There's an irony to discussing
Colette's art because so much of it lies literally beyond language.
She is a storyteller of emotional journeys, but the stories tumble
out in mimetic fashion - where the arrangement of color, line, symbol
and image conspire without a word being spoken. These are pieces
that define "evocative" - they elicit a response that
lies beyond verbal logic. A given image may delight or sadden us,
and we're not quite sure why. Words for the story remain elusive,
but the tactile contrast of gold and glass conjure the tale's emotive
Colette has been making enamels since the early 1970s, but in 1989
a vigorous emotional directness emerges in her work. Not to belabor
the biographical connection, but she began the Ideogram series that
year while recovering from a serious illness, a recuperation characterized
by sensory deprivation. (An "ideogram" is a symbol or
picture of an object or idea for which there are no corresponding
words - an apt description of the work.) The Ideograms also mark
a radical shift in approach for Colette, who had been making increasingly
intricate enamels with multiple cloisons and masterful shadings
of color and texture within each well. The Ideogram series wiped
the slate clean, stripping her vision down to its essentials.
Compare, for example, the color-drenched complexity of Requiescat
Pectoral #6 (1989) with Ideogram #3 (1990). The bird, the blood,
and the heart appear in both (as does the cat, transformed), but
the Ideogram is like slicing open a sedimentary rock to reveal a
layer of fossils. Here the characters are preserved, golden lines
of desire (rather than compositional planes) hinting at their relationships.
Both pieces deal with the calculus of loss, one as an outcry, the
other as an elegy.
This process of simplification is hardly unusual - many artists
go through it as their work matures and they employ their technical
mastery not so much to dazzle but to communicate. That's certainly
been Colette's direction in the last half dozen years. As her compositional
style and figurative modeling have simplified, she has incorporated
gold wire "script" to embed additional layers of meaning
(and emotion) in each piece, making it both more dense with information
and more distinctly personal. Her idiosyncratic alphabet of "feelings"
may appear within the enamels or may be drawn on the metalwork settings.
Many larger pieces also contain these marks on the underside or
interior of the settings as well. They are like whispers, small
confidences imparted by the artist to the wearer but hidden from
the viewer. Colette instills her enamels with memory and associations,
which is part of what makes her newer work both disturbing and deeply
satisfying. To don a Colette is to consent to an intimate relationship
with the artist, to become her confidante.
The imagery derives from Colette's 1ife journeys" - journeys
of the emotions, travels (and travails) of the heart. Cat, bird,
heart, drops of blood catch the eye and the imagination. Closer
examination reveals other recurrent motifs: the ladders, boxes (or
are they coffins?), the wrapped or cocooned cat, the bullseye, and,
as a nod to time ebbing away, the hourglass. Precisely because these
images and symbols are indirect - that is, because they have no
direct correspondence in language - they bear both the urgency of
speech and the mystery of visual art.
This paradox becomes explicit in the Pictogram series that largely
follows the Ideograms. (Actually, Colette goes back and forth between
series, only working exclusively on one when she begins it.) In
general, the Pictograms represent the re-infusion of Colette's full
palette of colors into the streamlined compositional approach of
the Ideograms. The symbols of loss and gain become more prominent,
and recognizable words and numbers also proliferate, written in
wire or cut into the metal settings.
Two pieces from 1991, both in museum collections, reveal Colette
in the midst of experimentation. The Rhode Island School of Design's
Pictogram #7, as elegantly dark as a Handel requiem, shows her re-inventing
the compartments of pre-Ideogram enamels as spatial elenents. The
"speech" so evident in mysterious script is impenetrable,
but clearly passionate. By Pictogram #18, owned by the Oakland Museum,
the scene is populated with animate things – the bird, the
heart, the moon - that glow with an intense golden light. Space
also begins to shift away from divided images toward a linked and
partially unified landscape of internal motion and external experience
where decreasing numbers hint at loss and inevitable solitude.
A similar numeric code is at work in some of Colette's paintings,
which have been a private art but which she plans to begin showing.
Requiescat 2 (1995), for example, recapitulates the elements of
Pictogram #18 but in a broader concept of space. Colette frequently
uses largescale canvases (roughly three by four feet) to explore
colors and symbol through a more immediate medium of expression.
Alkyds and oils give her much the same color intensity as the fused
glass of the enamels, but the paintings inevitably contain greater
volumes of space. Themes and compositions that appear in the enamels
often originate in the paintings - and vice versa.
The difference between the media is not subject matter or artistic
vocabulary, but proximity. most of Colette's enamels are set as
jewelry, an artform that is a collaboration of art and body and,
by extension, of artist and wearer. The sensuality of her enameling
technique combines with her personal confidences to produce objects
with near-carnal impact. The richness of tones, complexity of depth
(many pieces are fired up to 25 times), and subtle gradations of
color and iridescence within individual cloisons suggest a passionate
intensity and sensual response to life. That affirmation is supported,
too, by Colette's occasional use of the words "no" and
yes" spelled out in flowing wire script. More often than not,
"yes" is the word of choice - or “yes yes yes."
Being an artistic autodidact has served Colette well, for the enamel
tradition is one of miniture decorative and occasionally devotional
objects. But Colette approaches the form like an illuminator with
a modernist sensibility regarding color and space - as a painter.
As a result, she imbues each miniature "canvas" with layers
of meaning and intention as she builds up layers of glass in the
In the midst of the Pictogram series, Colette produced another series
of enamels based on imagery that she says she absorbed "by
osmosis" from the pages of a calendar illustrated with New Guinea
face paintings. The Calendar group is unusual in Colette's work
because it emphasizes portraiture rather than narrative landscape.
The mask imagery dominates each piece with representations of the
extremes of human expression. While some of Colette's more familiar
symbols appear (a ladder, a hand, the hourglass), the overall effect
is a radical departure - although in some pieces we see faces transformed
from human to feline or avian.
The stylization of the masks derives in part from the nearly pure
abstraction of the Bullseye enamel series of this same period and
from some of the experimentation in the first phase of Pictograms,
especially the deeply charged Pictogram #8, with its jutting arrow,
tumbling hourglass and bullseye pendant in gold. The masks have
a primitive power in their composition and a haunting beauty in
their execution, for Colette calls on her remarkable command of
opalescent and transparent enamels to create images that literally
shine in their emotional intensity.
They are "dark" pieces - "I'm attracted to darkness,"
Colette admits, and the blacks, reds and maroons hint at an ominous
shadowland. Yet within each piece are what she calls "small
chinks of blue, suggesting tiny bits of pleasure." That's not
to say that they are works about human misery, but rather expressions
of deep and primal emotion. Ultimately, the masks are a fitting
motif for an artist whose work crystallizes the tension between
role-playing and personal disclosure, between emotion as it is felt
and as it is expressed - or stilled.
Without question, the masterpiece of the Calendar series is the
exuberant The Flesh Is Weak, a necklace of 24 pieces. Four major
cloisonne enamels are interspersed with settings of semi-precious
stones in gold. The settings are fabricated by metalsmith Jennifer
Banks from Colette's designs. Banks has been working with Colette
in her Petaluma, California studio throughout the 1990s, starting
as a student assistant and maturing into a master jeweler. The central
enameled mask figure is a tour de force: a declaration about the
gradation of thought and feeling from the smooth exterior of the
public face to the interior and mysterious layers of color and texture
suspended in the receding depths of the cloison wells.
Colette believes she may have finished with the Calendar series,
for some of the more recent Pictograms seem to point toward another
thematic evolution. For example, Pictogram # 21 (late 1994), which
shows a ghostly bird resting on a white hand that reaches to touch
a red heart illustrates a painterly approach where Colette's enamels
and her works on canvas are closely integrated. Unlike most of the
earlier Pictograms, the composition consists of a single image rather
than compartments of images. The multiple panels have been subsumed
by a single balanced landscape of dark ground, bright sky. The primal
darkness is evident, but the scene is inhabited by animal and human
presence alike. And, of course, as prominent as the signature, a
little box proclaims an affirmation of it all: "yes."