The Body in Color: Deanna Sirlin on What Color Might Mean
By Cinqué Hicks
Colors are things. They are objects like a ballpeen hammer or an avocado pit. That thing—a color—can envelop, it can shatter, it can be held in the hand like the key to a door. This is the hypothesis Deanna Sirlin tests and probes through the works in Variation at the Alpharetta Arts Center. Just over a dozen works plus a video form an ongoing interrogation into just what color is capable of and how it can operate.
The works comprise a corpus of several small-scale mixed media works, five larger mixed media works and paintings, a single-channel video executed in partnership with Matthew Ostrowski, and one very large-scale installation on the windows of the center’s front facade.
This large work is Walking/Waking (2019). Rising nearly twelve feet high, the work is a kind of tapestry of brilliant colors—reds, yellows, blues, turquoises, blacks—all arranged in an intricate grid-like pattern. Some bands of color run in strict vertical or horizontal, standing in stark relief against the body of the composition. But there are also undercurrents of other colors that move and turn at varying angles and with varying intensities like shadows undulating just beneath the surface.
Walking/Waking is made from a small mixed media work, digitally magnified by a factor of 75 or 80 times original size, and then worked over with digital tools in an iterative and painterly process. The final image has been printed in ink on transparent Lexan (a flexible thermoplastic similar to acrylic), and the work takes advantage of the ambient natural light that streams through the windows of the building. Asked how she thinks about the relationship of the work to the architecture, Sirlin replies,
I do think that color is light. Walking/Waking has the closest relationship to that idea because the light comes through the window, and you can actually see the colors flooding the floor.
Sirlin goes on to describe the work in characteristically physical terms:
The layering is quite varied in Walking/Waking. This orange band is a different level of saturation than the yellow above it and the green above that. In some places there’s just a band like that light blue that goes through and behind. It’s almost like a weaving.
Of course, what appears to be layered is entirely illusionistic, pixels rendered on a nearly perfectly flat surface. Still the work references the act of painting and evokes its visual vocabulary. The digital image emerges from the painting.
In fact, Sirlin’s works all begin in painting, even if they don’t end up that way:
So, there’s pieces from my own paintings in other paintings, but what does it mean at the end of the day? Where does it actually go? There are four processes in this show—five actually—that all come from the same source in a sense. They all come from my own work. I mean it all starts with painting; painting is always the ultimate source. And for me, there is that connection between color and the body. It’s like there’s this great physicality in the use of each hue.
All the works in Variation are similarly concerned with the concrete thing that is color. In the larger paintings and mixed media works, thin veils of blue, yellow, and purple alternately hide and reveal other colors—black, green, rust—which gain or lose intensity based on their arrangements one against another.
The mixed media works are made up of bits and pieces of color that have been applied to a support and interlaced with elements of sheer, gauzy painting. Many of the elements are repurposed bits from other works, affixed in a way that feels neither wholly improvisational nor wholly algorithmic, but instead feels choreographed. That is, the colors intermingle loosely and casually, but with a sense of inner logic and rhythm. In Just You (2018) irregularly shaped chips reminiscent of lapis lazuli, glowing charcoal, rust, and other minerals shimmer against a backdrop of oranges and muted lavenders. The evidence of painting is everywhere, in a brushstroke or a bit of canvas. But few of the brushstrokes form a complete gesture. More frequently, they are parts of gestures selected from some other work deployed for their qualities of tone and color. Or they are the remnants of some earlier stage of the creation process showing through the successive layers of pieces and parts. Like words borrowed from a foreign language, these bits are both radically out of place and inexpressible by any other means. This reflects Sirlin’s editorial way of working:
When I work on a painting, I actually physically pull off parts. I put things on, I pull them off. I move them around. I paint on them again. I might take a piece off and say, “no, not yet.” And then that piece might appear in a different collage. There’s all this interchange between each of the mediums. Walking/Waking was made from a section of a small collage that was added to digitally. Again, there’s this layering that happens.
In contrast to Walking/Waking, however, the mixed media works are grittier, they feel more obviously urban, with a bit of a grimy undertow of dark color. They are not slick or polished. They’re rough, beautiful in the way that a dusty western landscape is or a decaying tree. Is there a difference between what happens in the big works versus the small ones?
I think they’re all the same to me. How about that? I know that physically there’s something different. But when I stand here and look at a small mixed media piece for instance, I’m in it. I’m in it the same way I’m in Walking/Waking. It’s just that it’s articulated at a different scale. I think it’s always been that. It’s about being inside the work. And maybe that’s why I want you to walk through it. I want you to think about these as a way to move through a world.
The works come in a many sizes. of sizes. But they have in common that they are all pieces of pieces, repurposed and reused.
A lot of these bits are made; some are found. Some are located within the painting. My work has always reflected an idea of having paintings within paintings. It’s all about looking into something. Walking/Waking is looking into something highly magnified. The small collages are bits that I’ve looked into and selected, repurposed, rediscovered, replaced. But it’s also about holding these elements in your hand.
Sirlin extends this sense of physicality by invoking motion. She imagines a physical journey through the work. That is as true of the small pieces as it is of the large. Speaking again of Walking/Waking, she states,
It’s also about the relationship of what’s happening here between the vertical and the horizontal, which is about walking. It’s about movement. And it’s about the body in color. What does that mean, the body connected to the color? Because I feel that when I’m working. I feel attached to that color as I’m placing it onto the surface of whatever it is. And it can be on a computer; it doesn’t matter. But I feel in it.
Sirlin has been “in” color from an early age. Growing up as a child in New York, many of her early memories revolve around color and its manipulation:
As a child I grew up in the 60s, and I wore orange and yellow colored clothes. You’re in them and you feel them. My favorite dress was an orange dress that had a yellow strip with a yoke that came around. Totally like a painting. I have to say I loved that dress. I wore it all the time. And I think I was about 7 or 8 years old.
I was thinking about my own childhood and my education. I think about what are my sources? As a child, I remember, my mother was called to school when I was five. It was in kindergarten and we got to paint. And I asked for additional cups because I had to mix my colors. And they said, “Who taught her this?” And my mother said, “Talk to her!” And they said, “Who told her she could have additional cups? She has to bring her own.” That was why my mother was called in. I wanted them. I remember thinking, “Why should I be limited to yellow, red, and blue?” I want all those other colors. And I want to mix them, and I want to make them, and I want to see them, and I want to use them. It’s still that same attachment to the color on the brush actually.
Sirlin’s sense of being always attached to and enveloped in color has continued to this day. As with Walking/Waking, a long series of architectural installations throughout her career has engaged the rooms and facades they inhabit to create spaces engorged with color. Perhaps most notably, Retracings (1999) at the High Museum comprised 265 panels of C-Print transparencies digitally printed with thick, swirling loops of color forming a massive installation across the front of Richard Meier’s iconic Peachtree Street structure. Inside, the atrium would be awash in colored light that moved and shifted with the changing lighting conditions of the day.
33 and 1/3 (RPM) (2001) did the same on a smaller scale for the New Orleans Museum of Art. And Because (2018) commissioned by the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs the City of Atlanta and installed at Gallery 72 in downtown Atlanta experimented with a lighter, more luminous palette and was, to that time, perhaps the work that most overtly revealed its ancestry as the offspring of painting and digital media. These experiments paid off in the delicate composition of Walking/Waking, which is obviously digital but with strong analog undercurrents.
Because Walking/Waking serves as a kind of interface between the gallery space and the outside world, interpolating each into the other, the work is as much about the outside world as it is about the inside world. It’s about architecture, nature, city, and sky, as much as it is about the alchemy of color.
To me these are plan view. There is this very urban idea of form. But they also are very much about nature. You know, I made this installation from a small piece, and I used technology to alter it and change it. And see it. For me the computer is this new eye.
And if you start to look at Blue Window , it’s very much about nature. It’s the same sort of walking through the path and architectural ideas, and light coming through. But it’s also similar to the bark of a tree. I spent a long time looking at the barks of trees.
This particular kind of movement both extends and departs from the philosophies of her forebears who emphasized specific kinds of prescribed movements. Reflecting on her formal art education at Queens College, CUNY, Sirlin remarks:
I’m also rejecting a little bit about my own training, by the way. I went to graduate school almost forty years ago. There was this idea of the “spatial arabesque.” These were all second-generation Abstract Expressionists. They all studied with Hans Hofmann. They were my teachers. I’m rejecting that spatial arabesque. That’s not how I’m moving through this. Even the “push-pull” thing, I’m not really interested in that. I’m more interested in the envelopment of the form, of the color, of the shape, and how then your eye can move through it in the way that I want you to move, not in any single, special way.
Instead, Sirlin has found her own path to the envelopment of color. She cites two sources of inspiration, both rooted in physical spaces:
One of course was going to the Mark Rothko Art Centre in Daugavpils, Latvia and being able to look at Rothko's paintings daily, to be immersed in color, and to be able to understand what he was trying to do with color in those paintings, and to see them in the place where he was born. There is a particular palette in the landscape of eastern Europe, and the quality and color of the light that informs one about the work.
The second inspiration came in 2016, right before my residency at the Rothko Centre, when I was installing a public art commission in Connecticut. Right down the road from where my artwork is, is the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation. I learned something that sort of shook me as an artist. Most people don’t know: Albers never mixed his colors. It’s that idea of a physicality of a color. You have to make it interact with the color next to it and that’s how you change it. You don’t change it by mixing it. His colors are so amazing, and they actually showed me all his tubes of paint and how he had them labeled, and even some works in progress where he labeled on the drawing or the painting what color came from what tube.
This approach found its way directly into Sirlin’s practice. She speaks of how colors in the mixed media works are made and altered. The way to make the colors seem to vibrate with intensity is not primarily by mixing hues on a palette or in a cup, but instead by moving physical pieces of cut paper, canvas, and other materials in juxtaposition against one another until the right effect is achieved. This is mixing not by brush, but mixing by moving; mixing by holding.
I think this is all also related to the body. The physicality of putting that color, that piece on top of that other piece that has color under it. And then saying, “Oh no, it has to move to here.” The same thing happens in the paintings. If you can imagine there’s a stroke of color, and then there’s another layer on top of it. Again, it’s what’s next to what, and what breathes through. It’s more of a layering than a mixing. Sometimes sometimes cut up the paintings that aren’t working. But the ones I don’t cut up, you have to just keep working on. Part of adding another color is letting the one underneath breathe through. Then it is like Albers. It’s what’s next to what.
But if color is a physical thing, it is also a social thing and a historical thing. In art, it can carry meaning in the same way that a character or a setting does in a story. In the film The Matrix, for example, the world within the Matrix is tinged everywhere with the phosphor green of early CRT computer monitors. The world outside is fresher, bluer, the colors of dark water and deep sky. Or consider the television show Empire. Nearly every scene of the tawdry tales of betrayal and machinations in the hip-hop world are set in a glittering orb of gold and black. In each case, color is used to invoke an entire social world.
Sirlin makes a similar move in continuing to buck the traditions of her (all male) studio art professors. She invokes a world that is of her own making, but is also aware of her position as a woman artist in an inhospitable world.
Part of me is the bad girl. I use colors that I was not allowed to use. You’re told not to use black. You’re told not use orange. To hell with that.
Those colors are not beloved. They’re difficult. I did a show in 2012 called “Emergency Orange” where I actually used the color Emergency Orange, which is a fluorescent color. It’s called that because it acts as protection because you pay attention to that color. Construction workers wear it over their vests. And I was taken with that because when I was a young artist that color didn’t exist and now it exists. You see it all the time because of construction, right? It becomes a part of your color vocabulary.
There are other colors that are interesting to me. One of them is turquoise, because you know it’s about water. I have this thing about water, about being immersed in water. In a sense maybe it is about being immersed in that color.
In that light, Walking/Waking is perhaps the riskiest work in Variation. That is where Sirlin’s use of color is most brash and least avoidable. It’s where yellow and mint green are turned up to full volume. In the hands of a woman artist, bright, candy colors can sometimes be viewed with suspicion. And Sirlin reflects on the risk of using certain hues as a woman artist: pinks, tangerines:
You’re not supposed to use them. They’re “decorative.” But I think that broke down in the 80s for sure. I’ve always addressed that. What I’m not allowed to do is what I have to figure out how to do. That’s just me.
So that’s an interesting question about a woman artist using pink and turquoise and colors that could be considered decorative, but letting them have more weight so that they’re not decorative anymore.
I think that the danger is that everyone says, “Oh they’re so beautiful!” You can’t as an artist be afraid of beauty. And that whole thing of how color and beauty link to femaleness has been a damning thing. You have to tackle it head on. You have to say, “I’m going to use pink if I want to use pink; I’m going to use turquoise.
The works in Variation dive deep into the problem of color, and they invite us to drown in the undertow. Color is light, but it is not just light. It has psychological resonances, but not only psychological ones. Colors are things, touchable and durable and concrete. Deanna Sirlin shows what it means to be attached to that thing, to live inside it as it becomes a world and the world becomes it.
Cinqué Hicks is a writer and critic in Atlanta, Georgia. He is the author of Noplaceness: Art in a Post-Urban Landscape.