Artists: Matt Arbuckle, Sean Bailey, Lucia Canuto, Rafaella McDonald, Jahnne Pasco-White, Laura Skerlj
Curators: Daine Singer and Laura Couttie
In 2009 Maggie Nelson published her cult hit Bluets, a book of prose poetry exploring grief, loss and suffering via meditations on the colour blue. Nelson’s oft quoted text stands as the curatorial and conceptual inspiration for Daine Singer’s two-part show Winter Blues and its companion Winter Sun, both curated by Laura Couttie and Daine Singer.
That the curators have turned to the rich literary pool of conceptual writing to develop a textual as well as visual exploration of colour is an exciting prospect, one which reinforces the value of conceptual practice in both. Mirroring the development of conceptual art, conceptual writing remains an important genre in both modernist and contemporary literature. The connections between contemporary art and writing are strong, both borrowing from the other for ideas and material. In the instance of Winter Sun and Winter Blues what is established is a kind of reverse ekphrasis, a visual representation of poetic text.
In her catalogue essay for Winter Blues, co-curator Laura Couttie draws direct links between the visual and the literary. The references are expansive; turning to works by poets, philosophers and artists Couttie cites Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Theory of Colours, reminds us of the blues movement in music and of Picasso’s Blue Period. Quoting Nelson’s Bluets, she invites us to consider the connotations associated with the colour blue as they have developed throughout western art and literature.
In Winter Sun, we are given yellow. The show brings together six artists whose work across mediums, from screen-printing to painting, spans various applications of this golden colour. What you take away from this two-part exhibition is not what is said about blue’s deepness and melancholy but, rather, what the curation reveals about yellow, a colour whose meanings and contexts are less easily defined.
Upon entering the gallery space, we are met with Rafaella McDonald’s Venice California (2017), a painting on cotton sheet suspended from the ceiling. The work is two dimensional, sheer. It hints at the lightness of yellow, for we can literally see through it. Nearby is Laura Skerlj’s Energy Sketches (2018), yellow, floral, upbeat, quoting lyrics from Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up. Skerlj moves us from yellow’s transparency to its common association of joy and lightheartedness. British pop songs making familiar yet impossible promises of devotion.
Missing from Winter Sun is the catalogue essay to match that of Winter Blues. Yellow’s connections to happiness, to the sun, to life, gold (wealth) are more familiar; less so is its link to contamination. Literature tells us of yellow’s other side. In his 1894 essay 'The Boom of Yellow', Richard Le Gallienne says ‘yellow leads a roving, versatile life.’1 In Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey it was a gifted yellow book that lead to Dorian’s demise. In Charlotte Perkins' The Yellow Wallpaper, yellow was the object representation of the mental illness which would end the protagonist’s life. Yellow pigments, orpiment and gamboge, while desirably bright, were known for their toxicity. In biology, the colour marks illness: think jaundice, sallow skin, bile.
The works by Lucia Canuto and Matt Arbuckle hint at this contamination. Both artists present two works, one in yellow and the second an inverted version of the first, where black is yellow’s counterpart. Mounted side-by-side, these dark and light pieces acknowledge the multiplicity of yellow. Overlooking this is Sean Bailey’s Untitled (2018), a concrete sun-like figure painted black and fixed on a yellow canvas. Hung deliberately high, this work tells of darkness and decay even in the rising sun - yellow’s biggest advocate. Yellow’s adversity is its strength; returning to Le Gallienne, ‘it is in the quality, in the diversity of the things it colours, rather than in their mileage or tonnage, that yellow is distinguished.’^2
Winter Sun establishes yellow’s emotional complexity as much more than the antithesis to blue. Birth, happiness, wealth, transparency, superficiality, toxicity, decay. This is the emotional spectrum of yellow. By engaging with contemporary literature, this two-part exhibition has provided a deep and varied study of colour. Revealing that in the same way there is beauty in the melancholy of blue, there is a torment in the lightness of yellow.
Loni Jeffs is a writer from/Melbourne. She is a co-founder and editor at Lor Journal.