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Vibrant exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston explores intersection of color and the body
Sue Williams, Color Pile, 2002. Oil and acrylic on canvas. 72 x 84 in. Private collection.

BOSTON, MA.- Color is a daily experience; it can communicate our mood, profession, cultural status, nationality and team affiliations—all of which form the basis of our identities and express our emotions. This February, the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston opens Figuring Color: Kathy Butterly, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Roy McMakin, Sue Williams, a major exhibition exploring the use of color and form to convey ideas about the body. Using vibrant hues and a touch of humor, McMakin’s fleshy chairs mimic the human form, Butterly’s intricate ceramics are rich with bodily humor and desire, Gonzalez-Torres’s installations of candy and plastic beads abstractly evoke physical absence and presence, and Williams’s electrifying canvases convey the viscera of war and politics. Organized by ICA Senior Curator Jenelle Porter, the exhibition features 51 works, including painting, sculpture, and installation. Figuring Color is on view at the ICA from Feb. 17 through May 20, 2012.

“Figuring Color brings the work of Kathy Butterly, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Roy McMakin, and Sue Williams together in a visual conversation about craft and concept, process and product, mind and body,” says ICA Director Jill Medvedow. “Porter’s insistence on challenging traditional polarities of craft and art is both intuitive and imaginative, and her innovative approach to designing space and championing the artist’s voice is evident throughout the exhibition.”

”As we move through the exhibition, we are compelled by how our bodies feel in relation to color and how emotional an experience color truly is,” says Porter. “Each work in Figuring Color uses color to represent a metaphorical body—a body rendered as vessel, pure color, abstraction, line, field, or allegory. At the beginning of the exhibition, color is used to evoke a physical representation of the body that becomes increasingly emotional as you move through the galleries.”

Warm colors from red to peach to beige dominate the first gallery of the exhibition, which includes an extensive selection of Kathy Butterly’s small-scale, ceramic sculptures—one of the largest presentations of her work to date. Her sculptures are characterized by their evocative use of glaze, rendering the surface of her work exceedingly tactile and flesh-like. Butterly’s eye for color charges her “fleshpots” with a sense of physicality, transforming them from playful manipulations of clay to life-like portraits brimming with humor and bawdiness. In the same gallery, Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s “Untitled” (Blood) (1992) spans the center of the room, partitioning the space with a field of red. Composed of hanging strands of translucent red beads, the installation invites us to pass through and touch it, making the experience of color both a visual and visceral one. This visceral sense of color is echoed in the paintings of Sue Williams, which are filled with floating bodies and parts, interwoven in brilliant shades of pink, yellow, red and turquoise. Created in response to U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, American Enterprise (2009) presents a collage of human organs in red, white and blue—a body politicized and ravaged in the name of freedom and patriotism.

In the next gallery, artists imagine the color of memory, evoking an absent other though color and form. Gonzalez-Torres said that “if a beautiful memory could have a color, that color would be light blue.” “Untitled” (Lover Boys) (1991) is a sculpture composed of hundreds of white and blue candies poured onto the gallery floor. The sculpture’s ideal weight is 355 pounds, the approximate combined weight of the artist and his life-partner. To see the sculpture, however, is to touch it. By putting a piece of candy in your mouth and ingesting it, you are completing the artist’s intention to share something sweet. For Roy McMakin, color is a manifestation of a state of mind, a mood or a memory. His work Lequita Faye Melvin (2003) is composed of nineteen independent sculptures, each painted a uniform medium gray. Named for McMakin’s mother, the sculptures represent the artist’s recollections of furniture from the homes of his parents and maternal grandparents—all constructed according to sketches the artist drew from memory. McMakin says of the sculptures: “They are gray because that is the color I always saw them in. Gray seemed like memory, and [is] ultimately reflective of the sadness I think is contained within them.”

Including work by all four artists, the final exhibition gallery is awash in color, conveying a sense of exuberance, joy and physical abandonment. Williams’s large, gestural paintings—including Swinger (2002) and New Painting / Pink and Blue (2002)—nod to abstract expressionism and color field painting. In these works, paint is applied one color at a time in quick, clean strokes, thus retaining the physical trace of the fluid movements that generated them. Butterly’s captivating use of color is emphasized in a further selection of her vivid, richly hued ceramics. A new work created by McMakin for the exhibition, Use/Used (2012) is composed of two pairs of chairs—one found and one replica created by the artist—which visitors can sit in to experience the exhibition. Located near the gallery exit is Gonzalez-Torres’s blue mirrored work “Untitled” (Fear) (1991), leaving visitors with the memory of their own reflections cast in light blue.

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