Jesse Stilwell: Chromaphoria

January 11 - April 3, 2016

Chromaphoria is an installation that investigates the effects of coloured light on interior space and visual perception. The illusory quality of additive colour mixing is the core concept behind this work: the use of various artificial light sources and light-reflecting surfaces produce a euphoric experience of constantly changing conditions of light and colour. Prism-like diffraction gratings break projected white wavelengths into coloured spectrums; raw fluorescent bulbs scatter white light throughout the space; a geometric shape of back-projected coloured light constantly changes and drifts, weightless, across the front window, ghostly and transparent in nature; reflective circles catch shifting colour projected into them, while the wall they rest on glows in a complementary reverse spectrum. The installation is ephemeral, seductive, and chameleon-like, never quite the same at any one time, or from any one perspective.

  • Jesse Stilwell

    Jesse Stilwell is an emerging painter, installation artist, and arts educator. His work focuses on optical art, perception, and illusion through the use of pattern, math, and colour theory. Stilwell’s concentration on neurology and its connection to vision have led to a desire to produce psychophysical experiences using art as a vehicle for communication of visual phenomena. He is particularly interested in electromagnetic events that evoke powerful sensations in viewers, such as hallucination, dizziness, and even vertigo. This interrogation (at times, even agitation) of the eye/brain system is an attempt to break down some of the sociological borders that exist between viewer and artwork.

    Born in Montreal, Stilwell currently resides and operates his studio practice in Calgary as a member of the Bakery Studio Collective. He received a BFA with distinction from the Alberta College of Art + Design in 2012 and is currently an arts educator at the University of Calgary, specializing in colour theory and abstraction. His work and practice have been documented in a series of published articles, both web-based and in print, and has been exhibited across Canada and the United States. Stilwell was a nominee for the 2012 BMO Award.

Interview with Jesse Stilwell

Shauna Thompson: You’ve titled this exhibition Chromaphoria, which is a neologism/invented portmanteau. What does this word mean to you and how does it relate to this installation?

Jesse Stilwell:




1.) A psychophysical experience generated by intense colour, which induces a form or forms of euphoria.

2.) A counter thesis term that opposes chroma-phobia, meaning the fear of colour. Chromaphoria is the fetishistic love of colour.

Origin of Chormaphoria

2016; < English Chormaphoria colour

Artists are synonymous with invented language and meaning. Through the abstraction of pre-existing language artists/critics have invented new ways of describing works and the concepts that are at play behind them. Since the beginning of the 20th century there have been countless examples of this: Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop, and Op—all invented words, which have now become household names for particular movements/styles within art. Chormaphoria is quite simply my version of this language phenomenon, my own version of a neologism.

In some ways this term is also an inside joke related to colour theory. A few years back David Batchelor wrote a book called Chromaphobia, which is essentially a history of the fear of colour. As someone who loves colour I wondered if a term could be invented to counter-act this anti-colour term.

The meaning behind Chromaphoria is, at its very base, a euphoric experience initiated by colour. This is also the concept behind my installation. With the work I attempt to evoke a hypnotic, pleasurable, euphoric experience. As the viewer observes the work, the constantly shifting colours mesmerize and entrance. The longer one looks, the further it takes us into that euphoric experience; the eye/brain system begins to deceive us and, even if for a moment, we are lifted from our daily lives into a transcendent colour experience.


ST: You’re primarily known as a painter, and much of your previous work has drawn heavily from a lineage of hard-edge painting and art historical movements such as Op art. In this exhibition, however, you’ve shifted your focus from drawn or painted shape, line, and colour to light, space, and the spectrum.

a) First of all, I’m curious about what interests you or attracts you to the methods and aesthetics of painting the way that you do; and,

b) Can you talk about the relationship between these two ways of thinking and working? That is, the connections between how you address a surface with paint versus how you’ve addressed this space with a light installation?

JS: Yes, that is very accurate. My work has a strong connection to historical abstract painting movements, primarily Op art and hard-edge painting. Like all abstract painters, I when I started painting I was a realist interested in portraiture and classical art. My father was a designer with a BFA in printmaking; he was a strict realist, stylistically, and was a huge influence on my own development as a young artist. Until I went to ACAD to pursue my own degree I wanted nothing more than to draw as well as my father. Like my dad I had a keen interest in observational realism; drawing people or things from life always intrigued me. This interest in observation and how our eyes perceive things perceptually would haunt me up until now and will likely continue to do so for the rest of my life.

When I attended ACAD I was exposed to a whole host of abstract art and abstract concepts. At the same time I was struggling with my own identity as a painter: was I going to be another version of my father as an artist? What would I choose to paint for the next few years?

Abstraction was new and different to me and I slowly began to really love it. Essentially, my 2nd year became a crash course in abstract art I experimented with many styles: Ab-Ex, Minimalism, representational abstraction, and finally, Op art.

At this point I fell desperately in love with Optical pattern painting. In these early stages I didn’t quite understand the conceptual notions behind my work as I do today. What initially drew me so strongly to this form of painting was basic and rudimentary in nature. I loved that it was about observation, looking, and seeing. In addition I was very interested in the obsessional formal qualities of the style technique, repetition, process, discipline, geometry, mathematics, etc. In Op art I found many of the qualities that intrigued me about realism; at the time I didn’t see them as much different, really, only that they produced different visual outcomes.

Today the focus of my painting practice continues to be situated in the Optical pattern aesthetic/genre. Essentially all paintings are illusions of sorts—illusions of reality, illusions of a brush stroke or drip, illusions of spirituality or even meaning. To be an illusion of reality was painting’s very first purpose and intent. Op art restores this magic to painting, only it examines our visual reality instead of simply depicting it. It’s concerned with how our eyes and brain work in unison with one another—how complex yet deceptive the human visual system is. The brain is the most unexplored area of the body; we still know so little about how it works. Contemporary neuroscientists often use illusionistic figures to both explore and demonstrate new theories about the eye/brain system. The function of illusionistic images found in Op art is more than relevant in contemporary society, perhaps even more so than at its beginning in the 60s.

In addition, optical art breaks down some of the sociological borders that exist between viewer and art. When we are looking at optical art we no longer need to understand some art concept or notion, it quite simply works on us immediately through the exchange of electromagnetic energy. Optical art is truly democratic by nature: everyone experiences the same phenomena at work. The psychophysical experience of looking at optical works is both transcendent and magical. And there is an educational aspect at work here more than just parlour tricks: by looking at optical art, we can begin to discover qualities of vision and neurology.


In terms of the shift from my painting practice to the Chormaphoria installation, it follows a logical progression. I am very passionate about colour theory; I have studied and researched the topic for over six years. This study was always related to my painting practice. Two years ago I began teaching colour at the University of Calgary, which lead me further into the world of colour. I began to study light and its relationship to painting and, well, to basically everything we see. As different lights are made up of different colour wavelengths, light itself can have a huge effect on paintings and can change them drastically. This led me to researching the effects of light in space.

Although I am known as a painter I have done a variety of installation works as well. I considered this Project Space exhibition as an opportunity to play with concepts of light and colour in a space. Because paintings are a reflection of light, which evokes colour, and light is colour coming eternally from a source object, colour intensity can be far greater with light as opposed to painting. In a painting, colour sits on the surface of an object, whereas with light colour emanates from the object. So surface-wise they are very different experiences for both the artist and the viewer. My paintings are known for how aggressive and psychologically aggravating they are, so this was a change too—going with a more subtle perceptual experience as opposed to an agitating one.

In terms of working with the full spectrum of colour, this was related directly to the notion additive colour theory. White light is made up of all colours; natural light from the sun is made up of colour as well. Choosing to work with the full spectrum was an homage to all of the invisible colours in light we don’t typically think about, the illusory quality of light itself. When I am painting I often dissect the spectrum, choosing only part of the spectrum to work with so I can isolate two or three colour interactions. I often tell my students not to work with the full spectrum in one painting because it can become confusing when all the colour voices are trying to sing at once. In many ways I wanted the installation to challenge my ideas and prejudice about colour preference.


ST: As a site, the Project Space is very changeable depending on time of day and season; it’s strongly affected by shifting natural light conditions, and so it can be quite a challenging space in which to develop work—especially work involving light. You’ve created this installation with that in mind. Can you describe how Chromaphoria shifts throughout the day and explain your thoughts about why this responsiveness is important?

JS: This is one of the first things I noticed about the Project Space after seeing several shows installed in the space: each work I had seen in the space was far more functional/visible at night. With this is mind I wanted to create an installation that would embrace the natural qualities of the space in both the day and night.

The process of setting up the installation became an indicator for how this day/night change might take place. Initially I had planned to have all the elements in the installation operative at all times, both day and night. However, it became apparent that the white light sources washed out the beautiful hues of coloured light at night. However, during the day the white light sources exploded with intensity and caused the filtered coloured light in the space to become high value with a silvery, iridescent quality—completely different than their appearance at night. A pivotal decision needed to be made: the different light sources needed to be separated and the installation would have to stray from its original plan.

I decided that the white light in the space would run only during daylight, when it was both more intense and functional. Although it would bleach out lots of the artificial filtered and projected coloured light during the day, it would bond with the natural sunlight in the space to create a subtle high-value colour scheme. After sunset the white light would be extinguished, leaving only the coloured artificial and projected light in the space. At night, without the white light present, the other light sources release their true power and intensity of hue and saturation. This way one would experience a different Chormaphoric sensation in both the day and night: in the day an explosion of white light composed of the full spectrum of colour manifesting its typical illusion of appearing to be white, much like daylight; and at night the space transforms into a shifting, highly saturated colour spectrum where all hues are present, white light is absent, and colour interactions perform their own illusions that are very different from those in the daylight.

The importance of this visual shift between day and night has layered reasoning for me. Most importantly it is a response to the space itself. As the Project Space is a window space it is strongly affected by light, or lack thereof—more so then a typical white-walled gallery space.

Considering this was part of the reason why I decided to use light as a medium, as the space was so much about shifting light to begin with—installation art should always have some response to the space that it occupies. In addition, this change between day and night would give visitors two completely different visual experiences depending on what time of day or night they visit the site. This might prompt multiple viewings and different experiences for viewers. One thing I found particularly interesting after installing the work and viewing it myself was that in the day the wall-mounted circles become ghostly in value and moon-like in appearance, while at night the circles remind me of sunrises or sunsets bursting with saturated colour.