Friday, July 6, 2012

Best of the Northwest

The latest selected works from TAM’s permanent collection

"The Brooklyn Crucifix" by Bo Bartlett, courtesy Tacoma Art Museum

The latest show at the Tacoma Art Museum (TAM) is Best of the Northwest: Selected Painting from the Collection. Calling an exhibition "Best of the Northwest" is an exercise in hubris at best - an invitation for critics like me (and let's face it, everybody's a critic) to say, "They call this the best?" (Can you hear the note of sarcasm?)

Well, if you judge the show by Bo Bartlett's "Brooklyn Crucifixion" or William Ivey's luminous "Blues and Whites" or Alden Mason's "Garden Rocker," this show definitely does represent some of the finest art created in the Northwest. But if you think of some of the artists not represented in this show, or of some of the more famous artists whose work in this show is not their best or most representative work, then this show falls far short of living up to the promise of its title. For instance, where is the Michael Spafford or the Fay Jones? Surely TAM owns at least one of each, or surely they should.
Nearly all of the most famous Northwest painters are represented, but not necessarily by signature works or by their best works. There are paintings by Mark Toby, Guy Anderson, Morris Graves, Jacob Lawrence and Kenneth Callahan, but none of their most exciting work. Graves' "Chalice Holding the Stimson Mill," for instance, is dark on dark and hard to see, and lacking some of the mysticism normally associated with his work.  Callahan's "Cascades" is a dull landscape picturing two hikers in the mountains in flat tones of gray and earth colors. It is a nice little painting but exhibits none of the bold expressiveness for which Callahan is famous.

But back to the Bartlett, Ivey and Mason. These alone are worth a trip to the museum. Bartlett's "Brooklyn Crucifixion" is a powerful piece of realist art with a unique connection to South Puget Sound. It illustrates a pivotal moment in the play "My Name is Asher Lev" written by Aaron Posner, adapted from the novel by Chaim Potok, which had its Northwest Premiere at Lakewood Playhouse in 2011 directed by the late Marcus Walker. Depicted is a woman being crucified in the window of a New York apartment. On one side of her is the Jewish artist Asher Lev; on the other, his father, each clearly recognizable as the actors who played their parts: Paige Hansen, Jeffrey Alan Smith and Elliot Weiner.  It is a powerful image beautifully painted, and the historical connection to Lakewood Playhouse and to Walker, who died shortly after the premiere, only adds to its drama and poignancy.  The artist gifted the painting to the museum.

Ivey's "Blues and Whites" was included in the Safeco Collection exhibition at TAM a year ago (a show which really did represent the best of the Northwest. That painting blew me away at the time. In my review of that show, I said it was one of the best abstract paintings I had seen in a long time. That assessment still holds. It's a simple painting of rectangular forms afloat in a field of white created with shimmering, short, staccato brushstrokes. Imagine if you can a marriage of paintings by Mark Rothko and Susan Rothenberg.

Mason's large "Garden Rocker" is the painting that greets visitors as they enter the gallery. It is part of a series of paintings inspired by Burpee seed catalogs. Large globs of wet paint are allowed to soak into and stain raw canvas. The colors are dull, but in a strange way seem much brighter than they are. From my recent reading in conjunction with the show, I've learned that this series is pretty famous, but I was previously unaware of it, and it is totally unlike anything of his I had seen before. When I think of Alden Mason, I picture bright colors squeezed onto the canvas in heavy ribbons of color such as his wall-sized painting in the Convention Center in Seattle. This painting was an enjoyable surprise to me.

[Tacoma Art Museum, Wed.-Sun. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Third Thursdays 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., through March 2013, admission $10, student/senior/military $8, children 5 and younger free, Third Thursdays free from 5-8 p.m.,1701 Pacific Avenue, Tacoma]

No comments: