by Kathy Huang, Nasher Museum student intern
This bright yellow banner hangs quietly against a white backdrop. The words recollect and anticipate happy memories, yet somehow the overriding image produces an upsurge of eeriness. Perhaps because the banner lacks the elements that usually accompany the cheerful fanfare of birthdays—balloons, confetti, chatter, and more notably, variety in color—the image evokes an aura more disturbing than joyful. Michael Jenkins’ Happy Birthday (1990-91) is placed in an environment in which no birthday banner belongs.
When I saw this work for the first time, I was struck by its simplicity. The materials he uses—cardboard and simple metal wiring—support the simplicity of childhood crafts but are not quite conventional materials for birthday decorations. The medium encourages an “off” feeling that allows the viewer to question and contemplate the message it wishes to convey. The construction and placement of the piece portray the common dichotomy of simplicity and complexity, for something so seemingly straightforward must have a deeper meaning that gives the artist’s work dynamism.
So why yellow? While yellow is generally a cheerful color, I was puzzled by the artist’s choice because birthday banners are not usually purely one color; rather, they boast a multitude of colors and textures in celebration of a happy day. In Happy Birthday, however, Jenkins wishes to reminiscence about crafts and birthdays from childhood, at the same time using the color yellow to imply sickness, mentioning the color’s association with scurvy, yellow fever, and jaundice. Furthermore, yellow is often used as sign of caution—yellow traffic lights, crosswalk signs. This kind of examination, then, really digs into the many layers that allow such complexity in Jenkins’ piece.
Because of these implications, the artist’s work ultimately contradicts itself and brings to question the innocence linked to children’s birthday parties, perhaps also commenting more generally about the naivety of childhood innocence. Without a doubt, I can say that this piece holds a very different meaning for me when I look at it again.
Michael Jenkins, Happy Birthday (detail), 1990-1991. Acrylic paint on cardboard with wire, 15 x 33 inches (38.1 x 83.8 cm). Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, NC. Promised gift of Blake Byrne, T’57; L.4.2007.16. Art © Michael Jenkins. Photo by J Caldwell.