The art of Amsterdam-based Fransje Killaars, whose Color at the Center show opens tonight at the University of Tennessee Ewing Gallery, is nothing if not intense. Once inside the exhibition space, viewers find themselves facing “Figures,” a 10-foot-high, 40-foot-wide partition covered with woven acrylic blankets in a range of bright hues. Lined up before it are numerous mannequins draped with more blankets of Killaars’ design, their hidden shapes suggesting women wearing Muslim burqas.
Save for panels with horizontal strips of color at one end of the gallery, the walls are bare, a glaring white. For Killaars, pigment on canvas no longer exists. The two-dimensional realm of painting has transformed itself into textile form. This is installation as sculpture, and in the hands of Killaars, in this particular exhibition, it consists of conceptually driven groupings in three separate areas. Aside from “Figures,” Color at the Center presents the banded panels mentioned and an asterisk-like configuration of wood boards sandwiching a shrouded mannequin.
An apropos phrase regarding the Killaars work might be “wat rond gaat komt rond”—Dutch for “what goes around comes around.” This cyclic reference indeed applies, given that Killaars’ large-scale, often outrageously colorful installations are part of a continuum dominated by color and characterized by characterized by a considered reduction of visual components. That paring-down is synonymous with modernist sensibilities articulated in the Netherlands and elsewhere following World War I.
Like the post-WWI culture surrounding it, Holland’s De Stijl movement—one version of modernism—sought purity and unity in the wake of chaos. After all, color is often perceived as being what’s most universal in art, and recent Dutch artists, architects, and designers have recognized its importance and utilized it in original ways for 100 years. Although De Stijl lions Piet Mondrian, Theo van Doesburg, and Gerrit Rietveld provided no precedent for Killaars’ blankets and mannequins, her relationship to their efforts is undeniable. It’s as if northern Europeans will forever have color in their blood to combat gray skies.
Despite its size and relative complexity, “Figures” corresponds with De Stijl’s focus on equilibrium and order. Killaars balances the high-octane side of her massive partition wall with a monochromatic flip side; the quieter half features a lineup similar to the blanketed portion of the installation. But the so-called figures in this instance are items of female clothing in pale shades, suspended from upright dowels. As such, they refer to human absence, not blatantly concealed bodies—and also perhaps allude to the invisibility of women in a male-dominated world, or to a societal emphasis on appearances, or to feminine restraint, or to any number of other issues.
When it comes to vivid color, in an overstimulating modern era in which color is easily produced (as opposed to in the past, when it required painstaking extraction from often rare raw materials), we might ask why Killaars does what she does. True, color inspired by Indian saris hung from balconies and juxtaposed in fluorescent hues that actually vibrate in one’s field of vision makes for some scintillating stuff. But we might question whether or not Killaars is overestimating color’s impact in our visually exhausting environment.
“Figure and Crosses,” the sculpture with boards referred to above, is uncharacteristically lacking in terms of color. Its starkness and sense of containment evokes places like Abu Ghraib’s prison, not the streets of Mumbai. Which doesn’t mean it’s a better or lesser piece; it’s more about entrapment than the link between women, traditional textiles, and weaving. In fact, the shrouded mannequin in this case could be male. That distinction, and the relief from color fatigue that “Figure and Crosses” provides, make it an asset to the exhibition as a whole.
Born in Maastricht in 1959, Killaars is at the height of her artistic career. Influenced by Henri Matisse, Barnett Newman, and Ellsworth Kelly as well as De Stijl (not to mention Sol LeWitt, for whom she served as an assistant), Killaars is internationally recognized, with works in major museum collections. Furthermore, her work reconnects us with the late 19th-century re-emergence of textiles as art, and also with the color-field painting and Op Art of the 1960s. Killaars’ use of grids to separate color in the blankets reflects abstraction in general. The tension she creates between the eye’s purely visual response to color and one’s bodily experience of inhabiting a colorful three-dimensional space can provoke a kind of physical response in viewers, all of which is fairly remarkable.
Killaars will deliver a lecture on the exhibit tonight at 7:30 p.m., followed by an opening reception.
Color at the Center
(1715 Volunteer Blvd.)
Sept. 12-Oct. 21