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There is a special opportunity right now in Chelsea to explore the color blue. Several galleries within walking distance of one another feature predominantly blue or entirely blue works on their walls. Like Anna Friemoth’s “Jae-Hee and Clementine” (2013) at Gallery 151, these shows offer a mesmerizing moment to pause, dwell, and soak in blue like the women decked out in sunglasses in this image.
Blue is relational. That means its appearance subtly shifts depending upon which colors are nearby. Comparing these blue works reveals how much the color morphs like a chameleon, responding to its surroundings.
Four artistic styles for blue emerge right now in Chelsea: abstract, oceanic, porcelain, and conceptual. Each style teases out a different aspect of blue’s personality, from the deep, brooding, and calming, to the light, airy, and luminous.
Blue abstraction flies or dies depending on how well painters harmonize blue with other colors. There’s no subject matter to lean on.
The classic blue-and-white contrast in Joanne Freeman’s “Covers 24 Blue” at Markel Fine Arts is a good place to start. Many of us encounter blue-and-white combinations during daily mundane interactions with Microsoft Word, Windows, or even the nearby blue hyperlinks against this article’s white background. Freeman’s art, however, presents complex silhouettes with many shapes and edges that seldom appear in this visual culture.
This simple two-color contrast adds emphasis to every little twist and bend. Against the bright value of white, this blue looks deeper, which further energizes the shapes’ edges.
Freeman explained to Hyperallergic, “I use the color blue in my paintings and works on paper as a structural element …. Blue is a color that recedes into the background so I generally begin with it and build around it …The color blue also has mood altering and emotional associations. It’s a calming, meditative color for me.”
Richard Kalina also paints a blue silhouette but to a dramatically different effect in “Resting State” (2015) at Lennon, Weinberg. Kalina explained to Hyperallergic how an unforgettable moment with blue tiles at the Rüstem Pasha Mosque in Istanbul left a lasting impression on him.
There are several reasons why this shade of turquoise looks so unique. First, Kalina mixed several different oil pigments together. Second, the blue is set against that brownish beige of the canvas, which forces blue the chameleon to react differently than it does with white. Perhaps chameleon is a bad analogy since blue doesn’t turn brown. But chameleons only totally shape-shift in cartoons. In any case, whereas white accentuates the bright and dark contract, in Kalina’s canvas, light brown cools the turquoise, accentuating a warm and cold contrast.
The ocean at first sounds like a predicable choice. But the color of water varies greatly depending on where you go. Two artists explore the special kinds of blue they find in the Adriatic and the Arctic.
Olivo Barbieri captures that light blue water on the Italian shoreline of the Adriatic Sea in “Adriatic Sea (Staged) Dancing People 6″ (2015)” at the Yancey Richardson Gallery. The white silhouettes of people dancing in water amplify its white streaks and further lighten the sea. The ocean’s color varies depending on many factors, such as the depth of the water, the location, the presence of coral or plankton, pollution, and the weather. But this work captures light blue at its most crystalline.
Barbieri explained to Hyperallergic that, “The blue I used is the paradigmatic blue that we see in our mind when we remember a day at the beach.” This light blue certainly captures the sea at its most paradisiacal. And the local ritual of dancing in the water anchors how shallow the water is and lends a jubilance to the scene.
Saul Becker shows a deeper and more brooding sea in “Lacuna” (2015) at Zieher Smith & Horton. It looks a little green compared to Barbieri’s light blue. But if you go in real life to see this work, there is a ton of deep blue with tinges of green that makes the work engrossing.
Becker explained to Hyperallergic:
This show was all work that came out of an expedition I took to the Arctic a few years ago. My approach to color in all those works was coming from a desire to use unusual colors that invoked a sense of alchemy or early photographic processes. I have a long history of sailing and, from my experience, anytime you look at the ocean and see a color that strikes you as unusual, you know bad weather is coming. With Lacuna I was seeking to create a sense of uncertainty. By using a subtle and slightly neutralized blue, which is a very slow wavelength color, it makes that sense feel more pervasive than immediate.
Two artists explore the blue-and-white porcelain pattern, creating works that play the two colors against one another. As observed above, the white makes the blue look like it’s deeper and receding.
Keun Woo Lee, who says she prefers blue over black, brings this ceramic pattern into paintings like “Blue Forest 5” (2015) at JanKossen Contemporary. Lee explained to Hyperallergic that, “Featuring, almost exclusively, the use of black ink wash on paper scrolls, traditional Asian landscape painting employs expressive brushwork through a combination of strong, sharp lines and softer rubbed edges … The classic color of black, however, was consciously substituted as a recollection of the cobalt pigment used in 17th-century blue and white Delftware.”
Karen Kilimnik depicts a romantic landscape with ruins in the blue-and-white porcelain style in “The Blue and White China Landscape World” (2015) at the 303 Gallery. Observing closely, there are several different shades of blue in this work, but it is the dark blues that add an enigmatic dreaminess to the landscape. Like Sigmar Polke, Kilimnik is a mercurial artist who eschews a signature visual style and explores numerous directions. What connects the works together in her current show is finding the mystique in Arcadian landscapes.
From installation to photography, conceptual artists in Chelsea are exploring blue’s associations with the pristine and serene.
Matias Falbakken presents a video art piece tucked inside what could be described as an entertainment center covered with turquoise blue bathroom tiles in “Europe is Balding” (2016) at the Paula Cooper Gallery. The narrator’s face in the video is concealed, his voice scrambled and muffled, and the scenes where he appears to describe discontent and disillusionment are discombobulated. And that’s not a bad thing. Slavoj Žižek recently declared that Europe is kaput and Faldbakken is using nonlinear techniques to explore this feeling that Europe is balding. Whereas light blue often appears immaculate, as in Barbieri’s work above, Falbakken uses worn bathroom tiles to make a point about how messy and non-pristine the European project appears to many commentators.
Although the term handmaiden is no longer in favor, many people still behave in misogynist ways that treat women like handmaidens. At Gallery 151, Anna Freimoth, who has previously satirically literalized terms like arm candy and sugar tits, surrounds a handmaiden in blue, as she reaches out towards the viewer. Freimoth explained to Hyperallergic that, “Blue is the color of the infinite ocean and sky. She is floating in the blue like one floats in the ocean. She is enveloped by the calm of the blue.” The blue makes the space feel vast; the work is an inspiring example of finding some peace despite the chaos of unfair and frustrating circumstances.
Wassily Kandisky once observed that the deeper a blue becomes “the more strongly it calls man towards the infinite,” whereas the brighter a blue becomes “the more it loses its sound, until it turns into silent stillness and becomes white.” Many of today’s artists see blue in similar terms, unlocking dark blue’s potential to convey depth and light blue’s stillness and serenity. These pools of blue are a welcome opportunity to chill out, calm down, and just soak in the colors.
Matias Faldbakken: Europe Is Balding continues at the Paula Cooper Gallery (521 West 21st Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through March 19.
Olivio Barbieri: Adriatic Sea (staged) Dancing People continues at the Yancey Richardson Gallery (525 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through March 19.
Saul Becker: An Unfamiliar Tide continues at Zieher Smith & Horton (516 West 20th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through March 19.
Anna Friemoth: Words for Women continues at Gallery 151 (132 West 18th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through March 26.
Joanne Freeman: New Paintings and Drawings continues at Markel Fine Arts (529 West 20th Street, Suite 6W, Chelsea, Manhattan) through March 26.
Karen Kilimnik continues at the 303 Gallery (507 West 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through March 26.
Richard Kalina: Panamax continues at Lennon, Weinberg (514 West 25th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through March 26.
Asian Reflections: Park Byung-Hoon and Keun Woo Lee continues at JanKossen Contemporary (529 West 20th Street, 6th Floor, Chelsea, Manhattan) through April 2.