Bowers Museum Takes On ‘The Red That Colored the World’

In John Logan’s play Red, two artists talk about the titular color, sharing their very opposing views on what it represents. As the younger, more naive artist talks about wine, lipstick, beets, tulips and peppers, the other shuts him down with two words: “Arterial spray.” Passion and love are briefly silenced by the image of a cut throat.

The current exhibition at Bowers Museum, “The Red That Colored the World,” doesn’t have any explicit neck slashing, just a short time line of how Mexican cochineal—beetles that feed off the pads of prickly-pear cacti—became the international source for a color coveted by the world’s elite, suggests that more than a few bodies piled up during that history.

That bloodshed is only hinted at in the curatorial notes, which essentially keeps its head down and, like a dry high-school history teacher, just focuses on the facts: It’s safe to say the death count began with the Spanish incursion into Mexico in the early 16th century and its savaging of the Aztecs, a people who were already no stranger to blood-letting and human sacrifice. Indigenous people had cultivated the insects, boiling and pulverizing them, the resulting bug juice initially used to create body paint. When wool was mixed with the dye—depending on the length of time, quality of the fabric, water and mordant—the crushed insects created a rich rainbow of crimson, ranging from pale salmon to a lobster orange to wine or dark purple.

Red’s power to draw the eye helped it become the international visual standard of power and status. Spain exported the powder, its luscious rarity in demand for the Europeans who could afford it: royalty, the rich and the elite. Clothing was made, portraits commissioned, furniture assembled. As some countries in Europe received it—and others, such as England, were shut out—it became valuable enough that pirates looted ships that were carrying it. Artists used it heavily for religious paintings (El Greco’s El Salvador Apostolado, featured at the Bowers, features it in the red robes of Christ), and kings began demanding it as tribute during tax season.

The first part of the exhibition is top-heavy with textiles and blankets, with only a stray piece of pottery (the massive Michoacán lacquered wood batea) or furniture (one believed to have belonged to Napoleon). “Red” really kicks into gear with the art and the ultimately too-brief detective stories assigned to tracking the cochineal in each artifact. Not every red (or variation) that you see displayed is cochineal, and the close-ups and white arrows pointing out what is (and isn’t), all confirmed by DNA, is fascinating enough to demand a section of the gallery all its own.

At first glance, Portrait of a Young Woman With a Harpsichord resembles any number of paintings of the rich and wealthy. She’s wearing an elaborate red dress in a flower-and-leaf pattern; it’s the first thing that draws our eye, covering more than half the canvas, but after a few more moments with the piece, you see the blush of her cheeks and the color of her lips on the expressionless face, tiny red flowers pinned into her white powdered wig, and the red chords painted onto the ivory of her harpsichord.

There are variations of the color all over 19th-century New Mexico santero Pedro Antonio Fresquis’ decorative nicho, Our Lady of Saint John of the Lakes. Faded with time, its reds are still vibrant, the lone female figure on a small theatrical stage, surrounded by painted curtains of a cochineal and vermilion mix, standing erect on a tiny platform within the nicho, hands folded in prayer. She looks as if she’s been carved out of soft wood, but she’s actually layers of gesso and fabric molded into shape. The one-dimensional retablo of Saint Raphael, Catholic patron saint of travelers, by New Mexico painter and cartographer Bernardo Miera y Pacheco is also captivating: the devotional art features the winged archangel with his common tropes: a fish in one hand, a staff in the other, an armored breastplate on his chest and a bright-red cape flapping in the wind.

When synthetic dyes were discovered, the labor-intensive cochineal dropped out of favor, but it is now getting a revival via the back-to-nature movement. The final section of the show closes with a gallery full of modern fabrics, designer wear, jewelry and art reinvigorated by the ancient technology: Moises Martinez Velasco’s delicate, striking silk and metal necklace of cochineal-colored flowers reminiscent of the tiny blossoms in Portrait of a Young Woman. Arthur Lopez’s irreverent Hey Zeus and Mary Jane Magdalene, with Mary and Jesus in Mexican peasant hippie drag, flashing peace signs from below their haloes. Bringing us full circle is a diamond twill skirt that pulsates in the dim lighting as though a Rothko, only part of it—a rectangle—lit by the gallery lighting, the barely perceptible edge of illumination undefined and smoothly blending into the darkness of the cloth above it.

“The Red That Colored the World” at Bowers Museum, 2002 N. Main St., Santa Ana, (714) 567-3600; Open Tues.-Sun., 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Through Feb. 21. $10-$15; children younger than 12, free.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *