"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.