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Color Code: Shades of Emotion

Colour is fundamental to art practices. Even monochromatic images derive meaning and create an impact from the way tones are selected, applied and combined. But where do you start on such an expansive topic? McEvoy Foundation for the Arts, San Francisco, has struck a delicate balance with Color Code, diving into the collection and commissioning new work to celebrate how pigments are used to convey emotion, incite symbolism and connect people across place and time. In the show, Jackie Black’s photograph Last Meal of Charles William Bass, March 12, 1986 (2003) depicts a single sandwich on a small plate set against a stark black studio background. A strip of plastic-like cheese barely extends beyond the pale white bread, but it nonetheless reels in the viewer, contrasting with the other muted hues. The brightness conjures a surprisingly solemn feeling once viewers find out that the series is about people’s final food choices on death row. A similar yellow appears in Spencer Finch’s (b. 1962) Study for Back to Kansas (2014), an index of swatches from the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy holds a bouquet of flowers after killing the Wicked Witch of the East. Here, the sunshine petals signify celebration rather than death. The juxtaposition is just one example demonstrating how associations made with palettes are always contingent, never universal. German-born Josef Albers (1888-1976) argued that colour is “the most relative medium in art” and that it “has innumerable faces or appearances.” To evidence this, the abstract artist placed various tones next to each other to see how they changed depending on context. Color Code serves a similar function, cataloguing some of the countless approaches used to evoke meaning from a spectrum of shades.