"Continua" Honors the Forgotten Phone Book

By Katherine Rochester
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Sep. 28, 2011

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A stack of phone books comes in handy in Katie Murken's Continua.

Photo by Courtesy of Katie Murken

When 886 phone books serve as raw material for a striking installation of sequenced color, it’s safe to say that artist Katie Murken has given the classical color wheel a liberal spin. Divided into two custom-built spaces, Continua theorizes the book as a sculptural object and models the infinite possibilities of color combinations.

In Continua, 24 columns of richly autumnal, striated colors ring a custom-built octagonal room. With gently curving walls split by the columns’ rhythmic dye mutations, you get the serene sensation of standing in the apse of a white-box cathedral; it’s a pop-up color therapy session whose hypnotic effect is close to—dare I say it—spiritual. It’s an unexpected sensation made all the more surprising by the fact that Murken’s show is entirely DIY, its affect independent from the majesty of the museum. At once mellowed and arresting, the room commands immediate contemplation as a whole, then lures us in for a closer inspection of the mysteriously textured columns. This transition from overall effect to detailed scrutiny happens organically and gives viewers a timely segue into the second room of the installation.

Here, a series of embossed, collaged screen-prints display graphs, charts and diagrams that shed light on Murken’s complex process. Starting with a red, blue and yellow color wheel, Murken mixed her own colors in order to spawn a unique spectrum of 24 hues. From these, she mapped triads that blended three colors together, their selection determined by the roll of a dice. Finally, these colors (800 in total) were hand-mixed and used to dye 90– to 120-page sections of phone books, which Murken stacked in columns according to general color groupings.

Though planned-out in exacting detail, chance is a key element in Murken’s work. The click of the dice chimes a deliberate divestment of artistic control similar to experiments by composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham who used Zen principles of chance to create exhilarating, but highly controlled elements in their work. Continua could have been an inside job: an investigation of color by a color theorist (Murken teaches color theory at Tyler). Instead, the color wheel vogues as a roulette wheel whose happy serendipity reveals a confident, luminous vision.

Faced with the gleaming rainbow of Murken’s installation, it’s clear that her mastery of color shows through in the decision to relinquish control within a limited framework of probability. While she uses algorithms, Murken is interested in playing with the color wheel of a pre-digital era, as opposed to dabbling with discrete units of digital color on a computer. She’s invested in the idea that in the physical world, colors have a heritage, a genealogy reflected in the sedimentary layers of the variously dyed phone book pages in her columns. While she looks to the digital color wheel as a counterpoint, the only digital in Murken’s own process is the trace of her fingers as they painstakingly dyed a mountain of recycled phone books over the better part of two years.  

Phone books are volumes of information and those inclined toward explication may find it irksome that Murken’s relationship with the phone book is almost purely formal. The text of the phone book is hidden in Murken’s installation, its obfuscation is irrelevant to her larger mission. Which is to say: not too much should be made of the fact that they’re phone books. They wow, but not conceptually. On the other hand, Murken overturns their seriality by literally drowning them in her own color logic and by assembling them according to her own design. Seen in this light, Continua may be a battle between two ordering systems: the alphabetical telephone book and Murken’s inventively extrapolated color wheel.

Standing in the midst of her mesmerizing columns, it’s clear that Murken’s system is ravishingly triumphant.

Through Oct. 7.  Gallery 2J, 319 N. 11th St. katiemurken.com

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