, Infinite and Beyond (for Sam Gilliam). Photos: © Alteronce Gumby. Courtesy of the artist and Nicola Vassell Gallery

Alteronce Gumby, left, and his piece, "Infinite and Beyond (for Sam Gilliam)." Photos: © Alteronce Gumby. Courtesy of the artist and Nicola Vassell Gallery

Isaac Newton used prisms to break down the components of light into the spectrum of colors we see. Those experiments inspire abstract artist Alteronce Gumby in his paintings, made with tiny shards of glass and gemstones, that are his own analysis of light and color.

The big picture: Color frames the world we see. Gumby — whose first solo show, The Color in Everything, is currently up at the Nicola Vassell Gallery in New York City — seeks to redefine color, for the eye and for our society.

  • In a conversation with Axios, Gumby moved between the material — his interests in the tools artists create — and the abstract, including how "humans have taken the palette of the rainbow, segregated it and broken it down."

Details: Gumby's paint is resin, broken glass and slices of gemstones — all prisms that refract and bend light.

  • "I'm constantly trying to see new colors that I haven't seen before," he says of his choice in materials.
  • The titles of his paintings — Helios, From Proxima Centauri with Love, and We're Not the Other — reflect his inspiration in the colors of the cosmos and their intersection with earthly issues of race and identity.
  • Everything, Everywhere & More riffs off Stephen Hawking's work and the quest for a theory of everything.
  • The question of "what other colors may exist out there in the universe that we, as human beings, just don't have the capability of seeing or just haven't seen yet" intrigues Gumby, who is also a member of The Planetary Society.

Gumby is personally fascinated with Newton's famous prism experiments that demonstrated light is a spectrum of colors, and with later research revealing the different color spectrums of stars.

  • He says he's taken by how humans have given this palette of the rainbow "various definitions, different signs and symbols that we utilize in this society."
  • "All colors are held to certain terms or within certain social structures or conditions ... I'm African American, but people identify me as Black. That kind of color code is just embedded in American society."
Alteronce Gumby, Everything, Everywhere & More, 2022 Photo: © Alteronce Gumby. Courtesy of the artist and Nicola Vassell Gallery
Alteronce Gumby, "Everything, Everywhere & More," 2022 Photo: © Alteronce Gumby. Courtesy of the artist and Nicola Vassell Gallery

The art of tinkering: Gumby says he is interested in artists who have "made their own tools for making a mark on a canvas," citing Jack Whitten's 12-foot-long brush he would scrape across the surface of a painting.

  • At times, Gumby has painted with his fingers. He's also poured melted plasticine clay on a canvas where he moved it around with oven-mitted hands.
  • There are other similarities with science. "Art making is more about the questions that we ask ourselves in our studio, rather than the resolutions," he says. "And I feel like that's also something that's part of science, right? Scientists are more into the questions than the answers."

What's next: Gumby's obsession with color, and the various ways it is formed throughout nature, is leading him to explore the pigments in plants. An aspiration of his is to collaborate with SpaceX or NASA in order to experiment with metals and materials from the Moon, asteroids and beyond.

  • He says he's also considering the way atmospheric light is being absorbed and reflected by his paintings and is studying the work of James Turrell and other light artists.
  • On Instagram, Gumby often reposts images from the James Webb Space Telescope, which is capturing light that emerged from stars billions of years ago, giving humanity an unprecedented view of the universe's earliest moments. He has a series based on images taken by the Hubble telescope.
  • Telescopes and lenses come up again and again. One finding that fascinates him: when the Hubble was pointed at what seemed like nothing for 100 hours. "It was a section of the sky where they deemed there was no light — and they found thousands of galaxies."

Gumby's first solo museum exhibition, Dark Matter, will open at the Allentown Art Museum later this month.

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