“Where I got the color red—to be sure, I just don’t know,” Henri Matisse once said. “I find that all these things … only become what they are to me when I see them together with the color red.”
The Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery’s current exhibition, “In Seeking Red: Selections from the Scripps College Collections,” showcases Matisse’s color of choice.
The coveted pigment—whether synthesized or obtained from crushing cochineal insects—has impacted the artwork of many civilizations. There is something permanent about red. It is the color of the bindi worn by Indian women, the cherry on Claes Oldenburg’s sculpture “Spoonbridge and Cherry,” and Salvador Dali’s iconic “Mae West” lips-sofa.
The Gallery’s Wilson and Turk interns, who curated the exhibition, used art pieces from Scripps College’s permanent collection. Though the pieces are from different parts of the world and in different media, they are tied together by the symbolic color red. The exhibition features a selection of 19th-century colored Japanese woodblock prints by Yoshu Chikanobu and Tsukioka Yoshitoshi; 19th- and 20th-century Panamanian and Chinese textiles; and contemporary ceramic sculptures by Victor Spinski and Anne Scott Plummer, who studied with ceramicist Paul Soldner while attending Claremont Graduate University.
When I entered the exhibit, I didn’t feel like I had stepped into Matisse’s red studio. I thought the color red would be everywhere, but, instead, it felt understated. Between a rectangular cotton cloth and a small heart-shaped vase, I mostly saw the Lang Art Building’s pristine walls. Still, two pieces stood out.
Victor Spinski’s sculpture “Glazing a Teapot with Red” depicts a paint brush coated in dripping red paint, with another paint brush inside a can of red paint. Next to the brushes is a bright red teapot. The objects are grafted to a large rock. The scene conveys a sense of urgency, as if whoever was painting had to leave suddenly. But the mess and chaos contrast with the precision of Spinski’s work. The artist was able to produce a bright red glaze during firing—a difficult process—and an overall flawless piece. Spinski was inspired by the Yixing artists of Eastern China, who used organic materials like branches, rocks, and fruits to design their signature teapots. Spinski chose to replicate industrial and utilitarian materials like Styrofoam, plastic, stone, and metal. His art isn’t just cool; it is also purposeful, creating order in disorder.
The other piece that I felt was very “red” was a ceramic vase by Anne Scott Plummer. “Vase” is an earthenware sculpture that was thrown and then altered by hand to give it a V-shape. The inside of the vase is painted a saturated red. On the front of the vase is a heart-shaped design that is painted red and white. A thick black line outlines the heart, creating contrast. Plummer’s ceramic sculpture is expressive. From the exhibit, I learned that in most of her artwork, she examines the figure as an icon and in its relationship to other figures. The theme of “figures” isn’t as apparent in “Vase,” but there is still a trace of it in the shape of the vase and in the heart on the front side. Unlike Spinski’s work, which makes a statement, Plummer’s vase is more natural and childlike. Imperfections mark the piece from where the artist used her fingers to mold it.
The color red is so prevalent in the modern world that we don’t notice it, but the exhibition reminded me how powerful and symbolic a color can be.
“In Seeking Red” is on display from April 1 through April 12 at the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery, which is open from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.