The color blue is a curious shapeshifter—“ubiquitous in gesture but ambiguous in nature,” as graphic designer and author Jessica Helfand has said. There is the blue of infinity, of ocean and sky; the heavy, melancholy blue of Joan Didion’s l’heure bleue; the energetic blue of spirit and soul, of the Blues. But even more curious is what does not change about the color blue: that it is so consistently saturated with some sort of sentiment that nothing is ever quite blue enough. As Wassily Kandinsky once wrote, “The deeper the blue becomes, the more strongly it calls man toward the infinite, awakening in him a desire for the pure and, finally, for the supernatural….” Blue always seems to insist on more of itself.
This insistence is on full display in the current show by Japan-born artist Julie Green at Portland’s Upfor gallery, “My New Blue Friends.” Fusing inspiration from East Asian calligraphy and Japanese ceramics, Green’s exhibition features a series of egg tempera-airbrushed panels, hung against a wallpaper of Japanese kozo paper sheets that have been hand-painted with sumi ink. Shells are depicted in the panels and the gallery walls alike, rendered roughly and en masse—a gestural nod to the Pattern and Decoration movement, and an unequivocal meditation on mass consumption. But whereas the sumi shells are a stark black, lending themselves to a backdrop that undulates in shades of gray, Green’s tempera panels are rendered in varying combinations of white and cobalt, much like the ceramics from which they draw inspiration. My New Blue Friend Number Four (2015) bleeds with vibrant conch-like shapes; My New Blue Friend Number Sixteen (2015) is more muted, like clouds on a pleasant afternoon. True to Kandinsky’s claim, each reminds the eye of an alternative to the wallpaper’s mundane ocean—and alert it to the injustice of stilted moments of blue in an un-blue room.
The great irony of this exhibition’s name, of course, is that Green’s “new blue friends” evade the specific intimacy of the artist’s notable use of the color in her series “The Last Supper,” for which she spends about half of every year painting dishware with cobalt images of death row inmates’ last supper requests. (Of that project, Green has said: “The color blue seemed appropriate for both its beauty and its sadness.”) Instead, these “new blue friends” become but numbers in an ocean of mass consumption. And yet, contrary to this effect, Green’s exhibition also includes Embarrassment of Dishes (2015), a set of her grandmother’s 1961 Noritake dishware stacked and displayed on a windowsill. Green has painted over the dishes’ original pattern with a mixture of blue pigment, 7-Up, and simple syrup, and endowed each with an intimate confession of an awkward or embarrassing moment from her personal history. While the Noritake initially read as a sort of “why not” inclusion of Green’s personal history in a room ostensibly focused elsewhere, the why itself ultimately seems quite clear. Green’s old blue friends are as insistent as—if not more than—her new ones.