‘50 Shades of Red’: UMass exhibit looks at a primal color

Last modified: Wednesday, February 24, 2016
If gray is a neutral color — or, as some see it, a mark of boredom or conformity (consider “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit”) — red could be its polar opposite. The color of anger and violence. Of excitement, love, and sexual passion. Of danger.

As Trevor Richardson, the director of the Herter Gallery at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, puts it, “Red is the color of extremes.”

That’s the inspiration for a new exhibit at Herter that opens Sunday and runs through March 24. “50 Shades of Red” features the work of 50 artists in which red, or some variation of it, plays a dominant role in the composition. The artwork, in various mediums, is both abstract and figurative, offering a broad look at the way this elemental color conveys feelings and emotions, Richardson said in an email.

“It was important that we include works in a very broad range of styles and media ... that reflected all of the myriad, distinctive ways of ‘seeing red,’ ” he noted.

The exhibit, which will have an opening reception Sunday from 2 to 4 p.m., is also a collaboration between Richardson, Hampden Gallery director, Anne LaPrade Seuthe, and Florence artist (and UMass graduate) Kathleen Jacobs, who together curated the show. Jacobs is the founder of the Blueway Art Alliance in Florence, a nonprofit group that offers art workshops, lectures and other events. (See accompanying story)

Many of the 50 artists whose work is featured in the show have a connection to the Valley, either as current or former residents of the region, past tenure with the Five Colleges, or from having had exhibits in the area.

From the late UMass professor and celebrated painter Richard Yarde, for instance, comes a watercolor of the famous African-American boxer Jack Johnson of the early 20th century, in which a semi-abstract Johnson wears a red-tipped robe. “Topomorph Study II,” an abstract study in ink and acrylic by New York artist (and UMass graduate) Dan Zeller, mixes swirls of red, yellow and purple in an image that offers a suggestion of fossils.

Richardson says the exhibition’s title was inspired, to some degree, by the 2011 erotic romance novel “Fifty Shades of Grey” by British author E.L. James. The story, a huge best-seller that inspired a movie of the same name, concerns a disturbing sexual relationship between a college student and a powerful, mysterious businessman, Christian Grey, who seems to have myriad personalities.

Though the book and movie were critically panned, Richardson said he found the title intriguing. Last year, as he prepared materials for a project on color theory, he was struck by the idea that, in the Western world, gray has come to be associated with “a kind of neutral, nondescript blurring of things. Red, on the other hand, has come to mean quite the opposite.”

Given red’s connection to those more passionate feelings and images (“Our prehistoric ancestors saw red as the color of fire and blood,” Richardson said) the title and theme for the exhibit soon emerged.

Richardson, Jacobs and Seuthe approached artists they admired to see if they would submit something in which red played a central role. In some cases, new art has been commissioned, and in other cases artists provided a previous work that met the show’s criteria.

The exhibit promises variety. Maria Park, who teaches at Cornell University, offers “Bookend Set 5,” in which she painted a small Plexiglas cube in red (with an image of a red mailbox as well) and stacked three books next to it, including John Fowles’ “The French Lieutenant’s Woman,” a novel about an upper-class Englishman’s mad passion for a mysterious woman.

Then there’s a grid of 50 red-tinted fingerprints from artists from all over the world; the composition, “Caller ID,” was assembled by Boston artist Mary Sherman, who directs TransCultural Exchange, an organization that links artists across the globe.

In the end, Richardson says, he and his co-curators hope what visitors get from the exhibit is “a larger sense of the scope and infinite possibilities that red — as a color and as a vehicle for human communication on multiple levels — possesses.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

The Herter Galley, in Herter Hall at UMass, is open Mondays through Fridays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sundays from 1 to 4 p.m.