Becca Albee

Becca Albee talks about her show at Et al. in San Francisco

View of “prismataria,” 2017.

In her slyly personal, obsessively researched work, Brooklyn-based artist Becca Albee uses photography, video, sculpture, and scent to evoke overlooked historical figures and cultural moments. Her current solo show, “prismataria,” curated by Jeanne Gerrity, employs a custom rotating light fixture to bathe an enigmatic suite of photographs, many depicting feminist books, in cyan, magenta, and yellow while an energizing blend of essential oils is diffused in the space. The show is on view at Et al. in San Francisco through March 11, 2017.

THE FIRST TIME I VISITED HILAIRE HILER’S PRISMATARIUM, an immersive mural made in 1939 that covers the ceilings and walls of a former “ladies’ lounge” in the Aquatic Park Bathhouse, now the San Francisco Maritime Museum, the circular room was being used by a senior center for classes. There was a group dancing there, and someone doing a puzzle in the corner; and when I came back to see the mural again, the glee club was rehearsing. I loved how active it was, and I was fascinated by the history of the strange room. On that second visit I lucked out and found a very knowledgeable park ranger there to tell me about it. Hiler was an artist as well as a color theorist and a psychologist, and for this WPA commission he created a color wheel on the ceiling, with around two hundred different colors. He had rather half-baked, essentialist ideas about color and gender, believing, for instance, that women would be uniquely sensitive to—and soothed by—this environment. He also thought that in order to properly see color, your vision had to be primed with gray. So the walls of the lounge are covered in bands of different grays. The ranger told me that Hiler had intended for a rotating light fixture in the center of the ceiling to project cyan, magenta, and yellow in the room, which I found intriguing. But, by all accounts, this fixture was never made. I decided to make one for my show two years ago at the Los Angeles gallery 356 S. Mission Rd. And then, this show, at Et al. is a second iteration of the concept.

Hiler didn’t quite make it into the color-theory canon, and that got me thinking about other color systems—especially their underlying gender ideologies. I remembered a Color Me Beautiful swatch book from my childhood, and how I found it so compelling as an object. In the ’80s a number of color-analysis systems emerged, several marketed to women, to determine what colors you should wear—to be more successful, to be happy, and, of course, to look good. You were supposed to carry a swatch book around in your purse, and match it to potential clothing purchases. So I bought one of these on eBay, and it was tacked to my studio wall for some time. During that same period, I was carrying around my marked-up copy of the 1992 book Radical Feminist Therapy: Working in the Context of Violence by Bonnie Burstow, which was an assigned text for a class I took in the early ’90s at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. I had underlined the text with a number of colored pens, in an idiosyncratic color-coding system. The class was called “Women’s Health and Healing,” and its emphasis on grassroots activism and practical self-knowledge had a profound impact on me, as I was studying feminist history and was very involved with the Riot Grrrl milieu of Olympia at that time. So these are the elements I researched intensely, and entwined to create “prismataria.”

Half of the photographs I’m showing—installed in a gallery located in a basement below a dry cleaner’s, with the walls painted in homage to Hiler’s grayscale walls, and illuminated by the light fixture he never made—focus on these feminist texts. One image, for example, is of the dedication page of the book A New View of a Woman’s Body. It reads as a poem of women’s names. There’s also a page from an anthology, The Black Women’s Health Book, which lists some of its source articles. I photographed the books with colored gels placed directly on them; I found that by eliminating black, white, and gray, I could maximize the transformational effect of the light fixture’s moving, colored lights. One page that I photographed includes an illustration of a women’s self-help group doing a pelvic exam with a speculum, and it is only visible in the cyan or yellow light.

Printing the final images for this show and installing them right after the inauguration was incredibly difficult. I think many artists shared this feeling of numb futility, like, “What is the relevance of my work in this unanticipated and unfathomably terrible climate?” I had also just learned that my mom was diagnosed with endometrial cancer. So these emergencies—the political catastrophe and my family’s more specific panic—colored the experience of installing this show and shifted the meaning of everything for me. Ultimately, there was some solace in revisiting this radical source material—feminist health-care information that was so fresh and pertinent in its day—and looking at it anew. The distancing strategies I chose to reframe this content, both visually and ideologically, brought me much closer to it. And one thing I didn’t anticipate was the sound of the rotating light. The motor’s hum is really soothing. In this moment of urgent resistance it’s a comforting place to stand and talk with friends, which feels like one of the most important things to do right now.