Thomas Pathé’s paintings strike an electric balance between the technological and the sublime. In order to attain his goal of inspiring in the viewer an immediate, preverbal response, Pathé digitally scans objects (and sometimes people) and mechanically matches their colors in latex paint. Starting from this, what Pathé describes as an “impartial palette, made up of zeros and ones,” the paintings seem unusually able to spark a visceral, emotive response in the viewer.

Pathé, who received his BFA from Art Center in 1991, relates that his formal training is integral even to the construction of these seemingly conceptual, often monochrome works. The rigorous program at Art Center stressed a thorough-going visual literacy. As a result, Pathé says, “I’m able to produce certain effects and techniques. Now the interest is no longer in how to paint but in what needs to be painted.”

The objects that call out to Pathé are wide-ranging. From baloney, Fruit Loops, and American cheese to the dust on the floor of his Pomona studio, Pathé’s subjects are culled from his own life experience and often reference branded, mass-produced icons of American pop culture. The works in this pared-down state speak a language of pure color, though their titles reveal their very specific origins. “It’s like the collapse of the still life,” the artist explains. “There’s less of a representational remove. My goal is to communicate a direct experience of the object.”

Pathé’s sophisticated descriptions of this non-discursive, pre-linguistic level of perception may at first seem to exist in competition with the familiar colors that he represents. But when standing in front of Pathé’s paintings, the 40″ x 40″ Aim Toothpaste for example, it becomes apparent that such metaphysical seriousness is not at all exclusive of the visceral reactions and memories these iconic colors evoke. Such immediate sensual experience, followed a beat later by recognition of the specificity of the color, is also encouraged by the intensely sculptural qualities of the work. Shaped by hand sanding, the edges of Aim Toothpaste are slightly irregular, even bulbous, like a squirt of dazzling gel fresh from the tube. Recognition of this organically formed shape is further complicated by knowledge of what the color represents. It becomes impossible to parse the meaning of the color from the meaning of the shape.

Other works capitalize on these nearly simultaneous reactions by using the color and shape of its support to emphasize disjuncture in the perceptual experience rather than wholeness. Mayonnaise Big-screen and Canned Vegetable Pillbox mix colors and unrelated shapes as compellingly as the neurological condition of synesthesia. For Pathé, the driving force behind these unexpected pairings is often strictly formal. “What fascinated me about Peanut Butter and Baloney, for instance, is that I had done them separately, but then I noticed that the saturation and the value were very similar between the two. There’s only a slight hue shift.” Citing Josef Albers’ experiments in simultaneous contrast, Pathé continues, “You get a flashing between the two; they seem at first to cancel each other out, but then they almost become one color if you stand in front of them for a while.”

This confusion of experience is central to much of Pathé’s work. While a single element—color, shape, verbal definition—is typically all that a viewer requires to reach a conclusive definition of an object, Pathé’s sculptural paintings eschew such cognitive shortcuts. Instead, these paintings play fully upon the viewer’s associative, psychological, and affective responses to color. Using an unusually simple visual vocabulary, the works on display often reveal less about themselves than about the viewer.

– Kim Beil ARTltd Magazine