Bright Colors Might Not Cure You, But the Pseudoscience Is Enough to Inspire a Vivid New Art Show

Sophie Treppendahl’s curiosity and skepticism around the new-age practice known as chromotherapy helped produce works "rooted in the emotional power of color."

Bright Colors Might Not Cure You, But the Pseudoscience Is Enough to Inspire a Vivid New Art Show

Everything I’m looking at inside the Jack Hanley Gallery in TriBeCa is pink. In front of me hangs a pink painting, which is beside another painting that is a slightly deeper shade of pink. Each piece of artwork at Sophie Treppendahl’s latest show “Chromotherapy” is awash with a pinkish-magenta hue. The walls in the gallery are dark pink. The front desk attendant is wearing a pink shirt and has pink hair. Her skin even glows pink. So does mine. That’s because I’m wearing magenta GloFX sunglasses—one shade of many colored glasses offered by the gallery—which promise to promote “feelings of emotional balance and internal regulation.” In the sense that experiencing the world in monochrome allows for a calm dissociation from what is actually happening in the world, they’re sort of working. While that isn’t much of an endorsement, they are certainly fun!

That tension, between the promise of relief and actually feeling relieved, is one of the ideas at the center of Treppendahl’s show. The title of which is in reference to a new-age (though centuries-old) pseudoscientific practice that believes different wavelengths along the color spectrum can heal bodily and mental ailments by either exposing the affected area to the light or viewing the world through a colored lens. If that sentence made you furrow your brow, don’t worry, it did the same for Treppendahl. But that skepticism didn’t stop her from exploring the multicolored mystical realm known as chromotherapy.

“Honestly I sort of stumbled upon it,” Treppendahl told Jezebel. In the basement of Jack Hanley’s are miniature dioramas of rooms—recreations of the ones seen in many of her paintings. While looking online for colored flashlights to shine on these miniatures Treppendahl came across chromotherapy torches, small colored flashlights with uncut crystals at the tip that promise to alleviate problem areas on the body that their light touches.

“I couldn’t stop Googling and I got obsessed, ordered a million books, and fell down all of these forums,” Treppendahl said. “There’s a retreat in Greece led by this woman that I want to go on, but I’m worried I might actually convert.” Although she was about two-thirds of the way done with the work (paintings, encaustics, and miniatures) for this particular show when she learned about chromotherapy, it helped her mentally frame and complete the rest of it, even literally finding its way into some of the pieces.

In the painting “Reclining Nude, Night,” a sliver of blue light casts against a blue wall as a pants-less person sleeps, curled up on a blue couch. A copy of the book Let There Be Light by Darius Dinshah is perched on the sofa. Dinshah is the son of Colonel Dinshah P. Ghadiali, an apostle of the alternative medicinal practice and inventor of the 1920 Spectro-Chrome device that shone colored lights on the body part in need of healing. Ghadiali, who was born in India and later immigrated to New Jersey, wrote a lengthy companion literature to his invention titled, The Spectro-Chrome Metry Encyclopedia. He believed that oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, and carbon existed within our bodies and were, respectively, blue, red, green, and yellow. When people were sick, it was because those elements and colors were out of balance. Shining a colored light would help restore that balance.

(Ghadiali gained a loyal following of tens of thousands of patients before the American Medical Association and Food and Drug Administration came down against him in the mid to late 1930s. The FDA gained new authority to regulate medical devices through the 1938 Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and used its newfound power to crack down on the Spectro-Chrome. In 1946, the agency won a trial against Ghadiali which let seize over 500 Spectro-Chrome machines from patients before sentencing Ghadiali to three years in prison plus a $20,000 fine.)

Despite the government’s backlash against Ghadiali, his theories persisted and are still in circulation (though to a much lesser extent) today. Red light “supports intestinal health” and “prevents skin irritation, bone disease and anemia,” according to Christian Valnet’s 2014book Chromotherapy: The Power of Colors, a book that Treppendahl includes passages from in an accompanying zine of the show. Violet helps with vein function. Blue “reduces inflammation” and “acts as a mild sedative.” Maybe that’s why the person on the blue couch in the blue painting was asleep.

“Reclining Nude, Night” Image:Sophie Treppendahl

Treppendahl, who is currently based out of New Orleans, tends to paint ordinary domestic and work spaces, like an untidied studio or cluttered dresser. But her mastery of light and color elevates these otherwise mundane scenes, giving them a dreamlike quality. Treppendahl has explicitly stated that her work reckons with her own understanding of her mental health journey. And one can sense, in repetitive portraits of women napping in untidy rooms, the underlying themes of mental disarray. Nothing dire, but the familiar lethargy of depression rang out to me as I took in her work. Chromotherapy, the practice, is a harmonious convergence of those three motifs: light, color, and mental health. “I just felt so excited about this concept and it felt really nice to get out of my own head and to think about color and light in such a different way as opposed to just my own feelings, my own studio, my own health,” she explained.

“There’s a [chromotherapy] retreat in Greece led by this woman that I want to go on, but I’m worried I might actually convert.”

Anyone confronting their own mental health (and let’s be real, that’s anyone who exists) is bound to eventually dip their toes into the behemothic wellness industry, which fuels cycles of hope and despair with an endless carousel of routines, supplements, and self-care practices promising healing results. The healthiest approach to that relationship, in my opinion, is with a sense of humor, which Treppendahl’s curiosity about chromotherapy embodies. In the corner on the front cover of her zine, a star-burst speech bubble exclaims “4 easy methods for feeling great!” If nothing else, the statement will make you laugh.

“4 PM” Image:Sophie Treppendahl

If you view her painting “4 pm” without glasses, you’ll see a woman sitting serenely amidst a yellow wash of afternoon light. But slide on the red GloFX glasses that pledge “feelings of vitality, power, self-confidence and safety” and that same painting feels like you’re watching a woman sit through a three-alarm fire. I would not describe the feeling I experienced as “safe,” and Treppendahl admits that that particular hue is “really scary.” But you certainly have your emotional state altered in that moment! That’s not nothing, right? And in moments of desperation, “not nothing” can be something to hold onto.

Chromotherapy “felt like an example where we could see how ridiculous [the wellness industry] is,” Treppendahl told Jezebel. “People truly believe that [these colored flashlights] will heal any physical ailment” which might seem radical, she says, “but it’s not that different from all the other things that are promising something slightly different.”

Dinshah P. Ghadiali’s Spectro-Chrome device that he invented in 1925. Photo:Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago (Getty Images)

This is the point in this article where I admit I’ve dabbled in chromotherapy myself. A few years ago, after getting off my nannying shift in the West Village—a gig I was grateful for and wished I didn’t still need to rely on—I wandered over to the Whitney Museum’s gift shop. With approximately $90 in my checking account and a pound of despair over my waning ambitions/love life/and surely another inconsequential worry in my heart, I purchased a pair of $24 magenta-hued glasses (the exact ones I tried on at Jack Hanley the other week) that promised mental equilibrium. Meditation or say, not looking straight into my phone screen for eight hours a day, be damned. These had to work.

And in a way they did! New York’s infamously bleak and lifeless late winter softened and warmed up through my new lens. And not for nothing—wearing pink glasses felt frivolous and fun. That slight shift in perspective felt analogous to what Treppendahl experienced in her own exploration of chromotherapy.

“While I don’t believe wearing green tinted glasses will heal whooping cough, as some of my research books promise, I do feel that my practice is rooted in the emotional power of color,” Treppendahl wrote in the introduction to her gallery show. The show allows you to immerse yourself in the color-drenched scenes she paints: ochre living rooms, hazy blue kitchen windows, a grungy green bedroom—an emotional overtone saturates each scene. And while there isn’t a quick fix to swapping real-life emotional overtones, the handy colored chromotherapy glasses give you the opportunity to indulge in the possibility there might be.

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