If we needed art shows to always be somber and appropriate, we might be disappointed with a show dedicated to Xanadu. Why is this necessary, this homage to Olivia Newton John and roller skates? Is Seattle really better off with neon laser beams and thirty-something women in legwarmers dancing down Third Avenue?
I think it is.
Like Erin Shafkind, I spent my childhood in the 1980s in Los Angeles, yet I somehow have never seen Xanadu. (My parents weren’t purists or hippies, but if I wanted to bite snowflake shapes out of Velveeta cheese and watch non-PBS TV I had to go down the street to Tracy Clark’s house and I guess I was never there when Xanadu was on.) At this point I don’t feel like I need to see Xanadu now that I’ve seen how several artists have used Xanadu.
Xanadu, the film, is about the frustration, then celebration, of an artist. It’s about fantasy clashing and exploding into reality; utopias and dystopias. It’s about color. Xanadu: A Stately Pleasure Dome, curated by Erin Shafkind at SOIL, is about letting yourself have a hot relationship with media. By “hot” I mean Marshall McLuhan hot. McLuhan wrote about how different media are hot or cold, and our responses to them are hot or cold. TV (a show on a box in your living room), he said, is cold because it’s easy to control; it’s smaller than you. Film (a movie in a theatre) is hot because it is huge and enveloping and becomes your world. Hot is engaged, cold is distanced. In inviting these artists to participate in this show, Shafkind was essentially inviting them to let themselves have a hot response to Xanadu. The same invitation is extended to the viewer of her curated exhibition– except here the invitation is to have a hot exchange with hot art.
That is a lot to ask on both counts, when hot isn’t what’s cool.
In Chromophobia, David Batchelor writes succinctly about how color has been uncool for much of the lifespan of the Western world. Throughout art, history, and literature, color is associated with base desires, sex, the feminine, intellectual decay, loss of control, fall from grace.
Charles Blanc in 1867:”The taste for colour, when it predominates absolutely, costs many sacrifices; often it turns the mind from its course, changes the sentiment, swallows up the thought. . . The lower strata of nature takes the first place instead of human beings [who] alone represent the loftiest expression of life, which is thought.”
Roland Barthes, 1970’s: “Colour. . . is a kind of bliss. . . like a closing eyelid, a tiny fainting spell.”
L. Frank Baum’s Dorothy, on leaving colorful Oz to return to black-white-gray Kansas, 1900: “East, West, Home is Best.”
Kant, 1790: “The colours which give brilliancy to a sketch are a part of the charm. They may no doubt, in their own way, enliven the object for sensation, but make it really worth looking at and beautiful they cannot.”
In more subtle, less specific language, contemporary art criticism still often communicates a preference for non-color. I think of Jen Graves’ writing about Isaac Layman’s photographs at Lawrimore Project. She explains how this photograph
is fine as a cover for The Stranger, but it lacks the conceptual rigor of the “darker, almost morbid, and therefore interesting” Hot Dog Wrapper.
Aside from the fact that Otter Pops is colorful and Hot Dog Wrapper is not, I can’t find any differences in the conceptual implications of the two works; except to say that the mere use of color is meaningful, with its own host of conceptual implications and seedy association with pleasure.
Xanadu the art show has helped elucidate for me this quiet yet persistent discourse about color. During the Xanadu artists’ talk at SOIL, Cable Griffith talked about how participating in this show gave him the excuse he needed to finally use the neon colored acrylic paint he always pined for in the art supply store.
Andy Arkley and Julie Alpert talked about their giddy opportunity to use colored laser beams in their collaborative video Gene’s Got Lasers, Who Could Ask For Anything More?
Color is a forbidden fruit that the artists in Xanadu: A Stately Pleasure Dome let themselves eat for the purpose of this show. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz and Sonny in Xanadu, they had a dream/lapse/fall/trip into color. Like Dorothy and Sonny, I expect they’ll need to return to Kansas/Earth/greyness. Though I’m not sure I buy the reason why.
p.s. Also in the show, and fitting with this post was Joey Veltkamp’s PINK portrait of Gretchen Bennett and Amanda Manitach’s “hermaphrodite, bathing in the fuchsia and banana yellow glow of Gene’s Got Lasers, Who Could Ask for Anything More?“
A neat pile of pink bubblegum lies at the rollerskates of this blushing hermaphrodite who sheepishly, daintily, resides somewhere between utopia and dystopia.