Arts & Theater

L.A. artist dresses up colors at Verge Center for the Arts

Walking into the gallery at Verge Center for the Arts, you are surrounded by color. Arranged around the room are hundreds of dresses in red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet – the seven colors of the chromatic spectrum.

The experience first brings to mind a color wheel, then the sheets of paint chips at hardware stores. Then the floor-to-ceiling rows of dresses make you think of a choir, the heads of the singers absent. Or regimented rows of soldiers, an army of color.

“I was living in a rainbow,” said Mary Younakof, the creator of “343 Dresses: The Chromatic Convergence Project,” of the experience of working in her large studio at the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles.

The simple dresses, made of seven pieces, are somewhat anonymous, like Chairman Mao uniforms. Their drama comes from color: the banks of dresses include primary, secondary, and tertiary colors so that there is a range of shades.

“I did a lot of research on the history of rainbows in art,” she explained. “I asked myself, ‘How am I going to see my rainbow? How am I going to depict a rainbow without being literal.’ ”

Younakof made the dresses herself, getting fabric from remnant stores for a dollar or two a yard. Each bank of dresses, seven in all, consists of seven rows of seven frocks, adding up to 343 gowns.

“There is a numerical structure to the project,” Younakof said at Verge the afternoon of the preview of her show. Everything is a multiple or dividend of seven.

The project also has multiple manifestations. Every day for 343 days, Younakof wore a different colored dress. Once a week she performed in front of buildings in Los Angeles that were the same color as the dress she wore that day.

Some of these “happenings” are on view at Verge in a bank of video monitors. In one, she is in front of a pink building surrounded by fluffy pink mechanical cats. In another, she sweeps a green building with a green broom. Backed by a densely saturated blue wall, she holds blue balloons that nearly disappear against it. As she performs her “actions,” cars and pedestrians pass by.

She thinks of her performances as a kind of street art that leaves no marks. “When I find a place, things seem to happen by magic; they converge,” she said. “I saw a vendor selling brooms on my way to the green building and I bought a green one and used it to sweep the wall.”

The colors provoked different responses, she said.

“When I wore pink, people would wink and mouth, ‘How cute.’ When I wore orange people wanted to touch me and share personal stories about orange bedrooms, orange teddy bears and orange bedspreads. When I wore yellow, people would make sounds at me: ‘Woo-hoo yellow!’ they would call.”

Younakof, who has an alternate career in real estate, discovered the colored buildings while driving around Los Angeles in her day job. Her 3,000-foot studio is in a blue building that used to house design firms. Colored buildings, she said, are emblematic of Los Angeles.

She thinks of her banks of dresses as paintings with texture determined by the type of fabric each is made of. Some are matte, others shiny. Her current favorite color is orange, though it used to be red. She is intrigued by indigo, which she calls a moment between blue and violet.

“Blue and indigo are the most subtle colors,” she said. “Blue is institutional, and when I wore it, people asked me if I was a nurse.”

Indigo has a wide range of tones from gray to almost black. Violet ranges from lavender to purple, which she calls a regal and spiritual color.

While she is in Sacramento, she may do some performances. She is attracted to the Capitol building and Tower Bridge, which is gold. “I’d like to finish my project with gold,” she said.