Thursday, February 5, 2009


Tacoma Art Museum hosts a better than your average biennial

Published in the Weekly Volcano, Feb. 5, 2009
Pictured: Robert C. Jones, "At Last," 2007. Oil on canvas, 20 x 16 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Francine Seders Gallery, Seattle. Photo: Eduardo Calderón.

The 9th Northwest Biennial at Tacoma Art Museum is too heavy on the conceptual; there’s too much photography, and it would be nice if there were at least one South Sound artist in the show. But it’s one of the more impressive biennials they’ve had, with a wide range of very intriguing art.

The best pure painter in the show is undoubtedly Robert Jones from Seattle with three solid abstract paintings. Jones’s paintings are gritty. His "All or Nothing," oil on canvas, is a loose arrangement of rough shapes in pink, green, black and white on a gray surface, with a nice interplay between shapes embedded in the surface and laid on top of the surface. His two smaller paintings, "At Last" and "Mexico Red," combine swirling circular patterns in black with fields of red and green. His colors are muted but rich, and his paint application is rough and jagged in a tradition going back to early Philip Guston and Hans Hoffman, the latter of whom he studied with.

Two environmentally-aware artists, Susan Robb and W. Scott Trimble express their environmental concerns through theme and materials without sacrificing aesthetics to message. Robb is showing a video of a huge outdoor installation called "Warmth, Giant Black Toobs, no. 4," which she has installed in various locations from Miami to New York to Seattle (Larimore Project). The giant black tubes wave in the air like those silly air-filled gummy-like figures you see on used car lots. Only they’re abstract and very lyrical. Trimble’s room-size sculpture, "Unitled #4," is made of reclaimed slats from wood pallets. His “pallet” works can be reconfigured to fit different spaces. This one is like a plank walkway that doubles back on itself over and over and rises in hills of various sizes like a roller coaster. It is meticulously put together and pleasant to look at.

Chang-Ae Song’s drawings in graphite, acrylic and photo collage are delicate, sensitively drawn, and atmospheric. Enraptured with their delicate beauty, I almost missed essential elements of the works — a group of seven drawings, all called "Clouds" — those essential elements being that they combine different traditions and materials (Asian landscape, abstraction and Renaissance figurative art) in ways that in less capable hands would have been jarring, and that one group is filled with drawings taken from photographs of torture victims at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

Well known Portland-based landscape artist Michael Brophy is showing a suite of little paintings depicting a fire in his studio — an actual event — and some of his favorite Northwest landscape scenes. Some of the fire paintings are very strong and dramatic, but I wasn’t impressed with his landscape scenes.

Finally, I was pleasantly surprised with three little paintings of potted plants by Elliot Ficus. The paint is so heavily encrusted and the colors so dull — shades of gray with muted green tints — that they look like they are sculpted out of clay.

This is a show that should not be missed.

[Tacoma Art Museum, Northwest Biennial, through May 25, Tuesday–Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Third Thursdays 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Sunday noon-5 p.m., 1701 Pacific Avenue, Tacoma, 253.272.4258]

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