The Obligation of Orange

By Brenda Hillman

In youth what did I know?
The violence of a fierce weather shook me so
I could not move for it or rusht abroad
as if my soul were all fire and rain mixt in a could

      Robert Duncan, “The Quotidian”

In 1994 D made a picture of a figure leaving in orange.

The figure’s back is turned to us, many dogs at her side. She gives us her original nature, walking away.

The small pointing animals to her left are not unlike the shadowy beasts on the right; some have disappeared in the bushes. Features of an artist’s life and of an active life are reflected in the strip of khaki sky. The sky is material you would camp on, almost military- wrap yourself inside of, rough on your legs. Two of the dogs are on the diagonal, more like orange; the other has a human echo, is humorous.
In your inspired world, you have energy coming from within. It is your domain. It establishes a commonality. A life in orange is more from without.
And artist’s sense of beauty does not belong to anyone nor does it betray her. It lives independently, not arbitrarily. The shaking ground under her fills her features and acts free to be uncomfortable in southern California without being beautiful because it cannot avoid it.
You do not think of the formal arrangements in a picture such as this without an analogous terror: do not think: edge, pencil, edge; think: dread, color, dread. Hope desires color through such and artist’s hand.
Once you are in this orange world, you begin to question how it was in 1994. What was it like for an artist to be there after the things 1992- Desert Storm, the Garfield Doll. What drew you to this color? Was it in 1962? Was it an early apron, a math book? The close-cropped, burnt-fire hair of a Dionysian god in your grandmother’s edition of Browning’s ? Were you bored or terrified of any ending? Was it a color before a tragedy had torn any of them apart? You had to change your behavior to wake up proud of yourself.
The artist has used the forces of fire and of magic. They produced a rounded version of orange, where the hills dissolved in her heart. The paint says, let me tell you again.
The woman walking along, a road between, not forgetting any of the elements or the obligation of orange to be specific. It was tired tropics. It was brushed fire.
So D made the line in relation to its color seem at least a fiery, free thing.
In a book on the meaning of color, there is only one reference to orange. When we turn to the page to try to read its history, nothing is there. D is quintessentially California artist now; She moved here. Her attitude toward orange gives it a found history, or the dignity of a mongrel that has come to visit us. Orange is a mongrel color, like a dog.
The artist knows that whatever suffering is necessary to make art is never gratuitous; an artist’s condition contacts the landscape that comes through her. Why? We can’t tell.
Orange has little prominent place in the Renaissance; it was not one of the colors of the high school, they chose blue and red. Orange was not loved until the twentieth century, when we saw it through Matisse, and calmed by Bonnard, then it was taken up and used in the seat of cafeterias, not often in waiting rooms.
I lived with D’s picture for a while at the top of some stairs; I had given the picture to my love as a gift. The figure seemed to be walking up. Awe seemed to conspire with orange for a hat. What pleasure it has brought! At one point, there was a possible child in the woman’s arms, but there were only dogs at her side. When I recognized the horizontality, I moved the picture downstairs.
Tell me a little about the process of making this, I asked D. “Gum Bichromate. It’s kind of a silly process from the nineteenth century,” she said.
The woman in the picture was a kind person; she took in every stray dog in the land. People complained. D said: They had to have their barks removed. D is an artist who can put the barks back for them. One of them noses on the right until it glints.
In this direct process, she had painted on photosensitive material with watercolor, and she put it out in the sun until there is a set of splotches, accurate and fixed. The paint says, the sun was jealous so it worked for me.
The negative has to be about the same size as the paper or the sun grows overly confident. That’s pretty much it, D says. The forces of chance are in her care.
Now it seems possible the figure will not arrive, that she isn’t carrying a child at all. As you study the inspiration of color, you feel into the color’s opposite.
Guided by such an artist’s fine hand, we are free of omen and free of the trick. Sun has come through with magic onto paper to be entirely present in the immediate moment. The artist draws us into the shadows of orange’s spirit. A particularly California landscape that takes every day of a life to make.


                 …a summoning of fate
                 in which the strife, the wearing and the after-glow
                 of what was realized, the total thrust of life,

                 charges the contour of a momentary line
                 as if throughout we meant but to sign this place and time.

                                  Robert Duncan, “The Quotidian”