Photo courtesy of Bellevue Art Museum.

To most people, yellow is just a color: simple, bright, visceral, sunny. But FD&C Yellow 5, also known as tartrazine, is a synthetic chemical dye; its use in food and cosmetics is controversial. For her current exhibition at the Bellevue Arts Museum, curator and artist Tariqa Waters has adopted Yellow No. 5 as a title and a metaphor.

Yellow No. 5 examines the transactional relationship between culture and consumerism.” Waters elaborates, “America’s greatest privilege is the opportunity that we have to access one another’s cultures… As a result, we unknowingly blend experiences that shape the core of who we are with objects and spaces constructed without us in mind.” She has assembled 10 artists whose work explores this tension. Many work in public art and community-based projects where cultural markers are part of the terrain. Most of the artists have previously collaborated with Waters in her Pioneer Square gallery, Martyr Sauce, and other exhibitions. For this show, she asked BAM to commission new works from all the artists. They range from single pieces to groups of paintings and sculptures to room-size installations. Conceived specifically for this show and space, they have a greater impact than a collection of individual artworks assembled after the fact.

SuttonBeresCuller’s New Constellation is a group of 13 yellow spheres, from six inches to three feet in diameter. Glowing from within, each one is an accretion of anonymous manufactured objects: toys, tools, utensils, fake flowers, packaging materials, rubber or stuffed ducks. Suspended from the gallery ceiling and viewed from below, they look like a little solar system, its planets built from the detritus of an industrial society.

At the other end of the material continuum is Romson Regarde Bustillo’s Gahapon, Karon, Ugma (Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow). The installation fills an entire gallery with references to Bustillo’s native Philippines. Shadow puppets in vitrines overlook a wrought-iron bed frame layered with grass mats. Colorful mixed-media collages line the walls. Rows of fabric banners hanging from the ceiling lend a festival atmosphere. All the elements are hand-made by artisans who are credited by name. In designing these objects, Bustillo combines traditional symbols, techniques and materials in new ways, creating a space that feels welcoming yet foreign.

Several of the artists work as muralists, bringing images from their individual cultures into public and commercial settings. Waters and BAM have given them room to work large. Kenji Hamai Stoll’s murals adorn buildings around Seattle and south King County, recognizable by his graphic, pattern-intense style. Here, White Ashes 11 covers a 70-foot-long curving wall with botanical imagery drawn from Japanese and Hawaiian textiles. Aramis O. Hamer has executed murals for businesses and community organizations. Her wall-size acrylic paintings, Star Burst and Sugar Pill center Black figures in surreal other-worldly settings. Monyee Chau papers a wall with Resiliency, a poster she originally printed and put up all over the International District to counter anti-Asian vandalism during the COVID pandemic. The posters form a backdrop for an installation of ceramics and textiles that appear to be antique or vintage, but are in fact new works Chau created to tell her family’s story.

Painters Ari Glass and Christopher Paul Jordan apply historical styles and techniques to contemporary commercial subjects. Glass uses ancient Egyptian motifs and an abundance of gold paint to illuminate the small businesses of his south Seattle neighborhood. His hand-painted labels turn ordinary liquor bottles into precious artifacts. Jordan paints in an Impressionist style, but his subjects are very much of the present moment: a still life of commemorative coffee mugs from the Obama presidency; an urban landscape of a home-made camper truck parked on a city street.

Jordan’s painting are installed in a maze of small rooms whose walls are lined with panels of black foam. Entering this dark, quiet environment creates distance from the rest of the show and a more contemplative context in which to view his work. Although a virtual tour of the exhibition is available on the BAM website, the immersive nature of Jordan’s and Bustillo’s installations, the room-filling scale of some of the works, and audio elements included in others make an in-person visit worthwhile. 

Water’s own contribution to the show, Julia, is a six-foot tall replica of a lunchbox and thermos picturing the character played by actress Diahann Carroll in the 1960’s, the first Black woman to star in an American television series. Set in an all-pink kitchen, Julia is simultaneously reduced to a mass-produced product and elevated to a larger-than-life figure. Waters succeeds in distilling the tension between culture and consumerism in this single statement.

Yellow No. 5 is on view at the Bellevue Arts Museum through April 18. Due to COVID restrictions, museum hours and capacity are limited. Entry times should be reserved in advance at bellevuearts.org or (425) 519-0770.     

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