Green with Envy, by Layla Rudneva-Mackay, (Clouds and Starkwhite, 2012), 120 pp., $59.95
Green with envy, red with rage, white with fear – in Western culture these are some of the human emotions we’ve associated with particular colours. Colour psychology also pairs colours with qualities, like yellow with emotion, green with balance (in contradiction to envy) blue with the intellect, and so on. In Layla Rudneva-Mackay’s photographic work Green with Envy her subjects literally wear their colours as paint or masks, or conceal themselves behind stretches of fabric, in a way that seems to point to their inner states, or suggests the need for protection from the world.
The book opens with solo portraits of individuals, mostly indoors, their skin lightly dusted with a variety of colours. While the staging is varied, the feeling from the works is remarkably consistent – the sitters looking serenely at camera, or off to the side, with a sense of inner life in their eyes. As photographs they’re contemplative, cerebral works inviting the viewer to think about the choices of props and staging and what the colours employed might symbolise, rather than providing immediate emotional engagement. With the direction of the book’s title in mind, is the red-haired woman in the blue-patterned dressing gown, with a pale green face, starting to feel a tinge of jealousy? Is the yellow-faced woman sitting in front of a vibrant yellow backdrop wearing a blue top and red skirt, an emblem of the positivity that’s associated with yellow?
Although with Green with Envy might steer you in these directions, the calm aura of the photographs suggests a higher-level interpretation, such as: colours on the skin are masks we wear to make ourselves acceptable, or possibly emotions that stain our states of being. Individual titles to the works such Blue, Green or Beige, also point to a formal interest in the experience of colour.
It seems a mistake to regard the works purely as photographs. The deliberate use of the colour in the settings, clothing and masks, and playful images such as a man sandwiched between a bed base and mattress, suggest that the work moves between painting and performance or sculpture, with photography being used to record, rather than for its own sake. A quick trip on Google shows that Rudneva-Mackay also creates paintings with titles like Luminous leaves and dark plums or Small blue god-like explosions against bat-like…, an interest in the intensity of colour that reminded me of poet William Carlos Williams’s red wheelbarrow and illicit icebox plums.
Another group of works feature people hiding behind, or concealed by, swathes of fabric or clothing. Here the action often moves outdoors, although careful choreographing has made sure that the outdoor settings are as much containers for a staged performance as the studios and rooms of the indoor pictures. The fabrics, often homely domestic stretches of cloth, add deliberate slashes of colour in the same way a brush loaded with colour might complete a painting. Two of my favourite images were of hands holding up velvet-like cloth in front of severe piles of grey gravel. A mustard/green curtain just above wet ground between two piles of gravel, and another image of a strip of intensely blue cloth held before a wall of gravel, introduced a sense of danger – how vulnerable the theatre of our appearances seemed against these severe surfaces.
Other images twinkle with a sense of comedy. Two sets of legs in rumpled trousers appearing from underneath a faded sheet suggest a donkey about to shamble on stage. A slouched figure in a chair covered with a mohair-type tartan blanket alludes to an Incredible Hulk-type figure, while a pregnant figure concealed by an intensely yellow hooded jacket appears about to fall into the landscape. Although the fabric images suggest an extension of the concealment provided by painted faces, there’s also a playfulness grounded in the homely and seemingly improvised actions recorded in the images.
The domestic settings of the indoor photographs and the quotidian fabrics provide a counterpoint for images that could have ended up heavily cerebral. Instead, the playfulness and ready-made nature of props add a teasing note, while the settings, which often look like someone’s home or flat, suggest that high drama can be played out in our everyday lives. Among the extreme examples is a young woman sitting on a bed with a checked cover, her head and face covered by a sturdy rose-patterned tea cosy, her bare legs ending in large wool-covered slippers. Formally, the image is held together by the deep green of the bedroom wall and the woman’s clothing, set against shades of rusty red in the room. But what keeps the viewer returning to the picture is the misshapen tea-cosy head, its everyday nature suggesting that someone has just pulled it on in a fit of exasperation, or has an urgent need to hide from the world. Of course, it could be that society has imposed the tea cosy on the woman – one of the strengths of the portraits is that there’s space for the viewer to enter the picture and speculate.
The photographs conclude with a series of readymade indoor forts built of cushions, furniture and sheets, again suggestive of places of inner life hidden from the world, and edging towards installations that might be found in a gallery. Although the photographs are successful images, I wondered if the forts might be better stepping out from images into actual constructions. The final pictures of houses at night were marred by a decision to place them within totally black pages. The effect was to repeal the viewer to the extent that it was impossible to enter or concentrate on the images.
The book ends with a series of short pieces of writing with portentous titles such as ‘Red Shadows of Milky Morning’ and ‘There is Joy in Writing’. While it’s good to have alternatives to the regulation art essay, and you could sense an intention to extend the playful, personal quality of photographs, a faux-poetic quality of some of the writing made it a slog to digest. Perhaps a better decision would have been to include just one or two of the stronger pieces and leave the reader with a vivid, enigmatic experience.
The book is elegantly designed in a way that successfully showcases these playful yet intellectually intense images. However, the decision not to provide page numbers on image pages made it nearly impossible to match the list of numbered titles at the back with the corresponding photographs. But that aside, Green with Envy is a rich, well-presented offering of intriguing conceptual works.
MARY MACPHERSON is a Wellington poet and photographer. Her latest book is Bent, a series of photographs about how the lives of trees are affected by human needs. marymacphoto.wordpress.com