Figuring Color at the ICA

By Jared Bowen

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Kathy Butterly, Under Cover, 2002. Clay and glaze. Collection of Barrie Schwartz and Patrick Hayne.

Feb. 23, 2012

BOSTON — With one striking exception, the Institute of Contemporary Art is awash in lush color at the moment. At the outset, it would appear to be the output of bubbly artists.

“I’m really flaunting color,” said Kathy Butterly

 “Orange is orange and it just gets to be orange,” added Roy McMakin. Sue Williams elaborated.  “I think of them as attractive colors. I don’t use browns. I don’t use neutrals," she said.
 
Look closer, though, and the ICA’s new show Figuring Color is about the meaning of color—how it relates to the body, to emotion, to comprehension. A red curtain references the height of the AIDS crisis. A skin-toned chair is a seat, but also looks like your own. Cheerfully rendered paintings, viewed up close, belie their subject matter.

Three of the four featured artists talked with WGBH about their use of color. Sue Williams said, “I like contrast a lot, opposite colors contrast. Bright. I want them to because paintings can’t make light so I want them to have brightness.”
 
In her more recent pieces however, like Record Profits or American Enterprise, the subject matter is anything but bright. They’re the manifestations of her activist side she says, her frustrations about US Military intervention rendered on the canvas.

“It is one place where people see what I do so that’s why they used to be more abstract and became more figurative because I wanted it to be connected to what I was interested in. And being abstract, it wasn’t compelling to me anymore,” she said.
 
Since he was a child, Roy McMakin says he’s been rather obsessed with furniture. This work of 19 independent sculptures was conjured from memory. It’s what he remembers of furniture in the homes of his parents and maternal grandparents.
 
“The idea to unify them all with the same color of gray was partly to unify them. At one point, because it’s a memory-based piece, I was thinking I could go with my memory of those colors, but I felt like I wanted them to be significant in some other way, kind of pulled out of normal objects a little further,” he said.
 
“I feel as I get older I understand the psychology of color more. And I’m using some really intense color,” said Butterly.
 
Kathy Butterly’s ceramic sculptures toy with the notion of bodies. Their colors compel, and embarrass.
 
“Some of the earlier pieces, which are very provocative, seductive in a way, naughty, they happen because that’s what was happening in my life. I was falling in love and I was thinking about my body and just…that was my world,” she said.
 
Butterly says her works are largely psychological self-portraits, but her environment also influences her color choices. “A lot of the time I’ll be listening to public radio. I’ll be listening to what’s going on in the world and the wars and whatnot, and maybe it’s not so clear in the works that that’s what I’m thinking about, but it does get infused. So there might be like a camouflage color on the body,” she said.
 
The sum of In Figuring Color, at the ICA, is wonderfully complex.

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