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In 1914, an American surgeon named Harry Sherman used color theory to determine that “spinach green” should be the new color of hospitals—he believed that the color was a better compliment to blood red than the stark white sheets and walls that were common at the time.1 Sherman went on to create a fully green environment—including the lighting, walls, floors, sheets, and medical apparatuses—and the color quickly spread to other hospitals. Green is still used in medical settings today, perhaps because the early idea that it promotes a sense of calm has held strong.2 The pharmaceutical industry has taken this further, recognizing the effect of color on the psyche and manipulating the color spectrum to heighten mental connections between consumer and drug. In her latest show, Love Letter to L.A., artist Beverly Fishman used green (among other carefully selected hues) with a similar sense of purpose, continuing her enduring exploration into the abstract nature of pain and wellness. The exhibition probed and reappropriated Big Pharma’s claim to our individual, nuanced experiences, which it uses to market its products back to us, an increasingly medicated consumer audience. Fishman’s new paintings on shaped panels maintain a provocative line of inquiry into the seductive, but ultimately destructive, grip that pharmaceutical conglomerates have over the public.
With titles like Untitled (Epilepsy, Pain, Chronic Pain, Opiate Dependence) and Untitled (Pain, Asthma, Anxiety) (both works 2021), Fishman’s paintings look like geometric arrangements of tablets, capsules, and pills, like prescribed cocktails for the ailments outlined parenthetically in each work’s title. Most of us have synesthetic responses to color—emotions that arise when we see certain hues—and pharmaceutical companies keep these associations in mind when developing their products. Children’s medicine is often pink because the color is suggestive of something sweet-tasting.3 Yellow connotes cheeriness or the bright tanginess of a lemon. Blue is calming; green reduces anxiety; orange inspires a spirit of optimism. Working with this knowledge, Fishman uses an overall calming palette of dusty roses, soft lilacs, cool blues, and pale sands, mixing in the occasional shock of lime green, nuclear yellow, and traffic-cone orange. In Untitled (Insomnia, Pain, ADHD, Pain) (2020), the centers of the various forms—a rectangle with two rounded corners, two ovals, and a semicircle—are hollow, revealing the white gallery wall behind them. Haloed by a glowing effect, their outlines in bold, eye-catching tints further enhance the luminosity. The more energetic hues feel representative of the vim and vigor of the initial, alleviating effect of a pill achieving its intended physical or mental relief. The subdued putty and mauve tones conjure the inevitable withdrawals and more sinister side effects of prescription drugs.
Fishman plays with art historical strategies, reimagining the seduction and control of the Finish Fetish and Light and Space movements to approximate the way the pharmaceutical industry first lures, and then betrays, those in the throes of dependency to its drugs. The simple and glowing forms draw influence from California minimalist artists like Craig Kauffman, with his lozenge-shaped plastics and hard-edge abstractions. The mix of satin and matte finishes across the works result in a deceptive dimensionality, blurring the concavity of each painting. Each pill is a new optical illusion—another nod to the false promises and outright deceptions of Big Pharma. Fishman imbues her glossy, exuberant pieces with the hidden implication of a seedy underbelly lurking beneath the flashy facade of pharmaceutical culture. The resplendent, yet minimal nature of the exhibition mirrors the promise of Western medicine. Both emanate a pristine hopefulness, but when you read the fine print—or in this case, the press release—neither inspires optimism.
For every dollar pharmaceutical companies spend on the research and development of a new drug, they spend $19 on its advertisement.4 For scale, the median estimated cost to bring a new drug to market was $985 million between 2009 and 2018.5 With 40 to 50 new drugs approved each year, that’s over $6 billion in annual ad dollars alone. According to the press release, the pinks in paintings like Untitled (Pain, Anxiety, Anxiety) (2020) refer to the unfortunate reality that women are “particularly vulnerable to pharmaceutical campaigns that gender their targets, even as physicians misdiagnose them”6—the cliché color choice points to the rampant sexism that occurs in Western medicine, often leading to women’s pain being misdiagnosed, or not diagnosed at all. Many of the works in the exhibition include the word “anxiety” in the title, a catch all diagnoses for which doctors often over-prescribe drugs (given the countless anti-anxiety medications on the market) while failing to wade into the more tumultuous waters of addressing any underlying condition. If anxiety is the steady go-to for doctors to push the pills in their arsenal, then color is the reliable equivalent Big Pharma uses to replenish that wellspring. Color-coding simplifies brand marketing (the “little blue pill” is a familiar euphemism), helps elderly patients avoid accidental overdose, and aesthetically peddles a state of mind, but the rash assignment of a color to an unassuming consumer could have adverse effects. With over 80 thousand color combinations available in the market today,7 there’s a lot of room for the careless dissemination of beguiling and decorative packaging—like the Lite Brite pink glowing aura that gleams around the perimeter of the otherwise bland “pills” in Untitled (Anxiety, Three Missing Doses) (2020)—that doesn’t spend much time explaining what these vibrant capsules actually do once they go down the hatch.
The perniciousness of the pharmaceutical industry that the exhibition ultimately gestures toward contrasts with the overall airy and minimal feel of Fishman’s candy-coated constructions. The kicker comes when the sugary haze is drastically pulled away, like the comedown from a high. Fishman intentionally manipulates our senses, revealing the luminous siren call of Big Pharma, and then plays on our nerve endings. Love Letter to L.A. excavated the physical and mental whiplash that prescription drugs inflict upon a growing population of dependent users and an extending trail of misdiagnosed women paying too much money to refill the wrong prescriptions.
Neyat Yohannes is a writer based in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in Criterion’s The Current, Mubi Notebook, Bright Wall/Dark Room, KQED Arts, cléo journal, and Chicago Review of Books, among other publications. She sometimes tweets at @rhymeswithcat.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 25.