In mimicking Rothko's work, Lexington artist says, 'you just try ... the best you can'

Contributing Culture WriterJanuary 24, 2013 

Re-creating master painter Mark Rothko's New York studio presented a unique challenge to the designers at Actors Guild of Lexington as they worked to build the sets for Red.

Brian Sprague built walls that nearly reach AGL's ceiling to suggest the vaulting space of the run-down gym where Rothko made and practiced arranging his large abstract expressionist paintings. Eric Seale filled the space with 1950s-era tools from his dad's garage. Bottles of powdered pigment line the shelves, reminding the audience of the kinds of art materials available in the mid-20th century.

Not surprisingly, though, re-creating Rothko's paintings were the design element that the team had to nail.

"It's a problem with plays about art and artists," director Jerome Davis says. "If you're doing a play about Nureyev, at some point you've gotta dance and you've gotta be good. That's the case here, too."

That's where DeAnna Rigney comes in. Rigney, a community education coordinator at the Lexington Public Library, is a figurative painter who has lent her skills for several AGL productions.

Just this season, Rigney was called on at the last minute to paint the presidential seal on the Oval Office carpet of the set of David Mamet's November.

For Red, Rigney was painting the set floor to look like the wooden slats of an old gym when Seale talked to her about re-creating four Rothko paintings from the Seagram collection, around which the play revolves.

Re-creating the color and composition of Rothko's famous murals was a challenge, but capturing the elusive "glow" that Rothko evoked in his work required deeper study into the painter's process.

"Apparently he was pretty secretive about it, but one of the things I read seemed to indicate that he worked in thin layers, that he thinned the paint down with turpentine," says Rigney, who used glossy acrylic paints before Seale layered the paintings with polyurethane. "I tried to thin some down with water, just to get the layers like he did.

"You just try to mimic the best you can."

Re-creating abstract expressionist masterpieces is not part of Rigney's typical artistic endeavors. In addition to pitching in with set painting whenever she is needed, Rigney has been AGL's unofficial visual-arts curator. She selects pertinent artwork to display in the theater alongside featured productions.

For Red, Rigney will be showing her own art in an exhibit called Transitions, which features acrylic paintings of iconic still frames from '70s cinema.

Candace Chaney is a Lexington-based writer.

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