After dropping Ken back off at work, Kathy and I went to Liberty Park in Salt Lake for a picnic lunch. This was the highlight of the day for Kathy’s kids who had a blast feeding the huge flock of geese who live there. Sure we had just spent the morning studying birds in their natural habitat, but there’s just something special about being able to get close enough to feed them your sandwich crusts and pick up their discarded feathers and smear the bottom of your tennis shoes with a layer of their guacamole-colored poop.
As if that weren’t enough for one day, we decided on a whim to stop at the new IKEA on the way home. Kathy and I had some silly notion of letting the kids play in the kid zone while we took a look around, but as it turned out, the store was packed (read: a two hour wait for the kid zone) so we just wandered around with our jaws hanging down for a while and then left without buying so much as a napkin. The place is utterly amazing. It’s
Madame Matisse by Henri Matisse
The other almost dizzying thing about IKEA is how bright all the colors are. The place produces a sensory overload, perhaps meant to stimulate your brain into a buying frenzy but in fact a bit on the nauseating side for me after a while. I felt like I was trapped inside a giant bag of Skittles. Maybe I’m a bit over-sensitive to the question of color because it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I’m brainstorming an idea related to color for my novel (yes, still working on it) and in my college class just last week, I taught my students about the “emancipation of color” that happens at the end of the 19th century in art. Some of my students have a hard time with the use of arbitrary color by artists like Gauguin and Matisse. The blue trees, yellow faces, and red grass seem crazy and illogical compared to everything we've seen up to that point in the class – they want art that follows the rules and imitates nature.
But since my trip to IKEA I’ve been struck by the thought that our own culture is absolutely filled with arbitrary color – even more so than the culture in which these early Modernist artists lived. If anything, we should find it easier to embrace modern art than the 19th and early 20th century audiences did. Just look around. Our real sky may be blue and the trees may be green, but everything else is artificially colored. My car is gold, my walls are sage, my CapriSun is pink, the Kleenex box on my desk is bright purple with little flowers all over it, the shirt I’m wearing right now is dyed an insipid shade of Kermit-the-frog green, and the toys scattered all over my floor are every conceivable color of plastic with the brightest saturation possible. Is any of this logical? Our world is a place of flashy, fake colors produced by a marketing industry that uses textiles, packaging and media to attract our attention. The plumage is always intense because it's always mating season at IKEA.
It’s not that nature isn’t colorful. Yesterday we saw ducks with blue beaks and others with emerald green heads; the blackbirds had bright red and yellow spots on their wings. But in nature, color always serves a purpose: it attracts a mate or warns a predator or helps with pollination. And nature knows when to go easy with the paint brush. I learned yesterday that the Mallard drake sheds its characteristic green feathers and cannot fly during the late summer. This is when it grows light brown feathers to help it blend in with its surroundings. Subtlety: what a concept. The difference between humans and ducks is that we seem to have forgotten the value of camouflage.