June 29, 2017
Calling An Art Exhibition ‘Color People,’ And Not Discussing Race, Is A Radical Gesture In 2017
Brienne Walsh

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In the current cultural climate, where everything seems laden with political significance, it’s hard not to read a statement about demography in Color People, a show curated by Rashid Johnson that opens on July 1 at Rental Gallery in East Hampton. Johnson is himself a black artist whose Wikipedia page says that he makes “conceptual post-black art.”

But the show is not at all about the color of people’s skin – or lack thereof. Instead, it is about pigment — reds, blues, greens, purples, and every other color utilized by artists to express their unique perspectives of the world. “I do think there is a radicality to avoiding specifically addressing a political moment,” Johnson told me over the phone from Bridgehampton, where he lives. “I’ve attributed that to the power of [the artist] Sam Gilliam being in D.C. making color field paintings in 1964 as Martin Luther King is marching on Washington. Color has a relationship to the radical outside of its history and iconography.”

Gilliam is one of few 20th century black artists remembered by history. Another is Bob Thompson, a painter whose exuberant, bright canvasses featuring people rendered in primary colors made him into an art star in the 1950s and 60s, before he died of a heroin overdose in Rome. The title of the Johnson’s show is inspired by Thompson’s work. “From his yellow people, red people, blue people, purple people — that’s where the show got its title.”

Johnson first encountered Thompson’s work when he was 19, looking through the archives at Richard Gray Gallery in Chicago. He returned to Thompson when his own practice, which for a long time was based on creating artwork out of found objects such as chicken bones and replicas of suits worn by black politicians, began to utilize color as a material. “To think about the choices you have with color was kind of a fresh thing for me to consider,” he said. “As I was thinking about color, and color painting, I was looking at a lot of artists who use color in really specific ways.”

In the exhibition, Johnson combines the work of artists he has long admired with artists he discovered in the process of curating. They include established artists such as Mary Heilmann, Mary Weatherford and Sam Gilliam, as well as emerging artists such as Walter Price, Alteronce Gumby and Amy Sherald.

Hearing him talk about the artists he chose, and why they use color effectively, it struck me that it was radical to a collection of artists who would normally be labeled by their gender (female), their sexuality (queer), or their color (black, for example) to just present work about pigment without subtext or footnotes.

“For the artist, the more radical gesture is the potential that the audience doesn’t project onto the their decisions,” he said. “Not so much that the artist brings up their coloredness or femaleness or queerness, but more that the audience doesn’t force that conversation to take place unassisted by the artist’s intentions.”

What is interesting about the artists he chose for the exhibition, Johnson insists, is that “they’re making decisions that are born of their own ideas of how to see the world as opposed to using color to represent the world in a more truthful or clear way, like the rest of us see it.”

What’s appealing about the exhibition for both the art world layman, and for the critic, is the ability of a profusion of color to provoke feelings of joy. Who doesn’t want to walk in a room bursting with color, even if you have no idea why the color is there, and what it’s supposed to represent? It’s the visual equivalent of a candy store.

“In times like these that are so complicated, even though the show doesn’t align itself with political ideology or discourse, the idea of color and its relationship to joy, and the ability to like and/or love something based on the emotional reaction you have to it, feels like an appropriate thing to talk about right now.”