Eleanor Harwood Gallery is pleased to present a group show: O! “darkly, deeply, beautifully blue,” As some one somewhere sings about the sky, - Lord Byron, Don Juan, 4.110 James Chronister, Dana Hemenway, Kira Dominguez Hultgren, and Paul Wackers will exhibit works for this show. The exhibit began loosely conceived around the color blue. As I considered quotes and ideas about the color blue, a quote by Lord Byron, “O! 'darkly, deeply, beautifully blue,’ As some one somewhere sings about the sky”, surfaced and I found it to be enchanting and romantic. This became funny as the levity of the quote turns out to be a satirical jab at one of Byron’s contemporaries.
Another title I considered was “Last Blue Before Black”. This is the title of an album by “Id Battery”, an obscure drone and found sound band from the late 90s. The title “Last Blue Before Black” has come back to me many times over the years as the penumbral concept and visual calls to mind a nuanced fading. The title concisely describes the complex perception of a color shifting. “The Last Blue Before Black” reads as a suggestion of nightfall, or as something as sinister as a bruise ending in unconsciousness or our visual field fading to only the absence of color. And that it’s a title for a collection of sound - an album of disconsonant compositions and atmospheric recordings beckons the pleasure and distraction of synesthesia. Visual and aural art so often is a kind of reverse synesthesia, a color points to an emotion creating some of kind of resonance with a memory we have.
I decided to title the show with the more buoyant description of blue, than the blacker one. However, “The Last Blue Before Black” also permeates the works in the show. As luck would have it, when I asked Kira Dominguez Hultgren to exhibit her works it turned out that she had studied Byron’s epic poems and written her thesis on the topic while she was attending Princeton. (If you know Kira, this is less of a surprise than one might think). In what is such a wonderful piece of chance, Kira knows the poem intimately and knew that the seductive and romantic description of blue is actually a reference to a line by the poet Southey.
The artists in this show have all included works that are blue or the “last blue before black”. James Chronister’s painting “Procession” uses the deepest blue to make what we perceive as black. Chronister’s body of work plays with our perception of understanding an image. His use of small brush strokes to make up a painting sourced from a photographic image creates a true-to-life feel from far away and falls apart into abstraction when looked at closely. Procession toys with our perception of color and also of image. Kira Dominguez Hultgren includes two pieces. One, “Across: Fleeced” is a commentary on the “Blue Lives Matter” countermovement. “Blue Lives Matter” is an organization that provides “a Police Officer’s family with comfort and support as they go through hard times.” While the aim of the organization is charitable and well-meaning, naming it so closely to the “Black Lives Matter” movement has brought intense criticism from many. “Across: Fleeced” references and problematizes the organization. It is mostly black and includes chains, leather strands and symbols of police badges and guns. The piece reads as a criticism. By naming “Blue Lives Matter” so closely to “Black Lives Matter" the movement has been perceived as a rebuke to the campaign against violence and systemic racism towards black people. The chains woven into the fabric clearly bring to mind images of incarceration and slavery and conflate the two movements into one piece.
Dominguez Hultgren’s other piece, “Bridge: We/They”, plays with binary ideas. The black and white of checkerboard, the “we” and “they” and also the two panels connected together in the middle suggest opposition. Kira describes it this way: “the imagery in part is based on a tally sheet for the card game Bridge. This game is played in pairs who sit opposite one another. Cards act to bridge the players who are organized into teams of we or they. The line drawn down the middle of the tally sheet marks this division”. Dana Hemenway includes “Untitled (Perfect Lovers)”, a luminous and entwined sculpture connected on the top and the bottom, but with each strand remaining individual. Like Byron’s poem, Hemenway’s piece points to a tryst with a paramour where the perfect connection is one where you can be entangled but remain separate.
Paul Wackers includes two paintings, “Vibrations Before Dawn's Light” and “Shy Youth and the Way Ahead, Get Out of the Way”. Wackers’ work is always about color and his incredible handling of paint in multiple methods. Impasto areas collide with carefully blended hues of deep midnight and black across the upper left corner of “Vibrations Before Dawn's Light”, while thin sprayed pastels and saturated bands of thick paint make up the objects arranged in the foreground. “Shy Youth and the Way Ahead, Get Out of the Way” is unabashedly exuberant, delighting in the charms of well-mixed color and eschewing muddiness. Read on as Kira Dominguez Hultgren brings her insights to the quote “O! “darkly, deeply, beautifully blue,” As some one somewhere sings about the sky”.
“Lest we think this stanza is an exhortation toward pastoral contemplation, Lord Byron (1788-1824) is anything but earnest in his epic satire Don Juan (1818-1824), pronounced Joo-an. No, everything in this poem is fair game for Byron’s biting derision, especially England’s Poet Laureate, Robert Southey (1774-1843), to whom Don Juan is dedicated. Southey is the “some one somewhere” so enamored with his own fame and privileged position as the poet of the British crown that all he can see from his lofty towers is the sky. Byron lifts Southey’s lines “darkly, deeply, beautifully blue,” from Southey’s poem, Madoc in Wales (1805), to mock this poet and his capitulation to moral and political conservatism.
In contrast, Byron and his Satanic poems, as his verses came to be known, does not look to the sky, but allows Southey’s blue to direct his gaze downward. In these verses, Byron, like his character Don Juan, fixates on the body, preferably the denuded body. Byron writes of the nobility’s blue stockings and garters discarded between the hours of midnight and morning, when he a “rhyming lover” can examine “few pair of that hue” (110-111). Blue as a visible trapping of the nobility becomes a pretense in Byron’s hands. Instead, he discloses that “learned ladies” are not so confined by the blue of their stockings, as to keep Byron from “read[ing]” them as they “read” him (110-111). But it is not just the ladies!
Throughout Don Juan, Byron shows his ambivalence to gender in his reading of the body. After all, he compares the stockings of “learned ladies” to the blue garters worn by the “Patrician,” the noblemen (110). Byron’s blue does not divide desire by gender, but rhymes both into one stanza. The blue of Byron’s desire is a liminal space, the uncounted hours of “midnight” and “morn” (110) when blue is both worn and discarded from the body. Does blue cover over or let loose desire? Unlike Southey left singing to the sky, Byron sings to us: “darkly, deeply, beautifully blue.”