We painted our 120 year old Edwardian hallway turquoise, a firm upward finger to the pandemic fashions of “neutral” grays and taupes. Our painter confessed he was initially horrified (only knowing clients who were nervous about ahistorical paint jobs), but that he ultimately loved it. He found this color comforting and enlivening, a color that wends its way throughout many cultural diasporas in NYC. The weathers that surf over our ancient skylight turn these walls, minute by minute, into changelings of greens, blues and grays.
And yes, “grays” or “greys”. My synaesthetic senses tell me that color and sound always merge to re-emerge, that calendars, alphabets, words and more have specific color maps. I miss the Anglo spelling of “color” as “colour”. Adding a “u” adds a gray color to the word. “Gray” itself has a bit of yellow/turquoise in the middle. Or if you spell it “grey”, it has red in the middle. This is a rabbit hole you have to put a lid over, so that life can go on with fewer distractions.
The Barnes Collection in Pennsylvania was a joy when I first saw it years ago – the house, with its colored walls, shadowy rooms, and excitable arrangements of paintings, wrapped its personality around the artworks and hugged them. Neuro-diversities in visual perception, and our languages that avoid or amplify cultural meaning, defy a universalization of what colors can mean (similar to sound).
Johann Goethe, in his Theory of Colours (1810) set forth the aesthetics of color as a social and psychological process. He thought bright colors were suited to children and animals, not sophisticated adults (ie. white men). Many Western artists disseminated this idea that color choices indicated racial, cultural, class and gendered worth. Goethe associated red with the “beautiful”, orange with the “noble”, yellow to the “good”, green to the “useful”, blue to the “common”, and violet to the “unnecessary”.
The cultural history of color has led one contemporary artist, Tomashi Jackson, to analyze the language Josef Albers used to describe color perception phenomenon in his textbook, Interaction of Color (1963). Combining painting with sculpture, textile, embroidery, printmaking, and photography Jackson considered the experiences of color perception, and their effects on human life in public spaces, described by her in this interview (and excerpted here):
I read Interaction of Color line by line as I read Brown v. Board of Education: A Documentary History by Mark Whitman. At one point Marshall argued 650 cases simultaneously. Though most of the cases Marshall worked on in the 1940s and 1950s were collegiate, the Brown cases focused on primary schools. The documents are filled with paranoid rhetoric defending the separation of “colored” people from “white” people at all costs. Marshall’s team provided sociological research, including the famous Kenneth and Mamie Clark doll study, revealing the damaging psychological impact of segregation on all children, especially “colored” children. Transcripts illustrate the absurdist nature of American racism as it dictates social policies then and now. I recognized terms about how “colors” interact from Albers’s text: colored, boundaries, movement, transparency, mixture, purity, restriction, deception, memory, transformation, instrumentation, systems, recognition, psychic effect, placement, quality, and value. The language around de jure segregation is similar to Albers’s description of the wrong way to perceive color, as if color is static. Marshall and Albers concluded that color is relative, and what a viewer perceives a color to be is determined by the color nearest to it. Color is always changing, and, contrary to popular belief, it is not absolute. I saw the phenomenon of vibrating boundaries aligned with residential redistricting and redlining. Color theory and human rights are conceptually interwoven in my paintings. I find the language comparisons appropriate metaphors for a critique of racism rather than a critique of categories of race.
Here everything Shines, a piece by Charlotte Bray for flute and guitar (performed on my November 20th concert with Dan Lippel) is based on a Cape Verde singer Cesaria Evora’s tender song, Petit Pays.
The lyrics are beautiful (with a rough translation excerpted here):
You’re a star in the sky
That doesn’t shine
At sea, you are sand
That doesn’t get wet
Spread across the world
Only rocks and sea
Poor land, full of love
Images of Cape Verde towns over the interwebs show their citizens’ deep appreciation for color – I adore the “useless violet” building here. Our Western photos (no doubt visiting from the worlds of “neutral” ,“sophisticated” spaces) always feel like the deepest kind of envy – of a freedom, of those natural phenomena that feed us so easily, like love.