Color commentary

Fascinating conceptual-art exhibit asks probing questions

COLOR ME CURIOUS<br>Chico artists Susan Larsen and Pat Collentine stand with their color bar in front of a huge photo of sunflowers in bloom.

Chico artists Susan Larsen and Pat Collentine stand with their color bar in front of a huge photo of sunflowers in bloom.

Photo By Tom Angel

Where is color located?

Picture a red rose, for example. We tend to think its redness is something located in its petals. But at dusk the rose may be magenta in hue. In the dark of night, it’s black, not red.

The red of a rose is reflected light, not something contained in the rose itself. And without someone to perceive it, it doesn’t exist. (My dog, for example, sees only shades of gray.) Color is not a thing that’s located somewhere, but rather an experience, one that unites subject and object in a state of perceptual oneness.

There’s something of this awareness in Pat Collentine and Susan Larsen’s new exhibit, “,” at the Humanities Center Gallery. This is a fascinating show. Its apparent simplicity masks a radical inquiry into any number of philosophical and aesthetic questions. And it asks us to see the world with fresh eyes and in doing so gives us a number of remarkable images, some of them beautiful, others provocative, yet others humorous.

It’s a running joke among Larsen and Collentine’s family members and friends that the Chico couple—they’ve been “life partners” for 20 years—is always on the lookout for a “color bar moment.”

Almost everywhere they go, they carry a large vinyl photographer’s color bar (a tool ordinarily used to establish color values). Whenever they think a situation or scene warrants it, they whip out the color bar, one of them—usually Larsen—holds it up, and the other snaps a photo.

They’ve taken hundreds of these pictures. From them they’ve culled the 28 pictures now on exhibit. (You can see others at the couple’s intriguing Web site,

Twelve of the photos in the main gallery are in large format created by a digital printing process on 40” x 60” sheets of vinyl canvas. One, the photo above of sunflowers, is huge, 10 feet by 16 feet. Sixteen smaller (approximately 8” x 10") Fuji prints have been mounted in the adjacent hallway.

The large pieces are all scenes in and around Chico. They’re familiar, even if we can’t locate them precisely: a walnut orchard at sunset, a rice field near the Sutter Buttes during harvest, a footbridge over Lindo Channel.

The artists don’t think of themselves as photographers, but rather as conceptual artists who use photographs—they call them “snapshots"—in their work. (Both individually do other kinds of art as well.) But the presence of the color bar makes all the difference.

In their statement, the artists quote the late media philosopher Marshall McLuhan to the effect that most environments are ordinary and therefore invisible. ("Whoever discovered water,” he famously said, “you can be sure it wasn’t a fish.") It’s the role of artists to create what McLuhan calls “anti-environments” to call direct attention to environments and “enable us to see and understand [them] more clearly.”

In these pictures, the color bar instantly creates such an “anti-environment.” It forces us to see the rest of the photograph in new ways. It reminds us that a photograph is a moment seized, not something solid that continues to exist after the photo is taken. And it asks us to consider the nature of color and perception, the “objectivity” of photography, and many other aesthetic and metaphysical issues.

That’s a lot for a “snapshot” to do. The value this exhibition is that, by having so many of these pictures in one place, their cumulative power becomes obvious.

Besides, several of the photos are stunning in and of themselves. You’ll have your own favorites. Just don’t fail to check out this wonderful show, which is up through Dec. 19.