Becca Albee found the inspiration for her solo exhibition, “prismataria”—an installation comprising color photographs, light projections, and diffused scents that is on view through this weekend at Situations in Chinatown—in her encounter with a circular room called the Prismatarium inside San Francisco’s Aquatic Park Bathhouse. Designed by the artist and color theorist Hilaire Hiler, the room features a custom color wheel at the center of its ceiling. “It’s funny because that room, when I first encountered it, was being used for a senior center dance class, and then the second time, there was a glee club practice, and that was part of the charm for me,” Albee said. At one point it was utilized as a women-only lounge; it is now a maritime museum.
I met up with the artist inside the installation last Friday, where we sipped cans of LaCroix generously provided by the gallery and talked about the show, which is now in its third iteration, after runs at 356 Mission in Los Angeles and Et al. in San Francisco.
At the center of Albee’s installation is a colorful revolving light fixture on the gallery’s ceiling based on a design by Hiler that was intended for the Prismatarium but never actualized. “So that’s the kind of beginning walkthrough, this rotating light fixture that projects cyan, magenta, and yellow, which is to vibrate color,” Albee said. To the layman, it might feel a bit like the kind of structure found in a ’60s psychedelic light show. In the same fashion as the Prismatarium itself, painted on the walls of Albee’s show is a series of gray hues; Hiler theorized that for viewers to properly see color, they had to calibrate their eyes using gray as an entry point. “I used those as the boundaries of which everything else kind of fits in,” Albee said.
Within those parameters, there is a series of photos on display, many of which have been changed and re-photographed over the exhibition’s three stops. Some show documentation of the Prismatarium’s weathered ceiling, zoomed in to the point of abstraction. “I’m interested in showing how they’ve aged over time, and how each color breaks down differently,” Albee said of the sections of the color wheel. There are also photos taken from various feminist textbooks—including the 1992 book Radical Feminist Therapy: Working in the Context of Violence by Bonnie Burstow—that the artist read while at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. One simply displays the title of Burstow’s book in a cursive typeface that evokes the era in which it was published. Some photos are covered with gels, color matched to Hiler’s concept of primary colors.
(Around the time she was in school, Albee was involved in the Pacific Northwest’s nascent Riot grrl scene as a member of the band Excuse 17, whose members included Carrie Brownstein, later of Sleater-Kinney. “Through that community of playing music, it expanded my ideas of how I could make art,” Albee said.)
Also on the wall is a framed color wheel created for the artist by the color-analysis company Color Me Beautiful, which Albee remembers from her youth. “It was really popular in the ’80s, you would go to someone, a color analyst, and then they would tell you what colors to wear,” she said. During a residency in Dublin, Albee paid a visit to a local Color Me Beautiful chapter. “[The Color Analyst] would say stuff to me like ‘Blues are my enemy camp’ and ‘Be careful of the mint,’ ” Albee said, describing the process as feeling a bit “like a card trick.”
Another component of “prismataria” comes in olfactory form. “I made a scent for that first show in part because it was in a basement, and I’m controlling everything else in the room, so I wanted to control the scent,” Albee said. The artist paid a visit to the Institute for Art and Olfaction, a Los Angeles nonprofit specializing in aiding artists in the creation of custom scents. Along with her friend Kendra Gaeta, Albee created a fragrance using a blend of oils that are known to have both calming and stimulating properties. After some tweaking, she settled on a master formula, which she can now draw from to make new batches. “Once I knew which oils I wanted to work with, it was about making something that was pleasing to me,” she said.
Taken together, the installation takes a fresh look at color theory through the lens of feminism and the artist’s own personal narrative. “[Hiler] wanted people to have a higher experience with color, like when you’re at a planetarium you’re able to have this experience with the stars and the planets,” Albee said. “So it felt like there was this expectation that there could be more, so that’s why for me, doing the show multiple times, I’ve kind of used that as this extension.” Although there have been no formal events staged, the piece retains the kind of welcoming feeling that you might expect coming from a concept in part inspired by the dynamics of a communal space. “Yesterday there were kids here, jumping around and playing,” Albee said, before gesturing to the light fixture. “And this puts babies to sleep.”