Mapping the Text and The Colour of Words

This page contains the accompanying texts from the artist's solo shows. The first, Mapping the Text is a conversation between the artist and art historian and writer Sarah Whitfield. Sarah serves on the Comité Magritte and is co-author of the René Magritte catalogue raisonné, and author of the catalogue raisonné of William Scott oil paintings. The second piece, The Colour of Words, is an essay by art historian and writer Lara Eggleton and was written to accompany the show of the same name.

Mapping the Text
Benjamin Cousen in conversation with Sarah Whitfield


SW:  Can we begin by talking about the origins of these works? The titles  come from well-known books such as George Orwell’s 1984, Iris Murdoch's The Sea, The Sea , Primo Levi’s If This is a Man, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, etc.

BC:  I wanted these works to reflect the way we read. Reading is what formed me and so in that sense my work is autobiographical. I read a lot as a child and I still do.  It may have something to do with a feeling of people not having roots anymore.

SW: In what sense?

BC: Well, not having roots in the land, and the fact that there is too much choice in the world.  There is always that question: who am I?  I am who I am through reading. It comes from inside. I always assumed there wouldn’t be much of me in these works but there is.

SW:   You must surely care enough about a particular book to choose it as a subject?  So the choice says something about you. Are you able to say what determines that choice?

BC:  I can’t really predict what will suggest a painting.  You can’t force a text into being what you would like it to be so I can’t plan it in advance - I just know when something might work. It might seem like a simple way of working but there are difficulties. There is an unconscious thing going on. If I am formed by texts - and to some extent we are all formed by language - a lot of it gets buried in the unconscious. We repress it.  

SW:  This sounds a bit like ‘post-modern’ thinking.

BC:  Possibly. I first thought of working with texts after reading Jacques Derrida and becoming fascinated by the way texts can outlive their authors.  We had a course at university where I did art history. It was very traditional connoisseur-type teaching but there was this one guy who did the post-modern stuff and he really woke me up.  Derrida interested me.

SW:  Are you sometimes surprised by your reactions to books?

BC:  Sometimes.  A friend lent me Isaac Asimov’s ‘Foundation’ books. In fact,  I wasn’t that interested in reading them before I began, but I liked the descriptions of space and the idea of flying between planets so I knew immediately that I would make some ‘Asimov’ paintings. I also knew that these would specifically open up possibilities of the form reflecting the subject, so that these circular paintings would become like the field of a telescope. The colours can hint at those things that only certain scientific instruments can find, at the limits or beyond sensual perception.

SW:  Do you make a distinction between different ‘genres’, biography, history, fiction?

BC: I began with books that have directly affected mankind in recent history - Mein Kampf, for example, or Primo Levi’s If This is a Man, but now I think novels are particularly interesting because in them you have lives refracted in many different ways.  Reading is a mystery - like a lot of things.  That is to say, reading a book is about forgetting and remembering at the same time. There is a strange parallel between the way you have to remember the words in order to understand the meaning but then forget them in order to continue following the plot.  Making these paintings is like turning a text into another language.

SW:  Like a translation?

BC:  In the sense that Walter Benjamin says that a translation can be a continual refinement of the original and is therefore something new. And, by the way, these ‘theoretical’ ideas may not be really accurate, I mean, I haven’t studied Benjamin rigorously on this. But I regard it as a legitimate stance in art, if not in academia, to be inspired by something as it sparks up the mind. If that is a misreading, then that is still okay. It might even be more interesting.

SW: Do you see the painting as another layer on top of the original?

BC: I see it more as a distillation of the original.  But the important thing is making something new, something that hasn’t existed before.

SW:  And that is made through your use of colour and the way you concentrate on the authors’ references to colour?

BC: As a reader I find the references to colour very directive. There is a difference between ‘A man walks into a garden’ and ‘A man wearing a red hat walks into a garden’.     

SW:  I take it that the colours mentioned in a book and the order in which they appear in the text provide a very literal structure for the painting?     

BC: That’s right, but it’s more complicated than that. It’s very carefully worked out before I start.  First I have to decide what is a colour and what isn’t.  For example, names like Mr Brown in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, or Goldstein in Orwell’s 1984, do these count as colours?  If it’s a case of names deliberately chosen by the author to make a point then I incorporate them in the same way as I would the simple descriptive names of colours such as ‘red’, ‘blue’ etc.   There are also words that obviously suggest colours such as ‘canaries’, ‘snow’, ‘blood’, but I have also created my own problems so that words like ’glitter’ or ‘glow’, or phrases like ‘blue drift’ have also to be considered.  It can become subjective quite quickly; ’Glitter’ can be a lot of things.  

SW:  By bending the rules, so to speak, I can see you allow a wider range of suggestion than if you limited yourself to the basic words for colours. But every colour has its own range of tone. So when the text just says ‘blue’ how do you decide on a particular blue?

BC:  I am usually guided by the text. For instance, for ‘blue’, I would probably use cobalt as a standard blue - ‘soft blue’ would be a lightened ultramarine. I am very much attached to what the author is saying. They are in control in their way and I am in control in other ways.  But I do mix the colours - I can put quite a few colours into a syringe.

SW:  Let’s talk about your use of the syringe.  

BC:  I wanted to layer the paint but not in the way you use a brush to apply layers of colour. I needed to find a way of working that would retain the integrity of each layer. The syringe was a way of doing that and I couldn’t think of another way.  As it happened I had a friend whose father was a vet and he gave me some syringes to start with.

SW: Can you describe how you make a painting?

BC:  It’s like mapping a text. Things Fall Apart, for example, is a book that had a huge effect on me as a sixteen year old.  The Nigerian author is writing about the way the white man systematically set about destroying the Ibo culture. The bright colours spreading across the surface follow the text - as does the white ‘invasion’. I’m not imposing this on the text or on the painting. You can see how the white paint begins to invade the painting, building up so much that in the end it buries the old culture underneath. It is a pleasing consequence that the form the painting eventually realises is such a direct illustration of the politics of the novel. Similarly, with Crime and Punishment you can tell from the paint what is happening in the novel.  You can see from the lines of red at what point Rodion Raskolnikov kills the old woman.  The yellow is where Sonia appears, and the colour refers to the yellow card she has to carry as a prostitute. Likewise, there is a disturbance when you realise that the pretty gold in Levi’s If This is a Man refers mostly to extracted teeth at Auschwitz. So if you know the text there is a way you can have a dialogue with the painting.  I feel quite strongly about the integrity of the text, although of course nobody would notice if I didn’t stick to it as closely as I do.

SW: Would you think of it as cheating if you didn’t stick closely to the text?

BC: In a way, but how can you cheat about something you have made up?  You have to invent your own rules.

SW: In a work like 1984 where the lines are particularly dense and thickly layered the ‘mapping’ seems even more painstaking.

BC: Yes, it’s much more like a map of a book. if you look at the horizontal edge of the canvas you can see how it is marked up in pencil with the 342 pages of the edition I happen to have. Each of those pages has 31 lines and these are marked up along the vertical edge of the canvas. So I am working with a sort of grid.  A particular colour may appear on line 18 of page 6 for example.  You can have pages and pages with no references to colour followed by a flurry of colour words. So whereas in some other works each colour has its own moment, here one colour can cover another very quickly.  

SW: Do you regret losing some passages through this layering process?

BC: Sometimes I would like to save certain happy conjunctions. But there are so many nice bits that can’t survive the onslaught of the paint.

SW: It occurs to me that with so much intensive layering, a process which takes a long period of time, you can’t know what the finished painting will look like.

BC: I haven’t a clue. No.

SW: Are there a lot of accidents along the way?

BC: Yes, lots of accidents. You can’t control the flow of the syringe that well. There are always going to be slippages. Using different quality paints has its problems. Take metallic paints for example. Sometimes they come out in a spiral, or you get what I call ‘webby’ bits. Quite often there will be an air pocket in the syringe which will make the paint pop and that makes a splatter. And then you never know how fresh paint will react on top of the layer underneath.

SW: Do you go along with the accidents?

BC: They are all in there.

SW: No correcting?

BC: No. I don’t want it to look as though a machine could have made it.  The accidents of process are part of the autobiography. There are lots of games going on in these works but they get buried. Nobody would know if I did it differently.

SW: Perhaps you like using the syringe because of its unpredictability?

BC:  Perhaps. I like it that I can’t repeat the paintings. I’ve tried and they are never the same. It’s like reading. If there’s a book you particularly like, each time you go back to it different things will stick out. You register different things at different times.

SW: It seems to me that the gradual building up of paint through the layers tends to blur the usual categories of art.  Each line is ‘drawn’ with the syringe, so there is a definite graphic quality to the surfaces, and yet because of the density and weight of the paint some works are more like solid relief sculptures than paintings.

BC: Yes, I’m pleased you say that. I like the texture of these surfaces, the way the paint forms ridges and canyons.  They look very different in different lights.

SW: In English Short Stories you have inserted a piece of printed text which is a departure from the other works.

BC:  Yes, this is a new thing, adding an element of collage, I think it works though.

SW: Where the painting combines two elements - a central square of collage surrounded by a field of colour, you’ve used that before in the Primo Levi painting?

BC: Yes, and in that case the thinking goes back to when I was writing a PhD at Leeds.  My thesis was about the 20th century as the century of film and how (as Jean-Luc Godard thought) that art form failed its own time because it didn’t record the biggest tragedy of all - the universe of concentration camps.  Additionally, there are only something like two minutes of film that exist as evidence of any of the Final Solution.  So there is this huge gap. My aim here is to show Primo Levi’s text as a bright square of colour surrounded by an abstract field of nothing.  I didn’t want it to be surrounded by white and the colour does not necessarily represent ashes, or anything like that. It’s closer to a sort of negation of memory.  I wanted the clarity of Primo Levi’s account of his time in Auschwitz to shine out as a witness.  The witness is more important than ever at a time when so much gets forgotten or denied.

SW: Do you feel you have worked through a certain phase?

BC: I’ve worked through paintings that have a beginning and an end.  The next phase will be more about making objects to be in the world and less about making ‘homages’ to the text. I think I’ve created more space in which to be playful and there will be a new freedom to it, hopefully.

The Colour of Words


Benjamin Hannavy Cousen makes paintings about books, or more precisely, about his experience of reading books. His titles correspond to major works of fiction and political manifestos, from Alice in Wonderland to Mein Kampf. Laden with wiry lines and scraped areas of paint, his canvases showcase a vast array of colours, some layered so thick that they take on a sculptural quality. This is not an accident, for they are doppelgangers of a sort. Their rich tactile surfaces are produced through the application of acrylic paint with a syringe, the artist methodically tracking thin lines across the canvas so that they accumulate on its surface. A colour is added each time it appears within a text, either as a ‘colour word’ (i.e. red, green, blue, etc.) or a word that evokes a colour response, such as ‘brassy’ or ‘rainbow’. The resulting compositions, which can be ‘read’ in the way that a barcode might be scanned, capture both the colour information of a text and the sensory or emotional reaction of the reader (in this case the artist). Produced at the intersection of literary and material expression, each painting can be understood as a conversation between the artist and author.

When beginning a new piece, Hannavy Cousen establishes rules that determine the way the book will be rendered or transcribed in colour. His paintings are contingent on two interrelated variables: 1) the number and order of colours found in each book and 2) the way in which paint is applied to canvas. Grids are added to the long and short edge of a canvas to indicate where colours will start and finish. In The Great Gatsby #1, colours are added in accordance with their page and line number in the artist’s edition of the book, applied in thin vertical cords starting on the left and gradually filling in the horizontal frame. In The Waves #1, the length of the canvas is divided equally by the total number of colours appearing in Woolf’s book, with paint then applied at the start of each section and scraped across with a squeegee. The spectrums have an independent logic, with concentrations and dispersals of pigment mirroring the narrative flow of their respective texts.  

In the works made entirely with a syringe, colours are so many and so varied that the surface takes on a neutralised tone, a uniform surface that hides its sedimentary layers. As each new colour is added and extended across the surface (from left to right) it almost completely obscures the preceding one. As the painting builds up the earlier traces of reading/painting are repressed, sometimes glimpsed through the skein of lines and scrapes. The artist likens this process of erasure to the simultaneous remembering and forgetting that unavoidably occurs when reading a novel. New developments and features replace earlier ones, along with the feelings or images they evoked. Hannavy Cousen’s paintings remind us that a book contains a separate temporal reality that we enter into as individual readers. As a narrative unfolds it casts shadows on its own history and characters, and our memories of them.

Reading a novel is an immersive act – indeed, pace is often determined by how ‘absorbed’ we become – and yet it is also an act of letting go, of selective retention. Stories are consumed and digested, leaving behind impressions of characters and events, and a residue of how it made us think or feel. Hannavy Cousen attempts to represent this process through the extraction and layering of these fragments, but only those that operate on a level of colour. In Crime and Punishment, yellow signifies the card carried by Sonya (a prostitute who befriends Dostoevsky’s protagonist), while Alyona Ivanovna’s murder is transmuted through the multiple, consecutive occurrence of red. In this way the application of paint can directly reflect plot developments or aspects of a character or scene. Yet the artist’s selection and arrangement of correlative colours, however precisely charted, are more than a supplement to the text. The artist recognises the impossibility (and futility) of a ‘direct’ translation, explaining that ‘anything the viewer can read in these pictures is kind of an accident’. Each painting operates as a unique, personalised colour index, having been filtered through the artist’s experience of a particular text.
For every rule the artist makes, another is broken. Adjustments are made to tidy up or balance a particular composition, while mistakes and irregularities are allowed to remain (the syringe can be unpredictable as a painting tool). The artist takes liberties and departs with the rigidity of his own process. The result is an aesthetic that dances between the clinical and the accidental. The squeegee method produces a more painterly effect, with colours bleeding into one another as they are scraped across the surface. Another approach, as seen in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, sees injected lines of varying length stacked horizontally, some stopping short of others. Each of these stylistic variations registers a new detail, whilst leaving something behind. Crisscrossed lines in A Hero of Our Times leave gaps that reveal a layer of squeegeed colour beneath. Like a palimpsest, its layers hold experiences and temporal realities even as they are overwritten.

Hannavy Cousen’s most recent work, Primo Levi, introduces a painterly grey background that frames a central square of syringed colour cords. The grey area is an acknowledgement of the space of meaning that lies beyond language, the things a reader will never know or understand about a the experience of the author – in this case a Holocaust survivor. The use of traditional underpainting is interesting in this context, for it acts as both an abstract void and a space of potential within which characters and events are given form. Demarcating the boundaries of linguistic and artistic expression, Primo Levi is a dark meditation about what can never be described in words or paint.

The artist explains his work in phenomenological terms: each painting evolves directly in response to the books he is reading and how they affect him as a reader. The colours that find their way onto the canvas belong both to the writers who conceived them and to the artist who interprets them. The notion of ‘experience’ as explored by Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger and other preeminent phenomenologists, is such that our subjective selves can only exist and be understood in relation to other people and things in the world. The perception of colour exemplifies this logic, as there is no objective or singular reading of the word blue; it can conjure an infinite number of shades or tonalities, and trigger a range of different emotional or sensory responses in the reader. Moreover, ‘blue’ cannot exist without our interpretation of it. A phenomenological approach rejects the idea of an isolated or individuated state of being. We all interpret our environments differently, through specific encounters that shape our individual consciousness and, at the same time, the world around us.

Hannavy Cousen explores the slippery but generative potential of intersubjectivity in his attempt to match paint with the colour words and associations he encounters in books. The artist is quick to point out that these colours belong, first and foremost, to the authors. Yet through the painting process they also become his, received and interpreted through his subjective lens. Sometimes he comes across haptic or descriptive words or phrases that are not colours in a literal sense, such as ‘glistens’ or ‘colour of the sea’, which also denote a surface quality or tone. Nouns such as ‘dawn’ or ‘fire’ present the artist with the challenge of finding an appropriate palette equivalent. The result is not conclusive or scientific; each is only one among a number of possible solutions. In this way we might understand Hannavy Cousen’s process as alchemic: colours are produced when the reader’s consciousness comes in contact with a writer’s vision, an experience that is then recalibrated through the medium of paint.

The key role of materials – of paint and canvas – is perhaps most evident in laborious, meditative pieces such as All Quiet on the Western Front #2 and Things Fall Apart #2, in which injected lines accumulate into a thick wedge which abruptly drops off at the right end of the canvas. Such works are dense embodiments of colour as invoked through the written word. Other pieces are characterised by their efficient use of paint. All Quiet on the Western Front #1 shows a much shallower application, its lines injected and then squeegeed from left to right, in places exposing a white undercoat. A Hero of Our Time combines both scrapes and crisscrossed cords of colour, encouraging the eye to toggle between them, and to move back and forth across the composition as a whole.

The measured organisation of colour adds a playfully ironic empiricism to Hannavy Cousen’s works. The Waves #1 and The Waves #2 contain 154 colours, with each allotted an equal section divided along the horizontal side of the canvas. In arriving at this precise number the artist seems to hint at a latent ‘colour code’ through which works of fiction can be ‘cracked’ and subsequently compared on visual terms. Taken as a body of work, the paintings in the exhibition share common denominators (colour words and chronology) but each are produced using a different formula (number of colours and painting technique). Beneath this over-determined equation is the malleable content it attempts to capture, and the ultimate futility of trying to give solid form to the ephemeral experience of reading a book. Faced with these vibrant, tangled expressions, we are left pondering the extent of their legibility. Do they succeed in telling us something about the books that inspired them? As readers, would our colour coding be the same? In what ways would ours differ?

Ultimately, these works explore the creative potential of intertextuality, and what it means to have a sustained encounter with worlds imagined by others. At the same, they are about paint and colour, and the double performance of reading/painting. Insofar as his work relies on these materials and processes as a form of expression, Hannavy Cousen follows in the footsteps of the Abstract Expressionists: Jackson Pollock’s drips, Barnett Newman’s zips, and perhaps something of Mark Rothko’s colour fields are echoed in his experiments with colour. On the other hand, the reductionism and repetition that characterise his process chime with a Minimalist sensibility: Frank Stella’s use of tape to control his edges, Eva Hesse’s projecting canvases – works that explore the human condition by methodically testing the expressive boundaries of materials and processes. Whilst drawing on these formalist and conceptualist legacies, Hannavy Cousen also departs from them through a total reliance on secondary sources as the basis for content. He demonstrates that words written by others may just be words, but they are more than that, too. The philosophies and worldviews contained in the literary and political texts that he transcribes in colour give us glimpses into the past, into the minds of the individuals who wrote them. Revisited and refracted through the artistic process they are attributed new meaning, revealing the rich potential of the written word to affect change in the reader, and subsequently the viewer, across and through time.

Lara Eggleton
Art writer and historian