Fugitive Blues

 
 
 
 

The  Italian artist Roberto Ferruzzi  produced one remarkable painting in his lifetime, Madonnina (1897), an image of a mildly disheveled street dweller and a sleeping infant. The original painting was eventually lost, but the image attained a second life through duplication as religious paraphernalia. Ferruzzi never intended the work to be devotional, but the majestic blue of his model’s robes pushed the painting toward a decidedly devout interpretation.

The most striking chromatic detail of Ferruzzi’s original has mutated greatly in subsequent reproductions. Mary’s robe (an art historical staple that, in some respects, is her most recognizable feature) was a muted, airy blue in Ferruzzi’s original. But replicators have added smoldering washes, deep pools of blue cloth that bring the image closer to a Renaissance depiction. Tiny, laminated prayer cards —stored in the purses and nightstand drawers of little Catholic grandmas everywhere— bear the Ferruzzi image (or its countless copycats). Through blue, Ferruzzi inadvertently achieved the divine.

Blue is obviously vested with grand symbolic power. Through light absorbed and scattered, the visual geneses of sky and sea, blue forms a significant part of our visual experience of the physical world. Its prominence in realms both natural and artificial signals its importance to the human eye. In a 2003 survey by Joe Hallock, the majority of both men and women identified blue as their favorite color.

Artists, too, have an affinity for it, having infested art history with the many moods of blue. Though it is a primary color, blue was not always readily available, especially in the palettes of early oil painters. Ultramarine, the preferred pigment, was extraordinarily expensive, made from ground lapis lazuli. As such blue was re- served for special occasions, like the Madonna’s robes. (Nota bene the connection emerging here, one between blue, femininity and the sacred.) According to Victoria Finlay, Michaelangelo’s The Entombment went unfinished because he couldn’t afford ultramarine.

Fast forward several centuries and you have cheaper blue pigments, leading to more spectacular and expansive uses of the color throughout the entirety of modernism. Lyrical and color field abstractionists were fond of blue. It was emotional, light or heavy depending on the mood of the brush. It was self-supporting, a color with no inherent need for the graces of line or shape. Optically, blue recedes, and this motion gives large patches of blue a dreamy shimmer. In Rothko’s high modernist project, blues were portals to transcendent planes.

In the visual lexicon of businesses and institutions, however, blue sells the idea of security and stability. Its popularity and digestibility lend it a special place in these anodyne palettes, appearing frequently in organizations, sports teams, universities and governmental agencies. These “official” uses build on blue’s historical association with royalty and prestige.

Blue’s frequent use in computing interfaces (Microsoft Windows comes to mind, as do various leading social networks) furthers its inoffensiveness. In darker shades, blue does not draw attention, making it ideal for corporate contexts where bland colors are needed.  The navy blue of business attire exemplifies a decidedly neutered approach to coloration: color without emotion, chroma without punch. Wear a blue jacket to a job interview, and you will likely make a good impression (according to one study in the journal Sex Roles).

Too much blue, however, can imply depression and unease. It invokes two sides of the same thing: the celestial and mysterious, the despairing and lonely. Shared by both perceptions of blue is a certain formlessness.  As mystery is shapeless, so is sadness.

Or, the emotional register of blue can be nonexistent. If we understand depression in a clinical sense —i.e. as a blunting of emotion, rather than an outpouring of anguish— we can under- stand blue as a similarly emotionless color. Blue’s rival red is affectively pugilistic, as are other warm tones. Even purple (blue’s sibling) maintains an air of sentimentality or sensuality. Blue can be more emotionally unavailable than any of these colors.

In biomedicine, this is arguably blue’s aesthetic purpose: to reduce emotion, to still the brain. (The ER extends this metaphor of blueness-as-stillness: a “code blue” is for cardiac arrest.) Blue’s psychological prowess and aesthetic effectiveness are best summarized in the form of pills. Anthropological studies into the color of pharmaceuticals have shown that patients link blue pills with tranquility and sleep. Accordingly, many kinds of blue pills exert an anxiolytic, antidepressant or anorectic effect. (In the case of Adderall and Viagra —two stimulating drugs, commonly blue— the symbolism of blue is reinstated by their soothing or softening of an organic obstacle or excess.)

Pop music, meanwhile, is one of the largest repositories of emotive blues, an antithesis to pharma blues that gently strip the color of feeling. Blues both lyrical and sonic permeate the music of woman musicians like Laura Nyro, who sung deeply idiosyncratic and mystical versions of “the blues” that reestablish the connection between the ethereal and the feminine. While Mary’s blue robes represent spiritual willingness, the blues of women singers offer freedom from the demands of men to “be happy.” From Joni Mitchell through Lana Del Rey, women musicians have sung and reaffirmed the power of blue: as color, as feeling, as concept, as a voice of emotional dissent and transformation. Likewise, the blues have offered multiple generations of black Americans a fluent language for expressing the pains of living under racist institutions and ideologies. Recently, artist Ana Teresa Fernández painted the border fence in Nogales, Mexico, blue. She said it “represents the physical wound of two countries not being able to heal.” This is blue-as-resistance, blue-as-catharsis, blue-as-potential.

As evidenced by the work in Blauww, there are many blues, each one with a distinct temperament. Looking at the work here, I see blue as an omen, a scarcity, a rendezvous, an impending storm, a remembered abode, military garb, Promethean flame, poetic decay.

Patrick Malin’s Atlantic Crest is closest to the legacies of immanence discussed here, while Beth Claverie’s Blue Bedroom exhibits magnificent gloom and ambiguous blues that continue the color’s emotional histories. David Barnes and Marc Kehoe have submitted similarly portentous scenery, recalling blue’s substantive talents in setting a mood. Fish Wells’ dinosaur head --a tribute to blues guitarist Son House-- reestablishes the blues as a project of vitality and humanity against agonizing circumstances. Elin Noble and Joshua Nierodzinski seem to probe the cognitive spheres of blue, while Susan Strauss and Nancy Shand fillet the landscape to expose blue’s animating energy. Natasa Prljevic’s Floating Structures is located on some strange road between graphical abstraction and the chaos of animation, with a delightful partnership of blue and its nemesis red. Kristin Street’s prickly piece weds untouchable needles to a heavenly sapphire. It could be interpreted in an almost ecstatic context: the pain of the needles mitigated by a curative blue. Street didn’t intend it that way, but once released blues have their own agenda. Like Ferruzzi, we can’t predict where blue will take us.

-- Alexander Castro, December 2015

View full PDF