There’s No Beginning
and There’s No End
A group exhibition on the color black curated by Justin Levesque
December 15 from 6 – 9PM
December 14 – January 31
k. funmilayo aileru
KYLE B. co.
by Katy Kelleher
There is something I find beguiling about black. For me, black is a Janus symbol. Named for the two-faced Roman god of beginnings and endings, duality and doorways, passages and barriers, Janus symbols signify an idea and its opposite. Like contronyms (i.e. Janus words, a category that includes fast, skin, literally, and cleave), these potent symbols reek of paradox. And black is a paradox. It can look like nothing; it can feel like everything.
According to linguists, black may come from the Proto-Indo-European root word bhel, meaning “to shine, flash, burn.” Bhel could mean “shining white.” It could also mean “filled with bright colors.” Over the centuries, the word evolved and mutated, as words and organisms both do, spawning countless offshoots. Bhel was fertile, and gave us the words blank, Beltane, blaze, bleach, blind, and of course, black.
Like evolution, this is a theory, but linguistic theories are more difficult to fortify than scientific ones, so we will never know the true origins of black. But I find that the Legend of Bhel fits so perfectly into my interior understanding of black. Black shines and blazes. Black can be blinding. Black has its own glow, its own light.
I do not know if the Romans considered Janus to be the god of black, but I think he was. Janus is the god of beginnings and endings, and black is both—it is our beginning and our ending. We form in darkness and we die in darkness. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
In 1915, the Russian futurist painter Kazimir Malevich painted a canvas with a single black square. He titled it simply, Black Square. His goal was to reject depicting reality and focus on painting the act of painting itself. “Trying desperately to free art from the dead weight of the real world,” he wrote, “I took refuge in the square.” When the painting was exhibited, it was placed in the upper corner of the room—the very same place where one would typically have mounted a religious icon. Where there would normally be saints, Malevich placed a black square. This painting became his sigil. Throughout his life, he would return to the black square. At his funeral, the car carrying his body was emblazoned with black squares, and mourners held flags decorated with black squares.
His painting has been interpreted in a variety of ways. Some see it as a window, looking out into a dark night. Others see it as simply what is proclaims to be: a black square, nothing more, nothing less. Malevich himself called it a “zero point.” He said, “It is from zero, in zero, that the true movement of being begins.”
This is the beauty of black. It presents a depth, a richness, a starting point and an ending point—an ouroboros of darkness. In black, as in this show, there’s no beginning and there’s no end. Black weeps possibility across the canvas. Black is somber, yet black is celebratory. It is the color of priests and rebels, grief and fashion, formality and the forbidden. We have black tie parties for those we love, and we blacklist those we hate.
In the Bible, the Book of Genesis claims that before there was light, there was darkness. Some believe that this indicates black was the first of all colors, the mother of the rest. According to physics, black is not a color (neither is white) because it does not have a wavelength. White contains all wavelengths of light in one blinding force, but black is marked by the absence of visible light. It’s rather remarkable to think about how close the original authors of the Bible came to identifying the physics of light, but then again, it is quite simple; there is darkness, then there is dawn. There is black, then comes white. We wear black when we grieve and when we have lost, and perhaps this is because the night is always grieving for the dawn, and blackness grieves for its foil. Maybe we’ve always known that opposites attract, that loss loves gain and gain loves loss.
But of course, there is a return. We retreat to darkness, we come home to black. Black is the sea in which we swim, the amniotic fluid of the self. It is beginnings and endings, the source of all life, the peace of death. To love black is to embrace complexity and transitions, the process of being and becoming, the continual, fruitful, joyful search for the self, for the truth.