The Paradox of Stripes
I constantly find myself drawn to stripes, whether it’s making stripes in my own work or enjoying stripes in other people’s work. Many artists work with them, including Tim Bavington, Frank Stella, Gene Davis, and Yaacov Agam. French conceptual artist Daniel Buren, aka “the stripe guy,” pasted stripes over billboards in the 1960s to protest the omnipresence of advertising and draw attention to the boundlessness of art outside institutions.
What is it about stripes, anyway? What makes them so attractive, intriguing, even political?
Another stripe devotee, Irish-American painter Sean Scully, is known to have proclaimed that “the stripe is a signifier of modernism,” pointing to the way cities are increasingly designed on grids with various line-based features, from skyscrapers to telephone lines to railroad tracks and roads. As such, stripes become “an ideal vehicle for exploring the nature of contemporary society.” And here, we can marvel at the extraordinary versatility of stripes; for to one person, they might be pleasant washes of color, devoid of meaning, a blank space for contemplation; to another, they are descriptions of human relationships, stirring up a wealth of subconscious associations.
Tim Bavington’s “Pipe Dream (Fanfare for the Common Man),” a large-scale sculpture created for The Smith Center (Las Vegas), is a great example of how stripes lend themselves to many interpretations. The title references a composition by classical composer Aaron Copland and invites a whole world of meaning, specific to Vegas and humanity beyond; yet it could also be understood as a very literal, material description of the sculpture, which is constructed from 128 steel pipes painted a mix of bright colors and strategically arranged. Toward the end of a video profiling the installation of the work, the artist muses over the simultaneous complexity and simplicity of the stripes, as children gleefully run in circles around the sculpture: “I work in abstraction, but… I’d like to think it’s more accessible than most people actually think it is. Somebody asked me yesterday, you know, ‘I just see a bunch of fantastic colors, I mean, what is it?’ But you don’t have to get it… There’s more to it, but the fact that it’s accessible to everybody, I think, is fantastic.”