Visual Art

Hue and Cry

Why Does Seattle Have Such a Color Problem?

Hue and Cry

courtesy of the virginia Inn

COLOR ON TRIAL If only all crucifixions could be this fabulous.

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"There's enough green here! There's enough blue! Paint your house purple!" Rolon Bert Garner charges, expending valuable oxygen in the few minutes he gets between inhaler treatments for his chronic pulmonary disease. "Just loll in color," he says, and then the veteran Seattle artist rests. Garner is a painter. He uses colors that polite Northwestern culture would consider either gauche or the tools of a madman. This is on purpose. Why? "Just being anti-Northwest for years and years and years," Garner says.

Garner is talking about that old Seattle aesthetic: foggy gray, woolly blue, fuzzy green, shady brown. The colors that pass for colors in Seattle's built environment are beyond muted. They are life-sucking. Pale. Apologetic. Drained. Draining. Color that's actually the opposite of color, says a writer I know. There is no known reason for this phenomenon. In climatically comparable Ireland, saturated colors live and breathe as freely as any other citizens of the spectrum, not only in villages but along Dublin streets. In Seattle, you'd starve if you needed to eat color. Everything is... respectable. Not too LOUD. Is it to do with respecting nature? Not the human nature that lived here originally, but, you know, Nature. Nature in green, blue, gray, and brown. Is that why every paint job is a pale imitation of earth, trees, sky, and water?

Artists have color wisdom. On her blog in 2010, color-happy Seattle painter Susanna Bluhm wrote, "Throughout art, history, and literature, color is associated with base desires, sex, the feminine, intellectual decay, loss of control, fall from grace." Bring it on, and drunkenly, says Garner. Color is a form of local rebellion (I always chuckle at the name of Pike Place Market gallery Local Color). In Seattle, color almost always seems to take the form of excess, of breaking out. Take Chihuly. Take EMP. Because Garner has spent most of his life promoting the art of other people—he has mounted shows by at least a thousand artists in this city since the 1970s—most people have never seen his actual art. This month is his first solo show in three decades, at the Virginia Inn. The paintings date back to 1969 and up to 2011. Most involve naked women: one with American flag underwear stretched down around big thighs. One submerged in a bathtub so only her curvy legs stick meatily out. Three nudes crucified. One pulls a dress back on under a thought bubble that reads "Oh, Lord, I hope that's got rid of him for the night." Their unifying sensibility is their color: like American pop painter John Wesley, but darker, garish, swollenly fruity, comic-bookish. Pop was never very Seattle. It's Seattle "alternative," rather.

Of all the art in the city right now, the most eye-poppingly bright is the vast mural of orange and pink on the northernmost wall of Seattle Art Museum's third floor. It's searing. The artist is Yayoi Kusama. She wears a wig of maraschino-cherry-red hair and is world famous for making bright art. The point of exhibiting her works at SAM is to remind people she had her very first solo exhibition in the United States here in Seattle, back in December 1957. Then again—the paintings she showed here have titles like Rock Spirit. Rock Spirit is the color of falling sand. Rainy. Noncolor.

Seattle artists sometimes use color pointedly. Jenny Heishman luridly invokes her Florida heritage while reflecting her immediate surroundings on Bainbridge Island—she's made sculptures in the shape of logs still wearing their dark bark, but with rainbow candy centers. A new public work she installed this month in South Lake Union involves a trompe l'oeil metal blanket in a Fort Lauderdale shade of blue, but it's also the blue of a common Northwest sight: the yard-work tarp. For Klara Glosova, Seth Damm, Julie Alpert, and Nicholas Nyland, color invokes lightness of spirit, theatricality, gamesmanship, and a rococo flavor shared by the elder colorist Jeffry Mitchell. Someone like Allyce Wood labors on the flip side, equally pointedly: Her drawings of teeming, overgrown plant life are in black and white. They have been drained of their blood. They are in second lives that are almost vampiric.

To people painting your houses: I beg you to consider color that is neither dutiful nor respectable (read: likely to appear on a Lexus gliding silently by), yet not reactionary, either. My request extends to public and private developers. The leading proposal for the big new Sodo arena involves an oval roof made of giant overlapping slats, like the blades on a jet engine's fan. Design documents say its skin will be "metal," and what appears in the computer graphics looks like a jet engine the color of a new penny. Maybe this is a reference to the color of a basketball, that dirty brown-orange. The whole thing reeks of rust. I am not enthused.

Please, designers: Consider the poor citizens of Seattle. What color we have is either sleep-inducing or methamphetaminic. Give us some substance. recommended

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Comments (28) RSS

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alpha unicorn 1
"I wouldn't mind turning into a vermilion goldfish." Henri Matisse
Posted by alpha unicorn on January 30, 2013 at 8:47 PM · Report this
Best article EVER!!!! Thank you.
Posted by c. da Silva on February 2, 2013 at 2:15 AM · Report this
bpb's artpouring 3
I first visited Seattle as a little kid in 1957. Lived there for 10 years in the 70s-80s. Know the city 'intimately'. Mourned when the Orpheum came down, and worked at the Music Hall before it was razed.

Recently I stayed in a room near the top of the Red Lion on 5th. I was crestfallen at the view: cool monotones of non-committal color on generic structures. From this elevated perspective, the banality of the city's complexion was more nakedly revealed!

Of course, most other high-rise cities are shameless with similar 'nudity'. Boring beyond words. No doubt neutral-colored building materials are also the cheapest.

I was in Dubai recently and went up in the Burj Khalifa. The surrounding environment is monotone in its coloring, but the thousands of hi-rises make Manhattan look like a gopher hole. It's all in the style of the structures, ranging from sober to goofy. Color is neutral due to albedo considerations, but big money provides for some playful gooniness. There's a mega-sized Big Ben right next to generic glass boxes, etc. etc.

I wrote a big book on the architecture of Calcutta, India, and I never really talked about color because the city engages in it at every opportunity - it was self-apparent. The Victorian architect Halsey Ricardo (who designed the gigantic Howrah railway station opposite Calcutta, which was recently decked out in flashy but stately brick red and vibrant yellow) was a passionate advocate of color in architecture, even suggesting that park benches be livened up with any color other than black or grey. The mighty Howrah Bridge, connecting Calcutta with the rest of India, is silver by day, and lighted lavender by night.

It's a pity that, after its wild fling with the Central Library, Seattle reverted to the safe propriety of nothingness in its high-rises. Today it's all about shape rather than color: witness the Gherkin and the Shard in London, Gehry's Beekman Tower in NYC, etc.

Thanks Jen, for even bringing up the subject of color in built environments.
Posted by bpb's artpouring on February 5, 2013 at 11:29 AM · Report this
Will in Seattle 4
Why? Not enough Danish or Italian people.
Posted by Will in Seattle on February 6, 2013 at 2:22 PM · Report this
undead ayn rand 5
I don't understand, Seattle's houses are infinitely more colorful than most places I've lived in. The very presence of colorful houses on a block are usually zoned away, or the other neighbors organize in hostility against the owner for affecting their homes and personal "values".
Posted by undead ayn rand on February 6, 2013 at 2:29 PM · Report this
Just an aside, related to the Ireland comment: I've always been fascinated by the never-ending joyous color in Scandinavia, and in particular in Iceland.
Posted by MLM on February 6, 2013 at 2:44 PM · Report this
Catalina Vel-DuRay 7
I've been railing against the Seattle Good Taste Police and their penchant for beige for years. I think it's a product of the 1970's, because before that, we had some crazy fun buildings and cool interiors.
Posted by Catalina Vel-DuRay on February 6, 2013 at 2:47 PM · Report this
keshmeshi 8

Perhaps Garner would prefer the ubiquitous beige of the suburbs?

Seattlites may choose dark colors, but they absolutely are more creative with their color choices compared to most cities I've lived in. Seattle is the first place I ever saw houses painted in dark blue or black.
Posted by keshmeshi on February 6, 2013 at 2:50 PM · Report this
Fnarf 9
The problem is that Seattle's overwhelming counter-beige vibe is hippies, especially in the house-affording demographic, and hippies have HORRIBLE color sense. Purple is not a good color; it just isn't. Don't paint your house purple. Tibetan prayer flags? If you're not Tibetan, don't. Seattle's idea of making their house look vibrant is the equivalent of sticking a goddamn Bob Marley poster in the window. That Ballard house shown in the Slog link? Frickin' hideous.

And if you paint your house bright colors, take a little care; don't slop it on like you're Tom Sawyer whitewashing a fence. Seriously, I've seen hippie houses -- goddamn million-dollar hippie houses -- with paint sploshed all over the yard as well. Use some design nous. Hire a Mexican or a Dominican or something. Get a fucking clue.

You don't see that crap in San Francisco or the Netherlands. You see interesting and alive colors, artfully applied.
Posted by Fnarf on February 6, 2013 at 3:42 PM · Report this
Catalina Vel-DuRay 10
The parents of my high school girlfriend (yes, I had a girlfriend in high school) had their house painted pink, and I do mean PINK! Bright, pesto-bismol pink. It was glorious. I've often thought that when it's time to paint Chez Vel-DuRay, I might paint it that color, once I have calmed Mr. Vel-DuRay down.

Or Teal. Teal would be lovely. Right now, it's just sort of a brownish red. Nice enough, but not much pizazz.
Posted by Catalina Vel-DuRay on February 6, 2013 at 5:19 PM · Report this
well, keep advocating for the encroaching mono-culture. Walmart and the state are taking over and spreading their tentacles around the globe [because we can never be safe or secure enough.]

as they say: "The color that sticks out gets painted beige"
Posted by carsten coolage on February 6, 2013 at 5:24 PM · Report this
Because seattle is gray and depressing and full of people who do everything they can to keep it that way. They're passive-aggressive sad sacks who won't smile or even wear a bit of color. I've had people tell me they don't want to make any new friends and it makes me sick.
Posted by aaaaargh on February 6, 2013 at 5:41 PM · Report this
Cascadian Bacon 13
Painting your house bright odd colors is quite traditional in the Pacific North West. Perhaps the real problem is we have been invaded by least coasters and commiefornians who think every building should be painted in a shade of resembling human excrement.

If Rolon Bert Garner wants to be "anti-northwest" he is welcome to hauls his stank ass to some other part of the country, we don't want him here.
Posted by Cascadian Bacon on February 6, 2013 at 5:54 PM · Report this
Reverse Polarity 14
I don't mind beige or green all that much. At least those are colors. But I will never understand why the fuck would anyone would paint their house grey? Grey. Our sky is suicide grey half the year. Why make it worse by painting houses grey? It's not even a color. Grey is the absence of color. A grey house looks utterly lifeless. Ash is grey. Navy ships are grey. A house should never, ever, be grey. Ever.

Posted by Reverse Polarity on February 6, 2013 at 6:04 PM · Report this
Max Solomon 15
i painted my house black. it is the shnizz.
Posted by Max Solomon on February 6, 2013 at 6:45 PM · Report this
One thing I've learned over many many years of house remodeling is that not everything has to be special.
Posted by ejamadoodle on February 6, 2013 at 10:30 PM · Report this
undead ayn rand 17
@8: The funny thing is that there are references in the article to "colorful Florida" when South Florida is one of the biggest offenders when it comes to association and zoning fascists who will fine you for the tiniest infraction and have a palette of "approved" housing colors you may choose from. Seattle is on the better end of expression, as sad as this might be.
Posted by undead ayn rand on February 7, 2013 at 8:40 AM · Report this
Compared to my neighborhood in Irvine, CA, where all of the houses were the exact same shade of dark brown, or all of the places I lived in the Las Vegas area, where all buildings are the color of sand, Seattle is a frickin' rainbow. So many purple houses! So many yellow houses! Even the boring, muted blues and greens are a million times better than beige. You have no idea how nice it is here.
Posted by aurora f on February 7, 2013 at 10:02 AM · Report this
Fnarf 19
@14, I lived in a house once where one of the owners spent much of the year on grey ships. He painted the house one day -- not the outside, but the inside, walls and trim, in the same medium faintly-purplish grey. Reminded him of the ship, I guess. A form of Stockholm Syndrome.

It was the funniest thing you ever saw, unless you had to live in it -- it drained all the color out of everyone who walked in, making it look like a roomful of corpses. And it was so dark you couldn't read a book by the light of a lamp.
Posted by Fnarf on February 7, 2013 at 10:14 AM · Report this
What cities are we comparing Seattle too? Just San Francisco? While I agree that color variation is good, I would like to see some evidence that other cities are actually more colorful than we are. I lived on the East coast for several years, and in my memory, things tended to be colored dingy brown, rust, and beige.

This whole discussion has the whiff of "Seattle Chill" rants, but projected onto house color. It may be real, but it's probably blown out of proportion.
Posted by Jude Fawley on February 7, 2013 at 10:21 AM · Report this
Posted by seandr on February 7, 2013 at 10:24 AM · Report this
On a different note, in support of the theory that we are anti-color here - I recall reading one of those old Ira Spring and Harvey Manning hiking guides, where the authors were complaining about too many odd colors in the wilderness - orange tents, bright blue coats, etc. It just bothered those grumbly old guys' PNW sensibilities to see anything but dark green out in the woods, I guess.
Posted by Jude Fawley on February 7, 2013 at 10:28 AM · Report this
Fnarf 23
@17, when people hear "Florida" they think "Cuban bodega Miami" and calypso orange pink turquoise. But the reality is that 99% of the state is covered with gated golf course communities with mandated shades of beige.
Posted by Fnarf on February 7, 2013 at 11:22 AM · Report this
I've never understood the trend here in Seattle of painting buildings dull colors (Grey, Greens, Blues, Browns, etc.) that read as variants of grey in the long dark times of the year.

We painted our previously dark blue home on a corner a bright historic yellow with warm white trim and complementary red and Swedish blue doors more than ten years ago. Pretty traditional in some parts of the country, and certainly not radical.

At first, cars would stop in the middle of the intersection while the drivers had a color conniption. Then, as the freshness of the paint toned down, we had a steady stream of people knocking on the door to ask what colors we used.

Having spoken to a few people at our front door over the years about house colors, I'm convinced that people find it hard to visualize something new and are intimidated by the length of time they have to live with their choice if it doesn't work out. As a result, they end up going for what they think is a "safe" option.
Posted by Brian Murphy on February 7, 2013 at 4:20 PM · Report this
litlnemo 25
Not just houses. CARS. I am so tired of gray/silver/black/white cars. What is wrong with a car that has color?

I can't paint my house because it currently has aluminum siding, but at least I painted the window frames bright red. And I am sitting in a room right now with raspberry-colored walls.
Posted by litlnemo on February 7, 2013 at 9:47 PM · Report this
Check out that block on Beacon Hill just East of Nepo house. A riot of lime greens, oranges, purples and reads. Must of been a hell of a paint sale.
Posted by Ignatz Mouse on February 9, 2013 at 8:14 AM · Report this
This is not just a "but Seattle's houses are more colorful than those in other cities!" debate. Disagree all you want, but most local artists will agree that this is obviously a personality issue that has dominated the city and consequently infiltrated almost all of the visual and musical expression that comes from here (with a few exceptions). At the end of the day, if you're a dull person, you won't have a full personality switch with the mere decision to paint your house red. If you START there, now that's a different story.
Posted by thePNW on February 12, 2013 at 1:38 PM · Report this
Beige houses.. beige minds!
Posted by Mike Welch on February 12, 2013 at 8:37 PM · Report this

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