The painter Fay Jones has long been one of the most prominent artists on the local scene. Her distinctive paintings on paper, populated with an endearing and ever-changing cast of oddball characters, have intrigued area viewers for over thirty years — long enough for other artists to emerge with somewhat similar styles. This month visitors to her current show in Pioneer Square can also stop by a nearby exhibit by Brooklyn artist Brian Novatny, a painter whose artistic strategy shares much with that of Ms. Jones. KUOW art critic Gary Faigin finds a good deal to ponder in the relationship between the two artists, and he joins us with his thoughts.
In the last half-century, the multiplicity of strategies employed by artists has grown exponentially. Instead of widespread Movements and Isms, we have Every Artist for Themselves. Appropriation, Body Art, Earth Art, Hard-edged abstraction, Performance, Photo-realism, Surrealism, Video, a quick review of the art slicks reveals an alphabet soup of styles. That’s why it is particularly intriguing to find two local shows by artists from opposite ends of the country, unaware of each other’s work, who employ such similar means to express their worldviews.
Both Brian Novatny and Fay Jones create what I’ve dubbed — for lack of a better term — Puzzle Pictures. A puzzle picture is one which, in spite of the artist’s employment of a realistic style for the depiction of individual objects, it’s clear from the outset that no obvious story line or idea holds the various pieces together, pieces which often float, overlap, and interact in an undefined space. The artist’s underlying motivation for the particular arrangement of people, trees, cars, buildings, clouds, mountains, etc. is left mysterious (the titles are usually unhelpful), the better to engage the viewer. What the picture means for the artist themselves, and what it means for the viewer may be two quite different things, and for most artists, that’s perfectly alright. The point is to create an intriguing visual experience, a sort of image tango in which the artist invites us to engage.
A seductive style can help puzzle pictures considerably (it’s practically a necessity), and here is where both Jones and Novatny are particularly strong. In the case of Brian Novatny, his forte is drawing, especially portrait drawing. Each of his modest-sized oil paintings features a small, meticulous portrait as the centerpiece, and that person’s name is the title of most of the works. Surrounding the main character are various literal or evocative elements, objects or people which we take to be suggestive of the central figure’s moods, memories, and desires. These other features, which include such things as figures, trees, paint splotches, fabric samples, and wallpaper patterns, are skillfully and attractively depicted. Novatny makes clear his independence of Renaissance space by dividing his shiny, mostly white picture space into grid-like panes, each with its own way up, and each sub-picture overlapping or being overlapped by the others. In an interesting parallel to Fay Jones, who uses collage in many of her images, Novatny paints his pictures, using texture and fake shadows, to appear collaged even though they are not.
In "Patricia Being Apprehensive," for example, Patricia is rendered as a paper-doll with a bright red floral print dress and a forthright personality. Novatny places trompe l’oeil shadows at the edges of her arms, dress, and chin, perhaps suggesting that she is more “real” than the un-shadowed eight other figures in the painting. These young, well-dressed men and women chat, wave, do twisting exercises, or stare off into space, while Patricia contorts her fingers nervously. Small, disassociated areas of pattern and print appear in both clothing and background, and a stylized yellow painter’s palette provides a color counterpart to the red dress. Some of the figures are sideways, upside down, or seen only in fragments. But what is it all about? We’ll come back to that later.
While the painting of Novatny has its stylistic roots in commercial art and illustration, that of Fay Jones draws its imagery from Folk Art, vintage comic strips, and children’s books, as well as line work of Henri Matisse. Some of the animal and human characters remind me of the illustrations of Crockett Johnson, creator of Harold and the Purple Crayon. Jones uses color sparingly (as does Novatny), and her work places much reliance on outline and overlap, transparency and collage.
The painting, "Bird House Blues" is a particularly complex puzzle. The central figure is a serene-looking woman, reclining and demurely covering her breasts. These are exposed because we are able to see her nude body right through her enormous white dress and her transparent slip, a slip covered with a floral print, (a la Novatny). The rest of the picture is crowded with seemingly unrelated elements, seen from a variety of viewpoints: charming, naively drawn donkeys (one standing in a puddle) in successively smaller sizes; collections of birds, plants, and children, a gesticulating man, a couple, a fragment of a domed building, and most dominant of all, a standing, bald child/man in a blue sailor suit, staring in some distress at the Madonna figure while pointing with both hands at a flower in a vase. A circle shape appears repeatedly; here as a large red orb, there as fruit in a tree, in the center as the halo, and again as the head of the bald child.
The work — which is enormous, especially for a work on paper — is presented so as to betray the process of its construction. The paper support is wrinkled and buckled, the seams where pieces have been pasted one upon the other are clear even from a distance. Also visible throughout are pentimento — the artist’s corrections, deletions, and additions, which remain a shadowy presence in the final image, a sort of work in progress, frozen in mid-process.
While sorting out who is doing what to whom in "Bird House Blues" seems an almost insurmountable task, other images are more immediately accessible. Volcanoes, a feature of both the Pacific Northwest and the Mexican region where Jones has a second home, are used by the artist as an attractive metaphor for a variety of visual and emotional ideas. Jones uses a simplified volcano shape in a series of interrelated images to reference birth, the nature of feminine power, connections between the internal to the external, and the act of going beyond limits. Other paintings in this very strong show explore childhood, music, love, literature, and loss, amongst other things.
How does the overall effect of the Jones paintings compare to those of Novatny? While the sincerity and warmth in the work of Jones is overwhelming and ever-present even in those pictures which escape one’s immediate comprehension, those of Novatny seems slick and superficial by contrast. There is a fine line between using the puzzle picture as the natural expression of one’s inner vision, as we feel is the case with Jones, and using it to be evasive while seeming artful, as one suspects with Novatny. "Priscilla Being Apprehensive" does not have a convincing inner life, and the artist does not succeed in convincing us that there is satisfying link between his figures and their symbolic accompaniments.
Some puzzles can be doorways, and some can be walls. Jones invites us in, perplexed as we sometimes are. Novatny keeps us at arm’s length.