Unusual Colors

Photographs by Natalja Kent
Interview via phone call, March 2019
Published, September 2019

When you're creating works for the Movement Artifact project, does it feel like a technical process, or does it feel spontaneous, playful?

That's a good question. I mean-- feeling is a good question.

How does it feel? The process of this work is intentionally to move away from the mind, and the feeling or the thought that minds can control it. And so it's really about, for me, it's about as much non-thinking as possible. So it is not about a technical process for me. 

However, you've printed in darkroom, I'm sure. You know that when you're in there it's kind of a spaceship. Machines are buzzing and they're doing these very specific tasks of putting the paper into a bleach that's 98 degrees for exactly 3 seconds. There are technical machine components all around me. I'm not using an enlarger, I'm using my body. I'm meditating and singing. I'm trying as very much as possible not to think or control or persuade. I'm really trying to have an embodied practice of meditation when I make the work, so that it is a play. It's like “being in the zone” or “playing” or “embodiment.” All of these things are ways of saying the same thing which is like, I'm just not trying to control it and just trying to let it happen on its own.

How did it come to you, how did this work start?

A lot of my work starts with research. So for about five years I was doing weekly research at this massive data center, and two bodies of work were produced that were somewhat appropriative [one of which is being featured in this interview]. The second body of work was about this project on Venus (Yoking Venus). I was throwing these arbitrary colors onto the page just to kind of show that the images of Venus themselves were not photographed. They were these topographic maps that were explaining texture and I was trying to show a shift in how things looked and that maybe everything you saw is not totally what they actually are.

There is this book called Making It Real and it includes people like Thomas Demand, Vik MunizCindy Sherman was thrown in there as well. It was just a group of people who were kind of playing with the fictionality of what you were seeing. And I was very influenced by that work. I like this idea that like photography is not always truthful. What are the inherent flaws in it? And in fact, as a human, we kind of-- I think the defining point of being human is that we're flawed. That we're not digital, we're not perfect we're not these like exquisite machines. We are very flawed. And so I was looking at those flaws.

The premise [at the start of developing this work] was great, but then I started to be like “I really don't need these negatives.” And I started to just move around with light and play in the darkroom with light. I was reading this Josef Albers text called The Interaction of Color and its got assignments for his students for interacting with your material in a way that most intimately describes the material. Different assignments with paper and color, and I just started to augment one of those assignments and I found that I was digging really deep into the materiality of chromogenic paper which is its own really unique medium. I mean this project really wouldn't have happened if it was digital. It just doesn't. There's no way that I could have figured this out and found this or had it come to me had it not been about the materiality of the chromogenic paper itself. It's the reason why those crazy colors happen. 

At first it was a very mechanical process. I was making 50 prints that I was trying to make exactly the same. And I made them the same colors, and I used the tertiary color system. 

So there's the primary colors, secondary colors, and tertiary colors. Tertiary are: blue/ green, purple, and gold. And those are the colors that my biological father teaches at RISD as the building blocks for painting. And so I kind of took that as the building blocks for my photos. And at first I was like "I'm going to make weird portraits" and then I was like, "No, you're trying to control this." And I just started to really let go of control. I started to integrate movement and meditation into the practice [and] the looser and more open I became to the process the more that those very colorful, bright, odd prints started to surface.

One of my favorites floors at SF MOMA is just a floor of abstract painting. As someone who is always thinking about photography, I love being on that floor because I don't understand it. I love the feeling of being beneath a giant painting.

I think there's something really human about seeing bright colors. It's something we're drawn to, you know, and maybe it's like this arcane need to find fruit. [Laughs] I really don't know. Water or vegetation or the ocean. I think the ocean is a huge influence. People throughout time, they've always congregated along the coastline, and I think that those blues and those greens they really permeate the psyche in a deep way. Then we move in to cities and structures with a lot of buildings and we're not seeing color as much as you would if you're on a nature walk every day, or out hunting or whatever. Gathering fruit. Seeing the flowers and... there is something deeply seeded about the need for color and the need for open spaces in this way. I think it's eternal.

I would definitely suggest researching the Bauhaus. The Josef Albers book, The Interaction of Color, it was one of the early texts describing color theory and how colors change when we see them next to each other. The book really points out how subjective each of us sees color. That work is really fascinating to me.

There is also this great Radiolab episode (“Colors”) where they're talking about the possibility that a lot of people are tetrachromatic. Have you heard that one? So people have three cones in their eyes, right? Red, green, blue and that's how we see the different wavelengths. But now it's believed that a lot of women have a fourth cone, an extra cone, that is potentially seeing more color in the blue ranges and we don't really know that much about it but they keep updating the research-- a lot of researchers are studying this.

There's not a lot of language around it so I think, I think what I've noticed is- I definitely have an acuity for color, as does my biological father. So it's not that it's just women that are more sensitive to color. I don't think that, but there is this possibility that because of this tetrachromatic possibility that there are a lot more colors visible. I think that's just to say that everyone sees color differently, or I think everyone probably sees color differently and experiences it differently.

So that feeling you have under the painting is uniquely yours. And even if you do research and read about it and learn all of the histories you'll likely still have feelings underneath paintings because that's what we've done for so many years and it's a joy. It’s such a pleasure and a joy to be able to experience art on that visceral body level. I think that's fortunate that you're able to tap into that. You know? 

I love how the meaning of two photos can change when they are placed next to each other. It's so amazing that there is research that suggests that the same is true for colors. 

There's so many cool books about color out these days. There's a great book that just came out called The Secret Lives of Colors and it’s just all these anecdotes about the way that we see color.

Ya know, “scarlet” was the name of a kind of wool. It actually wasn't a color name at all, but that wool was always dyed red and eventually we come with the name scarlet. That is very much a red identification story. 

Just looking around, for example right now I'm sitting in the garden in the back of my studio and there are these bright red palm-like flowers and they're just so Crimson in the light and little bees are coming and pulling from them and it's a deep pleasure to be able to see that. I feel so lucky.

When I'm looking at the Movement Artifact work, overtime, there is a feeling that the entire body of work is one single, ongoing image (even though each is unique).

You know I've never thought of it that way, but I like it because that makes me think about like the leaves of a tree. From afar you might see the tree and just think, “Oh, that's an oak tree and all of those leaves are the same.” But if you were to really embed yourself in the branches and look at each leaf they're each so incredibly different. One has the five points turning to the right a little bit. One is curled in, one a smaller, one is a brighter, green one is a darker green. One is more leathery, one has spikes.

What do you consider successful print when it comes to this project?

Hm, I mean I think they’re all successful, right? To me they are like little spirits that came in a moment. Whether they look like something that I'm really wanting to show people or not… maybe that's the difference, but they all were successful for what they were meaning to do in that moment.

The ones that I prefer to look at long term and that I would love to share with the world and that I think other people would enjoy in their lives or in their homes or on Instagram... those are the ones that have really deep, unusual colors.

I remember driving down Route 1 from San Francisco to L.A. and passing through Big Sur, and just being absolutely stunned by the blues and the teals in the water. And I remember saying to myself, “unusual colors,” and I just kind of meditated on that term for the rest of the day and I realized like that is something that we love: unusual colors. Ones that we don't see in our daily lives. Ones that are rare and gorgeous and that's another, you know, like sentiment from all of history. The history of making the color purple, which came from these mollusks in the Mediterranean, that then had to be crushed and boiled, and then we had this very rich purple.

The fact that the chromogenic paper has this ability to spectrum out all these intense, jewel tones. That to me speaks to the incredible materiality of that medium that is so special and so rare. That's what I like to share with other people. If someone comes to do a studio visit all of my prints are available, we can look at all of them, but I do think that the ones that have the very rich, unusual jewel tones are the ones that speak to something kind of deeply arcane in our visual understanding.