Pantone for the Painfully Alone

Erik Otto and Liz Tran’s new exhibition at Heron Arts, ‘Chromatherapy,’ is the restorative vision that the end of a horrible year demands.

In her series of cultural histories on color, Katy Kelleher explores the historical connotations and emotional valences of highly specific hues, such as incarnadine (a Shakespearean coinage, debuting in Macbeth for the “multitudinous seas” of battle) or puce (the French word for a flea, and named for the traces of blood those insects leave after feeding). 

From the murderous to the erotic, Kelleher’s brief but deeply researched ruminations comprise a delightfully cerebral way of grappling with color and all that it represents. On the other end of the spectrum — so to speak — is an upcoming show at SoMa gallery space Heron Arts called “Chromatherapy,” which brings together two artists whose respective bodies of work engage with color in a more immediate, visceral way. Liz Tran’s psychedelic-adjacent, Rorshach blob dreamscapes seem to pick up where the blurry cityscape in the original cover art for The Great Gatsby left off, while Erik Otto’s mixed-media abstractions repurpose suns, moons, and other primal motifs into pieces that are both hauntingly elusive and freely accessible.

It’s a fun, logical-but-not-overly-obvious pairing. Planned well before COVID struck and running from Dec. 12 – Jan. 23, “Chromatherapy” is intended as a balm for our battered souls, a pleasing experience at the end of a garbage year. Viewers aren’t meant to switch off our brain’s executive functions, but calmly immerse ourselves in our own reflexive responses. 

Speaking by phone just before San Francisco entered the purple tier — hardly the happiest use of color, that — both Tran and Otto, who live and work in Seattle and Brooklyn, respectively, expressed considerable hesitation over the ethics of welcoming people back to an enclosed gallery. (Curator Tova Lobatz subsequently clarified that Heron Arts won’t be doing a physical opening on Dec. 12, as initially planned.) 

But for Tran in particular, adjustments run deeper.

‘Mirror Three’ by Liz Tran.

“The show is sticking to the original vision, although the work has morphed somewhat as a response to COVID,” she says. “I’m still processing that, since my work is so intuitive it can take awhile to figure out what I’m actually doing. I’ll do a body of work, and see something a year later.” 

Ever since childhood, she says, her practice has grown out of the need to manage her own struggle with mental illness.

“I’m in a better place now that I’m able to make work that is joyful,” she says. “Quite a few people have commented to me that my work brings them comfort and a bit of escapism. For me, that escapism aspect is coming from a place of anxiety and depression, and escaping from that through this imagery is intensely joyful.”

So intense is her absorption that she admits to dyeing her hair and dressing like her paintings. Tran prefers to work on “as large a scale as I can possibly get,” and consequently, some of her pieces have ended up as public art of a sort, with one of them in Seattle’s main trauma center.

“A lot of hospitals have really sad art,” she says. “That’s changing drastically right now, but that’s kind of one of my proudest achievements to have it there for the health care workers and the patients — rather than in museums or more stagnant spaces.”

Children tend to flock to Tran’s work at art fairs, something she considers a good compliment. Indeed, many of her brightly hued pieces, which she calls “kind of like a Pride flag exploded,” originate in a dream state and aim to recapture a sense of innocent wonder that is then reflected back onto the viewer — hence her series named for the Velvet Underground song “I’ll Be Your Mirror.”

Otto, by contrast, has gravitated more toward creating visual textures through the use of unconventional media and unconventional tools to manipulate the paint.

“Since my move to New York [from San Francisco], I’ve been drawn to more material-based artwork and to the process itself,” he says. “I had, on the side, been dabbling with plaster and cement, raw construction materials that are cheaper and which I had more access to.”

By nature, those materials are harder to control than paint, so he would “push and pull them around” and come back the next day to find surprising developments in how everything settled or cracked. It’s like film photography, Otto says, in that the lack of full control over the result is part of the beauty. A drummer with a background in dance, Otto’s works are “a moment of movement, frozen in time.”

When he and Tran first discussed a collaboration, he’d been reading about how color affects moods and emotions. While her work is generally more playful than his, they share an equal consciousness of color at the perceptual level, with the aim of establishing a space of solace. 

“Her work is almost like every color — very rainbow, full-spectrum,” Otto says. “My work is more focused on an individual color. We thought that would be cool as far as differentiating our approach, through careful consideration of the colors we choose.”

He also incorporates a lot of neon into his abstractions, although he confesses to some hesitancy about neon as a medium. Watered-down, Glenn Ligon-style word art can often be a cheap trick, with drunk people flocking to take selfies in front of trite phrases like “Let’s Get Weird” or “You Are More Than Beautiful.”

“I don’t know if I wanted to play into that, but I guess these moments of pandemic helped me to say, ‘Fuck it,’ ” Otto says. “It allowed me to think about things again. Let’s do neon!”

The discomfort has an almost ethical dimension, getting almost to the very question of what the hell art is even for. “Chromatherapy”’s answer is pretty clear: to lift people’s spirits and help them live their lives once they walk back out into the world. 

Echoing Tran, Otto summarizes their joint show thusly: “If it just allows people to escape the news cycle of day-to-day inundation of doom and gloom, if you for a moment take you to a different experience, then I’ve done my job.”

Bringing lightness is a heavy lift in this season of sickness and death. Early December is also typically when Pantone selects its color for the coming year, 2020’s being 19-4052 Classic Blue. It’s pretty hard not to think of “classic” as a stand-in for nostalgia and “blue” in terms of melancholy or extreme loss of breath. Hopefully, 2021’s hue will be a little more forward-thinking and upbeat. But in the meantime, we have “Chromatherapy” to bridge the gap.

The exhibit opens virtually via Instagram on Dec. 12. A live virtual panel discussion is slated for Jan. 14. In person opening dates TBD.

Dec. 12 – Jan. 23, Free
Heron Arts | 7 Heron St.


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