Imagine an empty nightclub. It’s three a.m., and a long celebration has just ended. The DJ has left, so the room is silent, but blacklights still cast an eerie glow on the objects around you. Markers of festivity remain—flowers, draped fabric, feathers.
Morgan Rosskopf and Manu Torres’s Color Burn revels in this energy. In their exhibition at Well Well Projects, which ended on June 27, Rosskopf’s works on paper and Torres’s sculptural floral designs blend the artificial and the natural. Torres uses fake and real flowers, paint, fabric, and many other materials to create expansive odes to natural beauty. Rosskopf’s mixed media works on paper amplify the exhibition’s focus on light and layering. While this exhibition has closed, its compelling imagery is worth exploring further; in fact, Color Burn took me longer than usual to mull over. The artists’ dynamic, yet challenging, collaboration embraces artificiality and maximalism, encouraging the viewer to do the same.
Rosskopf’s eight works on paper line the gallery walls, while Torres’s three floral sculptures are arranged on pedestals throughout the space. The works are blacklight-reactive and lit from below, emitting a cool glow. Throughout the gallery space, vivid neon hues draw the eye in ever-changing directions.
My attention is first pulled to Torres’s Bug, a sculpture with long, limb-like appendages decked in small flowers, draped with bright synthetic strips of fabric, and topped with metallic leaves. Torres uses materials associated with traditional femininity and celebration: ribbons, bows, tulle, and pink hues recall milestone events like quinceañera, prom, and pageantry. Bug embodies moments of beauty, abundance, partying, and performance.
Since flowers are one of the final stages in a plant’s life cycle, Torres’s integration of artificial materials in his floral designs feels like a method through which to extend that life, prolonging the celebration. I think of Baroque floral excess and how artists have adopted this history of ornamentation to inform their forward-thinking vision. Instinctively, the climate crisis comes to mind, too—Torres’s interest in abundance and artifice via floral design feels like a microcosmic, tongue-in-cheek acknowledgment of our environment in peril.
Rosskopf’s vibrant works on paper align with Torres’s inclination toward maximalism. She uses cut-outs and creates curved, undulating forms, building a dimensionality that amplifies her pieces; they become sculptures in their own right. Looking closely at the wavy form of Untitled (Strawberry Smoothie), I recall a simple explanation of tesseracts in A Wrinkle in Time. Indeed, Rosskopf’s works feel active and imply continual motion. She includes small suggestions of the hand—little imperfect heart cut-outs, doodled flowers in pen—adding an organic quality that manages to flow seamlessly with her otherwise graphic, precise style.
Two pieces tucked toward the back of the gallery, Torres’s Sutr and Rosskopf’s Untitled (Venetian Screen), feel wholly in sync, almost as though the artists collaborated on an installation rather than creating two separate works. The viewer must first maneuver around Rosskopf’s Untitled (Venetian Screen), a cut paper piece hanging from the ceiling, to encounter Torres’s Sutr, a sculpture of painted leaves and tangled light wrapped in tulle. Both works can be viewed from all angles; Rosskopf’s piece changes color and texture on either side. Torres’s approach to layering and enfolding echoes Rosskopf’s continued play with collage. Both works seem to vibrate with light, which proves to be a vital medium in the Color Burn exhibition as a whole. Without the use of blacklight, I sense that these works, while still engaging, would feel much less animated.
Color is an indisputable point of inspiration for Rosskopf and Torres. Their approach brings to mind a wide range of artistic obsessions with color throughout history—everything from Jules Olitski’s spray-gun Color Field paintings to Fauvist stylized vibrancy. (Interesting that the term Fauvist is derived from the French fauve, or “wild beasts,” an image that resonates with Color Burn’s sumptuous, maximalist voice.)
Thinking innovatively about color, Torres stands as an artist within a surreal aesthetic revolution in floral design. His designs employ tactics of exaggeration, gaudiness, and imitation, but not to comedic ends. Torres’s hyperreal aesthetic instead acts as an offering or tribute to nature’s beauty. Indeed, gaudiness balances with ethereal qualities to form a new, playful grace.
He’s not alone. Inspired in part by the Slow Flower Movement, many floral designers like BRRCH, Wretched Flowers, GUNNAR, Wife NYC, and Lo Ihi are looking toward the future in their designs. The Freakebana movement (a portmanteau of freak and ikebana) has gained traction over the last several years as designers envision a looser, more imaginative way of composing floral arrangements. Imperfection is memorable, and heterogeneity essential.
Rosskopf’s balance of precision with spontaneity makes her works satisfying, if overwhelming, to observe. A cacophony of visual information drives home her interest in dissonance, but I’m not sure how to read individual symbols in her works. Meanings muddle among teapots and vases, strawberries, and ashtrays. I wonder how these symbols might act as stand-ins for emotion and personal metaphor; they seem to best illustrate the constantly-processing mind.
Color Burn’s exhibition statement emphasizes defiance and subversion of design convention. The artists aim to highlight “opulent beauty,” “high and low brow materials,” “maximalism,” and “joy.” Visual depth, a mixture of materials, and an abundant feeling come through clearly. Both artists’ craftsmanship is strong. But while embracing excess and experimenting with light is a refreshing change from a minimalist white-box-gallery show, if the artists’ goal was defiance, Color Burn still does not feel particularly subversive. A colorful celebration, yes—but then, what are we celebrating?
Perhaps Color Burn is ultimately a show of opposites, and that’s where its defiance lies. Faced with omnipresent images of decay and destruction in our world, Torres and Rosskopf choose to cultivate a vision of opulence instead, and they bring flora along for the ride. Their focus on color and luminosity, dissociated from temporality, offers a brief reprieve from the “real world.” It also encourages a sense of looseness and imagination—joy for the sake of joy.
Color Burn was on view at Well Well Projects in Portland, Oregon from June 5-27, 2021.