‘Meadow’ is the kind of word that sways. Read it aloud and you can hear its gentle roll, the lilt that comes from moving between an unstressed and stressed syllable. It’s a softer word than its more concise cousin—‘field’—which, in the absence of syllabic hills, feels flatter, closer to the ground.
Belem Lett’s exhibition at James Makin Gallery undulates in the same way that ‘meadow’ undulates: our eyes rove across circuits, lines, maps, passageways, and spaces within spaces (or perhaps tunnels within tunnels). Riotous layers of colour seem to have escaped from their frames. They spill into the gallery via a collection of sculptures that hug, perch, climb, or contort themselves into an array of shapes. To experience Lett’s exhibition, then, is to travel between depth and flatness, between peaks and troughs, between the certainty of a hard line and the impishness of a curve.
There’s a revelling in the material here, in the way a brush of paint can affix itself to aluminium or in the malleability of pine. Yet what remains central to Lett’s practice is the interplay of colour, space, light and shadow. “I was trying to make the colours frighten each other,” writes Derek Jarman in Chroma, and there is something similar at play in Lett’s choice of palette. We have magenta, emerald, vermillion, absinthe, mauve, heliotrope, russet and tin; we have amber, ginger, fuchsia, acid green, sunflower yellow and a thin ribbon of mandarin. This is not the hippy-ish free-flow of anything goes, but rather, a corralling of the spectrum—an experiment in the fealty and frailty of pigments. Shreds and patches of tones conjoin, cohabitate, argue, run into, celebrate and chafe against one another. I imagine Lett putting his colours through a training session, encouraging them to give it their all, to not leave anything in the tank. How far can we go together, asks Lett, until we find the edge of your potential?
Some of the pathways I have discovered while being amongst, in, and beside Lett’s colours: that battleships were painted medium grey with a drop of Venetian red, so they could be camouflaged at dusk; that Ludwig Wittgenstein said “a colour shines in its surroundings. Just as eyes only smile in a face”; that the poet James Schuyler compared morning sunlight to a “yellow jelly bean”; and that “the colour we perceive an object to be is precisely the colour it isn’t”(1.), it is “the segment of the spectrum that is being reflected away.” I ask my brother, who has difficulty differentiating between red and green, what it is like to wear lenses that adjust his eyes to a more typical colour spectrum. I didn’t realise the colours you see were so dull (!), he replies. Less vivid. More sombre. (A follow-up question: How would my brother’s eyes apprehend Lett’s Meadow?).
Later, when planting a hodgepodge of flower seedlings, I am seized by the wild thrill of possible chaos. I put periwinkle blue alongside scarlet; I put plum next to lemon, the paladin of the yellows. I plant marigolds and pansies and borage and banana-split daisies. Don’t forget about the whites, advises the experienced gardener. Too much orange, says my mother, would be a mistake. Like Lett, I challenge myself to be bolder, to be riskier. I wait for the colours to reply.
Naomi Riddle 2023
1. Kassia St Clair, The Secret Lives of Colour, (UK: John Murray Publishers, 2016), p. 121; Ludwig Wittgenstein, as quoted in Derek Jarman, Chroma, (UK: Penguin Random House, 2019 ), p. 1; James Schuyler, Selected Poems, (NY: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2007), p. 157; St Clair, p. 13.
This solo exhibition is set to add to the critical and market response to Lett’s work, introducing subtle refinements and additions to his practice such as luminous aluminium finishes and sculptural elements.
In the past year Lett’s practice has seen increasingly wide-spread recognition, as evidenced by an ever-growing waiting-list of eager clients and an astounding number of prize inclusions. In 2022 alone, the artist has won both the Omnia Art Prize and the Kangaroo Valley Art Prize; he has also been a finalist in the Sir John Sulman Prize, Waverly Art Prize, Fishers Ghost Prize, Lake Valley Art Prize, Grace Cossington Smith Prize and the Mossman Art Prize.