Thursday, September 8, 2016

Retro Colby

 A Bill Colby retrospective at UPS
Published in the Weekly Volcano, Sept. 8, 2016

“Blue Stairway,” watercolor by Bill Colby, courtesy Kittredge Gallery
Kittredge Gallery at the University of Puget Sound kicked off the building’s 75th anniversary year with a retrospective of works by printmaker and longtime UPS art professor Bill Colby, who taught there from 1956 to1989.
On display are 26 works, mostly prints and a few watercolors. The works chosen for this exhibition display a wide range of Colby’s subject matter and style, including works from the 1950s right up to this year.
“Sun at Short Sands” woodcut 1956, by Bill Colby, courtesy Kittredge Gallery

Much of his early work puts me in mind of the early Northwest School painters from the 1930s and ’40s (Mark Toby, Guy Anderson, Kenneth Callahan, Morris Graves). These painters were also called mystics, and there is much of the mystic in Colby’s prints, to be seen in his simplification of form and in color schemes based on the dull light of the Northwest as seen in mountains, clouds and water. Among his earlier prints are scenes with people in interior settings, which hint at narrative without explicitly telling stories. In later works he depicts landscape in various degrees of abstraction, from simply stylized to almost purely symbolic or emblematic shapes.
“East Door” is the largest piece in the show at approximately seven feet tall. It is a simple abstraction with both Native American and Asian influences. Near the top a stylized wreath of leaves that encircles a cold moon. Below that is a mountain range simplified to little more than a line of triangles, and below that larger and similarly abstracted mountains and trees. This piece is on loan from Roger and Andrea Smith. It is restful, contemplative.
“Ravine,” a large woodcut, is one of the strongest images in the show. It is a highly expressive landscape with broad and energetic marks that appear to have
been gouged out with wide swipes of some kind of trowel. Next to it is a watercolor study for the same piece that is even more expressive, with loose and energetic brushstrokes. It’s one of my favorites, and it exemplifies something I’ve often observed; and that is that studies for larger works of art are often more compelling than the more “finished” pieces due to their sheer exuberance and spontaneity. 
“Quiet Time,” a black and white etching from 1965, pictures a group of women seated in what appears to be a bar. The interior scene is done with squiggly lines and organic shapes that are close to pure abstraction, and the women’s figures are hidden among these shapes. It’s like a Tobey painting with peek-a-boo figures.
“Downtown Swing,” a woodcut from the same year, depicts a scene very much like that in “Quiet Time,” but the figures are less abstract, and the scene is anything but quiet. It is a rambunctious, rhythmical scene of figures drinking, dancing and arguing with jazz-age exuberance. 
“Blue Stairway,” a watercolor from 1965, is a mystical and lyrical painting that I see as Colby’s take on Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” (obviously not intended as such since it was painted before the Zeppelin song was published). It is lovely, delicate, atmospheric, and otherworldly.
The most recent picture is “Crow Watch,” a mixed watercolor and woodcut from this year depicting a large black crow in flight with a much smaller murder of crows on what appears to be a power line.
Bill Colby, Kittredge Gallery, Monday-Friday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday noon to 5 p.m., through Sept. 24, 1500 N. Warner St., Tacoma, 253.879.3701.

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