A Call to Action Exhibition in Arizona
The color blue is a latecomer among hues; ancient peoples in Arizona and around the world created the first known artistic expressions in marks of ochre, brown and yellow—colors that could be quickly obtained from the earth. Enduring and effective blue pigments are a product of generations of human experimentation, resulting from processes formulated by natural philosophers and artists from diverse cultures and traditions. When blue pigment did finally enter the story of human expression, its cultural and spiritual impact was unprecedented. Aquamarine, cobalt, and indigo arrived like a miracle, changing the nature of artistic and cultural expression, suggesting the brilliance of the sky, and embodying human aspiration.
blue, a timely exhibition opening this fall at Lisa Sette Gallery, traces the significance of the color blue in art history, while drawing from it a powerful metaphor for the politics of our time. The exhibition was conceived before the coronavirus pandemic, and was set to open in September, 2020, ahead of the presidential election. The opening reception is now delayed until we can gather in a smart and safe manner.
The color blue becomes an agent of change, in both its physical manifestation and in the political philosophy that it represents—and Lisa Sette, the gallery’s founder, sees Arizona as a state on the verge of transformation. All of the artists in blue are from Arizona, or have a strong connection to the state.
“Blue is a color, an emotion, a state of mind and, like our population, it continues to evolve. Now, for us, it is a call to action.”
Including works by Merryn Omotayo Alaka & Sam Fresquez, Valerie Hammond, Christopher Jagmin, Alan Bur Johnson, Yves Klein, Michael Koerner, Mayme Kratz, Annie Lopez, Matt Magee, Michael Lundgren, Carrie Marill, Ann Morton, and Hunt Rettig, Blue traces the color as an aesthetic or political ideal, and a theme central to each artist’s conceptual intent.
Blue pigment was once so exalted that it was at times more valuable than gold. In one of art history’s seminal moments, artist Yves Klein invented and patented a distinctive blue pigment: International Klein Blue (IKB). In Table IKB (R) on exhibit at Lisa Sette Gallery, sumptuous drifts of brilliant blue powder are displayed as precious material in a transparent, utilitarian artwork.
Ann Morton combines highly crafted objects with contemporary commentary: The artist’s painstaking, months-long embroidery project encases and transforms an iconic red MAGA hat by means of thousands of small blue stitches. Morton remarks: “In leaving the words but changing the background, the entire perspective changes.” The artist’s meticulous handwork reflects the difficult process of fulfilling the promise the hat’s slogan suggests: National change that is enduring and equitable will require experience and deep engagement.
In Merryn Omotayo Alaka & Sam Fresquez’s collaborative installation It’s Mine, I Bought It, gleaming blue-black tassels of synthetic hair, in outsize dimensions, are clever metaphors for displays of power and prestige. A more complex intent is sensed in the material composition of the work: hair as a function of personal confidence and outward identity, and the gathered silhouette form of tassels, which are not merely decorative, but function to prevent unraveling. Omotayo Alaka and Fresquez tie together these notions with contemporary ideas of social hierarchies, and the expectations associated with the presentation of hair, in particular for people of color.
Annie Lopez also explores color as an avenue toward conjuring identity: Her poignant and astounding cyanotype-printed dress is constructed from paper tamale wrappers, and features images of her grandparent’s alien identification cards—they entered the US in 1919. Her work reminds us of the fraught experience of living in a border state as a person of Latin American origin.
Mayme Kratz’s evocative resin sculpture draws attention to the often ignored microcosms of natural symmetry and biological beauty that surrounds us, and is meant to serve as a reminder of the urgent effort we must take to preserve our planet. The current administration has reduced and removed vitally important protections from nearly two million acres of federal public lands that hold incomparable archaeological, paleontological, cultural, and natural significance, and as Kratz remarks: “I am overwhelmed by a sense of longing when I think in terms of what might just…go away. At this moment it feels that if we don’t speak about it, no one is going to.”
Capturing biological ephemera as revelatory aesthetic moments, Alan Bur Johnson’s installations consist of transparent photographic images in multiples of various sizes—visual fragments to investigate fleeting life cycles, physical impermanence, and the fragility of the planet. Commenting on the eclipse formations of his work Baily’s Blues, Bur Johnson remarks: “It feels as though we live in a new dark age, where intelligent thought, kindness, and respect on all levels have been smothered, totally blocked out. I’ve decided to let the blockage of light [eclipse] be a void, giving it no voice. Instead, I’m choosing to focus on the peripheral rings of light around an eclipse, known as Baily’s Beads, to address the emerging light, or hope, while voiding out the central darkness.”
In somber, chemical cerulean, Michael Koerner’s work hearkens to an early method of photographic development and to his own family history; his mother survived the bombing of Nagasaki as a child, and Koerner is the sole survivor of his immediate family, the others having succumbed to cancer and genetic disorders. Koerner’s experiences serve as a reminder to his audience of the continuing fallout from such a nuclear option. His stunning tintype print, Finger Prints #6175, presents eerie reactive clouds and crystalline formations produced by collodion on tin. Similarly, Valerie Hammond explores the nuances and fluidity of identity in her exquisitely detailed work, combining in encaustic images of flora, fauna, and the human body to convey both the external and internal forces by which we are shaped. Through fragments of the female form: isolated hands, arms, and heads, Hammond highlights the traces of a gesture—a curled finger, a bent elbow, a flat palm. Hammond says, “I am interested in evoking sensation and making work which is corporeal in nature. While the figures and portraits may begin to point towards or suggest sentiment, it is important to me that the work is not sentimental but experiential.”
Carrie Marill and Christopher Jagmin combine text as a means of aesthetic communication and political commentary as an essential artistic practice. Marrill’s precise and picturesque landscapes against a blue background feature serene images of Arizona’s sandstone spires, yet propose a poignant ethical inquiry in the accompanying text. Christopher Jagmin’s brightly hued text paintings reference pop culture, advertising and the self-help movement and speak to the crush of information that storms our screened devices, making life yet more cluttered and complicated. From this emotional tidal wave, Jagmin seeks the common anxieties and joys that we share. “Sometimes it is cathartic, and maybe even healing, to think about our fears: to write them out and face them. I don’t promise any less fear with this project, but I know that I have become braver after seeing my fears on paper.”
Matt Magee finds inspiration in scientific, ecological, and technological ideas with references to ancient traditions like map-making and hieroglyphics. An examination of how throwaway culture trains us to associate certain colors and materials with concepts like cleanliness, Magee’s tapestry-like suspended sculptures are assembled of deconstructed blue plastic detergent bottles. The artist comments: “Recycling and the belief that our recyclable waste is in fact recycled, is a falsehood. By repurposing detergent bottles, an awareness is brought forward that there may be other ways to recycle, that sustainability may actually exist in a material that is otherwise thrown away.”
Michael Lundgren creates haunting and starkly beautiful photographs using multi-layered manipulation within the camera and the darkroom. Lundgren’s Current is a part of the Geomancy series, which refers to the method of interpreting sedimental markings and patterns on the ground. Says Lundgren, “Landscape has always been an invitation for me into the mystical, for that which is beyond our rational understanding of the world. I’ve hoped to make photographs that act as parallels for that entrance, that invite the viewer to contemplate a world that they do not understand and in so doing, to arrest their own world view.”
In a related ode to form and color, Hunt Rettig’s elegant assemblages of polyester films and synthetic rubber feature looping, circular shapes, pure color, and biomorphic forms, showcasing his sensibility for the organic, the cellular, and the sensual shapes of our natural world. “Within my terrain I see cross sections of cross sections, unnatural confluences, unnavigable borders, unrestricted constriction and breath-like expansion.”
Each work in blue exemplifies an engagement with cultural transformation. Often, the artists offer an oblique or direct challenge to the economic and societal structures that give rise to states of corruption and willful ignorance. And yet in the gesture of challenging the current state of affairs, and in the action of working raw materials into something uniquely reflective of the human experience, the artists of blue, like the color blue, offer the infinite hope of progress in this simple promise: we will always develop new ways of seeing the world, and of sharing that vision with one another.