Beyond beige, John Newton

A Rainbow Reader
Tessa Laird
Clouds, $25.00, ISBN 9780987659378

Plato, I learned recently from the wonderful Maggie Nelson (Bluets, 2009), wanted to banish not just the poets from his republic but also the painters. They were “mixers and grinders of multi-coloured drugs”; colour itself was a menace, a kind of narcotic. But then as David Batchelor argues in Chromophobia (2000), nothing much has changed in western culture in the intervening centuries. The closer you come to the domain of elite taste (the styliest bar, the most exclusive boutique) the more you are reminded that colour is not cool. Bright tones are for pimps and foreigners, for children, for primitives, for hippies and mad people. Who paints their living room other than off-white? Who goes to art school dressed in anything but black?

For those who find this tyranny of the monochrome oppressive, it’s hard to imagine a more vivid antidote than Tessa Laird’s A Rainbow Reader. Strikingly produced by Auckland small press Clouds, Laird’s book isn’t just a breath of fresh air; it’s a blast of fauvist joie de vivre. And it’s not just an exercise in colour theory, despite the fact that each of its six chapters explores one band of the spectrum. It is also, at least implicitly, a reader, as in a “how to” book: an ethics of colour, a book that asks how to live responsively even as the lights go down.

Whatever she wore, the author’s days at Elam were the early 1990s, “when Auckland was just beginning to wake up to the fact that we were part of the Asia-Pacific.” Waking up to Asia is vital for Laird, both as a writer and as a practising artist. In the book’s opening sequence, she calls up a childhood memory from her father’s hobby farm:

I can’t remember if the calf had the black and white map-like  patches of a Friesian, if it was chocolatey, or a honey-coloured Jersey. But I was absolutely transfixed by the afterbirth, steaming in a huge pile in the grass, as though aliens had just landed and left something utterly foreign on the earth. It was translucent and opaque, gelatinous and covered in rainbow swirls and I swear there were colours in there which I have never seen before or since. It was like looking into the eye of a nebula and I felt, right then, that this was divinity, what Hindus call darshan, or looking into the eye of God. Like when the baby Krishna ate mud and his mother made him spit it out, and she looked into his mouth and saw the universe.

This says a good deal about Laird’s method: subjective and often intensely personal, but always on the look-out for the cultural filters through which that “personal” experience is mediated. The book’s first chapter grounds her relationship to colour in the context of family, blood, whenua. But typical, too, is the instant lift-off: out of Kiwi pastoral into India and the metaphysical beyond.

A Rainbow Reader’s “go to” artists include a number of Laird’s contemporaries from those “Asian” 1990s, in particular Yuk King Tan and Daniel Malone. From a reading of a Malone performance piece, she unravels a distinction between two kinds of orange. One is that of Eastern spirituality (“the enfolded oranges of India”); the other, of road construction, traffic control and nuclear power plants: “There is less yellow in it, it’s somehow simultaneously brighter and colder … Safety Orange is always plastic and uniform . . .”

This is one of the things I like best about Laird’s writing: safety seems not to be a positive value. I’ve never forgotten, as graduate student, being told the judicious way to write a PhD. It was easy: all you had to do was critique; never make a positive statement. But A Rainbow Reader – even if it began life as a doctorate in art theory – doesn’t come out of that risk-averse school. Laird’s more than happy to make strong first-person assertions: “I hate construction.” She’s also game to declare her hand (with only a modicum of irony) as a “white Orientalist”, and to take the political chances that go with it. Not that she can’t be censorious when her own political values are stepped on. But her instinct is to trust her sensory responses more than her theoretical super-ego.

What I’m trying to describe here is not just a lack of fastidiousness, but a lack of cynicism. For someone who has been through the mill of the art world, Laird comes across as refreshingly unintimidated by cool. She’s willing to give even the wackiest idea at least a provisional hearing (“Spores from space – is it really such a fruity notion?”). And she’s open, in a manner rare in current critical discourse, to engaging romantically with Romantic ideas and artifacts. She knows that she’s meant to value Le Corbusier’s Modernist white-wash over the “hopelessly hippie” confections of Hundertwasser – but she doesn’t. She knows that she’s supposed to be too sophisticated for Van Gogh, “yet every original Van Gogh I have seen has gripped me in a way no other painter has managed … Van Gogh’s paintings are palpable, they speak in the present tense about nature and life-force and energy and information . . .” It’s enough to have the taste-makers reaching for the smelling salts: an art theorist reporting at first hand the “toxic swoon” of aesthetic experience!

If the pot of gold at one end of the rainbow is Asia, anchoring the other is the “first wave” psychedelia of the 60s. Laird’s contribution to the recent “Freedom Farmers” show at the Auckland Art Gallery took its title from Timothy Leary: The Politics of Ecstasy. She’s a sharp reader of Pynchon, a big fan of Burroughs. She describes her weakness for 60s counter-culture as “nostalgia with intent”, and insists on the old-fashioned idea that psychoactive substances can be a path not just to pleasure but to enlightenment. For all her trippy enthusiasms, however, she’s ready with a self-directed irony when she needs it, as in the mock-heroic episode at the book’s conclusion where she takes on a fearful Amazonian hallucinogen:

I expected visions and meanings: legible signs, which could be translated into courses of action. I was hoping for hallucinatory narratives … a neat summary for this writing, like tying a big ostentatious bow on the gift I give to you, the reader.

Instead I gibbered, and drooled, and almost shat my pants.


It seems a long time since I read any book that feels so full of appetite and openness to aesthetic exhilaration. All of which, though, would mean little if weren’t for Laird’s prose. The most urgent thing to say about A Rainbow Reader is that it’s a book simply brimming with what Barthes called “the pleasure of the text”. The literature on colour is already vast, and I’ve read the complaint that Laird recycles too much. But this ignores not just the what and the how, but above all the why: it overlooks the heart and generosity of the project. Laird has an ear for a winning quotation and her pages are packed full of bright shiny objects. And yet she always gives as good as she gets. And what she has fashioned here from her bower-bird reading is partly, but only partly, an aesthetic autobiography. It’s also, to my ear, a programme piece, an incipient manifesto for a kind of New Psychedelia: inclusive and multi-cultural, ecological, (permissively) feminist and, above all, saturated in visual and textual enjoyment.

John Newton’s latest collection of poems was Family Songbook.

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Posted in Art, History, Non-fiction, Review
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