This is the second in a series of stories about outstanding Oregon-based artists to follow on Instagram. The series focuses on accounts that are regularly updated with engaging content and high-quality images that allow followers to enjoy artwork regardless of location. Curated by the artists themselves, Instagram accounts offer a relaxed opportunity to view completed and in-progress artwork and to get a glimpse into the artists’ ideas, process, and studio practices.
In his 1911 book Concerning the Spiritual in Art, painter Vasily Kandinsky wrote, “Color is a power which directly influences the soul.” Kandinsky was attempting to craft a theory of art, a philosophical rumination that considered how formal elements—things like line, space, texture, and color—could create an expression that would resonate with viewers. Like so many before and after him, Kandinsky was trying to articulate something that we know intuitively: color engages not only our senses, but also our emotions.
The Instagram accounts of Meghan NutMeg, Ernesto Aguilar, and Don Bailey draw viewers in through their irresistible profusion of color. We feel something looking at the expansive skies in NutMeg’s landscapes, the pulsing patterns of color in Aguilar’s digital abstractions, and the vibrant synergy between past and present in Don Bailey’s oil paintings. Across all three artistic practices, color creates movement and vitality that gives the work its emotive and expressive power.
Portland-based artist Meghan NutMeg’s Instagram account is colorful not only because of the bright palettes of her landscape paintings, jewelry, and painted pouches, but also because NutMeg delights in color so much that she regularly posts pictures of what others might consider detritus. Images of paint-stained brushes, scrapers, and cotton swabs abound. NutMeg collects the swabs, or “color floofs,” storing them in jars where they make their own randomized compositions. She currently has 428, each a little testament to her declaration, “I have always been, and probably will always be a color lover.”
In Skies Alight, streaks of soft peach, yellow, and white meet dark pinks and purples to create an intensely active sky. Occupying three quarters of the painting, the sky is composed of thick, textured brushstrokes that contrast with the smoother bands of color in the mountainous landscape below. Both sky and land are brightly colored, but the difference in texture creates balance between the stillness of earth and the movement in the atmosphere.
Vivid Valley shares that sense of balance, as bold swathes of blue, purple, white, and pink sweep upward from the right, curving across the canvas to suggest the infinite continuation of the sky beyond the frame. The skies in both paintings, as well as the other completed works in Nutmeg’s ongoing series This Golden Union, are loose and expressive, softening the harder, more geometric bands of color that define the landscape. NutMeg’s Instagram videos and story highlights give a sense of her process, in which she fluidly applies color not from the ground up, but from the sky down.
“Most of my paintings are not predestined or pre-planned,” NutMeg says. That may be because they do not depict “any exact place.” NutMeg culls from different sources, including photographs she finds online, her memories of places she’s visited, or pure imagination. That sense of imagination comes through in the This Golden Union series, in which a band of gold leaf joins the land and sky. It shimmers like something playful and otherworldly while serving the practical role of unifying the composition. NutMeg thinks of her paintings “like a quilt, pieced together from different fabrics but ultimately they end up looking like they have always belonged together.”
Stunning digital abstractions are the star of Corvallis-based artist Ernesto Aguilar’s Instagram (@exa). He started taking photos and producing digital art around 2004, but the abstractions were inspired by a serendipitous accident. After uploading and redownloading a PDF, the file glitched. It was “completely ruined,” except that it created such a compelling aesthetic that Aguilar used early scanners and rudimentary resaving methods to intentionally corrupt his files. This kind of art has many names: new media art, internet art, and new aesthetic are all descriptive but glitch art is perhaps the most popular. A glitch describes an error or mistake in some contexts but here it is something deliberately cultivated.
Aguilar still occasionally posts beautiful, but more conventional, photos of flowers, mushrooms, and landscapes to Instagram. The photos he deems less successful are the starting point for glitch art, as he uses apps like Decim8 and Glitché to create a variety of effects. In Fear or Purpose, Aguilar used Tiny Planet, an app designed for making compressed, circular images from panoramic photos, to create the white circle that explodes from the center of the image, dissolving as it moves outward. The angled bands of green, blue, red, and yellow in the background reinforce this circularity, leading the eye around the image as if we are following the blades of a colorful fan. He’s quick to note that the apps he uses are cheap and widely available, but as could be said of other artistic tools—brushes and paint, pens, clay—it’s a matter of how one wields them. “It’s not the apps that I use, it’s how you use them incorrectly that makes it into art.” For Aguilar, it’s analogous to the early days of hiphop, when DJs used turntables in non-standard ways, scratching records, spinning them backwards, and playing sections on repeat to create totally new sounds.
Although a digital artform, the best analogy might be one from nature. “I’m from Eastern Oregon,” Aguilar says. “It’s the thunderegg capital of the world. You get a rock and it’s gray, brown on the outside. Then you break it open and there’s crystals on the inside and it’s amazing.” Dustclouds and Magpies, a chaotic array of bright colors, vivid patterns, and overlapping shapes, is a prime example of what can happen when Aguilar “breaks open” a traditional image. Pastels dominate the top of the composition, which is densely packed with lines and shapes. Near the center, triangles of purple, yellow, pink, and green fan outward, suggesting the wings of a tropical bird rather than the titular magpies. At the bottom of the image, wider panes of semi-transparent color let us look through them to see layers of overlapping panes of digital imagery. Dustclouds and Magpies is exhilarating to look at, a breathless flight through a dizzying digital space brimming with color, pattern, and movement.
The most consistent aspect of Aguilar’s work is its lively palette, which he says is partly subconscious: “I think it’s just growing up Latino. Everything is bright and flavorful. It’s Latin salsa that you see coming out.” He favors works with radiant pinks, reds, and blues, perhaps a way “to offset” the frequently gray skies of the Pacific Northwest. He’ll be bringing some of this color to Portland in September, as part of the group exhibition “Post Digital Pop” at Brassworks Gallery.
Portland-based painter Don Bailey (@hupapaint) uses color to express emotion and “give an immediacy and timelessness to my stories.” A member of the Hupa nation, he also uses color to explore connections between historical and contemporary Indigenous life. “Color is integral to my work,” says Bailey. Although he often sketches in pencil before picking up a paintbrush, his next step is to “build the images and stories with increasingly bold color.”
Pink Moon depicts a woman sitting on a colorful striped blanket beneath an enormous, low-hanging moon. The moon’s surface is made up of visible brushstrokes of blue, purple, yellow, and orange. The title tells us this is a specific moon, named for the phlox flower that typically blooms pink in early spring. Oregon’s pink moon was on April 7th this year, the same day Bailey posted the work. According to Oregon Live, this particular pink moon was “at its closest point to Earth in its orbit, appearing bigger and brighter than usual.”
In Bailey’s painting, the moon is nearly even with the seated woman’s head; it’s as if she sits with the moon rather than under it. She wears gray clothing accented with what at first look like colorful woven patterns, but the longer I look, I see that these bursts of color are the same shades of blue, purple, and orange that appear in the moon. Her hand, extended and gripping a pestle, is also bathed in the multi-colored moonlight. Bailey’s use of color imaginatively celebrates the wonders of natural phenomena, the quiet dignity of the woman and her work, and the cycles that unite them. “Pink Moon is based on an archival photograph of a Cheyenne woman,” says Bailey. “I chose this image for the woman-strength it presents and the intention with which she works, providing [food] for others.”
Color also suggests differences between the figures in Pink Moon. A male figure appears to hover beside the seated woman, his face and body constituted in shades of blue, green, black, and white. Whereas she is clearly defined, the male figure is ethereal, suggested through fluid brushstrokes. He is also Bailey’s addition, not present in the source photograph: “in adding him to my narrative, I intended to leave it to the viewer to consider who he is and what role he may play in her life.”
Bailey’s website characterizes the artist as similar to “a trickster rapper” because he combines images from different sources “and layers them with images of traditional native design and landscapes real and imagined.” In Bird, Bailey remixed his own painting and incorporated sources from both the Hupa and Mimbres cultures. The original painting of a yellow bird with blue spots was part of a series in which Bailey was “re-interpreting the monochromatic images of ancient Mimbre pottery in bright color.” He recently painted in the crow, a bird that he says is “important in my Hupa culture,” but also indicative of the environment around his Portland studio: “I often listen to Brother Crow while I’m painting, and it seemed he wanted to join his ancestors in this work.” Colorful rectangles and squares in blue, red, and yellow frame both birds, integrating them into a cohesive whole. Beyond Instagram, you can see more of Bailey’s colorful, transhistorical work in the online exhibition “Art in the Time of COVID-19” at Gallery 114.
So what do we feel when we see color? It’s subjective, of course, influenced by culture, time, and place. This is a fraught moment in the United States, and one in which color has a lot of different meanings. Last week black was the color of solidarity on social media, a controversial campaign to signify commitment to racial justice. Many associate red with COVID-19, in part because of the now iconic illustration by the CDC’s Alissa Eckert and Dan Higgins that accompanied innumerable news stories about the virus. And the streets are drabber than they would typically be in June, when rainbow flags make visible the pride of the LGBTQ+ community. What is clear about each of these instances, and the works of Meghan NutMeg, Ernesto Aguilar, and Don Bailey, is that color appeals to our senses, our emotions, and our intellect. Colors have meaning beyond what we directly see. Color—in art, in politics, in popular culture—is, in the words of painter Paul Klee, “the place where our brain and the universe meet.”
Thanks for the suggestions of artists to follow on IG. Regarding Kandinsky I encourage everyone interested in the earliest of abstract art to familiarize yourself with Hilma af Klint. “A Swedish artist and mystic whose paintings were, to the current art community, the first Western abstract art. A considerable body of her abstract work predates the first purely abstract compositions by Kandinsky”. Enjoy!