Is the Color Gray Doomed?

Elia Bettaglio, "Face of an Ostrich", (2011) (Courtesy of The Painting Center)

There is no gray stripe in a rainbow. And has anyone ever noticed or even complained? Other colors have personality like fiery red, glowing yellow and dreamy blue. But gray is special because it isn’t. It is neutral. It is the color of public television.

On August 6, The Painting Center closed its summer show devoted to gray, Grey Matter. I guess it shouldn’t be any surprise that the show wasn’t widely reviewed as a summer blockbuster. It didn’t have nearly enough color for that. I can only imagine that the press releases received by most reviewers were tossed aside when their interest wasn’t piqued by the idea of exploring something that is neither here nor there. Their loss.

This curious show was actually worth a look, it was a nice take on the most underdog of colors. In fact, despite its frankly dull reputation, gray can achieve visual and optical effects that other colors cannot. Gray makes the colors near it explode. The strongest abstract works in the show made this popping effect the crux of their composition.

Julie Shapiro, "Bemist 1" ( 2011) (Courtesy of The Painting Center)

In  “Bemist” (2011), Julie Shapiro places a set of light blue stripes in a gray field. The lines looked so bright, intense and almost neon because they float on layers of gray. More muted blue lines are buried in the composition and all this adds formal density to the work, particularly on the lower-right corner.

Stephanie McMahon, “Thaw” (Courtesy of The Painting Center)

Stephanie McMahon’s “Thaw” from 2011 also taps gray as a team player for her other colors. Gray lines coil together like the lattice of a birdcage. This composition creates several small white openings that make the work feel like a quilt of mini-paintings. Seeing these more boisterous colors framed by this much gray was like experiencing them on visual steroids.

Sure gray may never muster a place on a rainbow, but we should remember that moisture from a gray storm cloud made that rainbow possible in the first place.

Grey Matter at the Painting Center (547 West 27 street, Suite 500, Chelsea, Manhattan) took place from June 21 to August 6, 2011.


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