The Color of Sound
January 13 - March 18, 2023
The Color of Sound explores the relationship between art and synesthetic experience. It features artwork by artists who are synesthetes—who experience synesthesia, the phenomenon by which certain people experience one sense through another—as well as work by artists who, though not synesthetes, seek to create synesthetic experiences for viewers. Synesthesia can take a wide variety of forms (perceiving letters or numbers as colors, for example, or associating a word with a scent or taste), but perception of sound as color or as shape has been particularly powerful for artists who have sought to convey synesthetic experiences. The artwork in the exhibition ranges from paintings, drawings and sculptures inspired by the synesthetic experience of music to film projections and an immersive installation.
Artist Brad Johnson has long been interested in creating multi-sensory experiences for viewers and listeners. For this exhibition, SVMoA commissioned Johnson to create an immersive installation that envelops visitors in light and sound. The installation blends the musical work of composer Andy Akiho with digitally mapped projections based on photographs and video work Johnson has made in different Pacific Northwest landscapes, ranging from Idaho’s Black Magic Canyon to the glaciers of Washington’s Mount Adams. Taking its title from Akiho’s 2017 piano quintet Prospects of a Misplaced Year, Johnson’s installation uses multiple projections and sound to engulf visitors in light, pattern, imagery and music.
Two films by pioneering animator and director Mary Ellen Bute (1906–1983) translate the aural experience of musical compositions into visual animations. Rhythm in Light (1934) and Color Rhapsodie (1948) illustrate Bute’s creative range and development, from filming in black and white using objects like paper models, eggbeaters and jewelry to create abstract patterns to, later, films made using drawn animation cels in color.
In addition to Johnson’s immersive installation and Bute’s films, the exhibition includes three bodies of paintings, drawings and sculptures by artists who draw on the experience of synesthesia as inspiration for palette, composition and imagery. The prolific Colorado-based painter and synesthete Vance Kirkland (1904–1981) only publicly discussed his experience of synesthesia toward the end of his life. Throughout his career, his paintings reflected the fact that Kirkland, a classical music enthusiast, saw color when he listened to music. He spoke of “transposing sounds into colors” in his work, allowing the music he listened to determine his palette, with a preference for unusual tonalities or the bright notes of vocal classical music. The exhibition includes seven of Kirkland’s paintings, from early watercolor paintings based on landscapes to late, abstract canvases inspired by a growing fascination with outer space and the cosmos.
Also part of the exhibition are three works by the painter Daniel Mullen, who has collaborated with the artist, writer and filmmaker Lucy Cordes Engelman on a series of paintings that seek to convey Engelman’s personal experience of synesthesia. Made with thin layers of paint on exposed linen, these hard-edged geometric paintings use pattern and color in order to give viewers an experience that is optically kinetic. Titled “Future Monuments,” the series “attempts to assign visual corollaries to the amorphous experiences of sound, movement, light, and shadow.”
Artist Anne Patterson’s practice ranges from works on paper to large-scale installations. A synesthete who sees shape and color when she hears sound, she incorporates multisensory experiences into her work, combining architecture, sculpture, light, video, music and scent in her most immersive and interactive projects. This exhibition includes three separate bodies of Patterson’s work: a set of her process drawings, which combine her notes with quick sketches and help viewers better understand the way her experience of sound informs her visual work; two sculptures made from steel, resin and piano wire that become kinetic when hung in space; and a month of small watercolor drawings inspired by Clemency Burton-Hill’s book Year of Wonder: Classical Music to Enjoy Day by Day. A listening station accompanies Patterson’s Year of Wonder installation, allowing visitors to hear the music that inspired each of Patterson’s drawings.