Shane guffogg`s synesthesia transforms paintings into music at venice exhibition

Designboom_ American artist Shane Guffogg is among the estimated 4% of people with synesthesia, a perceptual phenomenon in which stimulating one sensory pathway involuntarily triggers experiences in another. In Guffogg’s case, he ‘hears’ colors. This unique ability is one of the main elements that inspires his art, as well as his latest exhibition, At the Still Point of the Turning World – Strangers of Time, which coincides with the Venice Art Biennale and is held at the historic Scala Contarini del Bovolo. Collaborating with pianist Anthony Cardella and AI programmer Jonah Lynch, Guffogg has translated his dynamic paintings into musical compositions. Performed by Cardella, these musical pieces accompany Guffogg’s vibrant artworks, which reflect an ongoing dialogue with T.S. Eliot’s renowned poem cycle, Four Quartets, and explore the intersections of time, space, consciousness, and transcendence.

‘We think of time as linear. I don’t think it’s linear. On a quantum physics level, there is no time, at all. It’s strange, the concept of time and space,’ Shane Guffogg tells designboom.‘How do you paint this moment of time? Is it possible? Each of those brushstrokes is a passing of time. There are thousands of lines in those paintings and each of the colors summons up very sensorial memories that don’t have a specific time or place but have a general feeling. So, I’m creating my tapestry of memories and feelings that become fused into a singular moment.’

With the historic architecture of the Scala Contarini del Bovolo as his backdrop, Shane Guffogg presents a new series of 21 large-scale paintings. The spiraling 15th-century staircase leading guests to the exhibition space mirrors the circular motifs in Guffogg’s works, creating a striking parallel between the venue’s architecture and his artistic vision.‘It wasn’t until the paintings were done, that I saw images of the staircase. Subconsciously, that’s what I was doing. It wasn’t intentional,’ the artist shares.

This series explores concepts of movement, escape, and migration, highlighting the inherent transitory nature of human existence throughout history. These themes are deeply autobiographical, as Guffogg’s father immigrated to the United States from Northern England in 1957, driven by the pursuit of the ‘American dream.’ Similarly, Guffogg moved from California’s Central Valley to Los Angeles in the late 1980s in search of artistic and cultural acceptance.

The exhibition is divided into two rooms, each inspired by different passages from T.S. Eliot’s writing. It features elements that create a direct dialogue between the poet’s celebrated work and the artist’s canvases through the use of augmented reality (AR) and artificial intelligence (AI). By incorporating AR and AI, Guffogg expands the possibilities of art, inviting viewers to engage with the works in a meaningful and immersive way, encouraging them to look beyond the 24/7 age of information. In the first room, visitors utilize a mobile screen to observe the paintings, witnessing the lines and circles move in rhythmic patterns, while glimpses of Guffogg at work blend into the vibrant dance of color and form.

‘What I was after was that when someone walks up here and enters that room, they’re almost confronted with this movement within stillness, stopping them and bringing them into the present moment. And then, as they step into the next room, they find Neither Flesh nor Fleshless, and they find themselves in an in-between state. From me, the first room is very much about the spirit, about the unseen world. The second room is about the physicality of the world,’ the artist explains.

A key component of the exhibition is Sounds of Color, a visual symphony stemming from the collaboration between Guffogg, pianist Anthony Cardella, and AI software programmer Jonah Lynch. Leveraging Guffogg’s synesthesia, Guffogg and Cardella translated the hues from Guffogg’s paintings into chords. These chords were then interpreted by Lynch’s AI program, drawing inspiration from the painter’s brushstrokes and movements. The result? Musical compositions essentially composed by Guffogg’s paintings.

‘I started discussing this with Tony about a year and a half ago. I saw him play somewhere, and I said, You’re an amazing pianist. I’m going to propose an idea. What if there was a program that could read my paintings? What if it spits out some sheet music? Would you be willing to play it?’Cardella embraced the idea, and together, they devised a method to match colors with chords and notes. Guffogg assigned specific hues to chords, and Cardella experimented with variations of these chords. ‘I’m looking at the color, and when he hits the right thing, I know,’ Guffogg says. ‘In this way, color becomes extremely important. Because it’s not only visually charged but also emotionally charged.’

Cardella performed the music live at the exhibition’s opening on April 17th, 2024. The fusion of sounds with colors and lines against the backdrop of historic architecture created a multisensory dialogue that engaged all senses.

At the Still Point of the Turning World will be on view until November 24th, 2024.