The semi-abstract, meditative paintings of Darren Waterston have become familiar to Seattle audiences through his many exhibits at the Greg Kucera Gallery in Pioneer Square. Now the Bellevue Art Museum presents a retrospective of his work, an opportunity to see the way his style has evolved over the past ten years. An additional feature of the exhibit is a collection of pottery by the avant-garde legend Beatrice Wood, a friend and mentor of the artist. Here with our review is KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin.
By far the largest picture in the Darren Waterston retrospective is a 30-foot mural painted directly on the gallery wall. Commissioned by the museum, it features a panorama of the artist’s peculiar cast of characters — a biological soup of floating tendrils, amoebae, assorted drips, and hairy round black things. But the work, while impressive in scale, is not one of the painter’s finer moments. The flat, acrylic blobs on the plain gallery wall simply refuse to morph into anything other than they are — a sort of caricature of the artist’s real work, visible alongside.
Give Mr. Waterston some oil paint and a smoothly finished wooden panel, and it is a different story. Using layer after layer of aqueous and transparent glazes, he creates a dimensional and shimmering atmosphere in which his various creations can float and interact — an atmosphere notably missing from the mural. His pictures are landscapes of a sort, but landscapes so abstracted that there is no sense of scale, up or down, inside or out. Certain works seem to depict life underwater, others the teeming activity within our own body. Throughout is a mood of a sort of mystical attentiveness, where dripping pools of solid color are balanced against organic elements detailed with a jeweler’s precision — and mystery prevails.
It is one of the virtues of this modestly-scaled retrospective that within its limited scope, we can trace the evolution of Waterston’s current style. Earlier paintings, some hung above Beatrice Wood pottery with vaguely similar colors and layering, feature quite faithful renderings of flora and fauna, some no doubt inspired by the forest outside the artist’s former studio in the Gulf Islands. In "Potion," for example, miniature butterflies and flower groups, precisely drawn, hover against a dark background of barely visible greenery, while jellyfish shapes drift in between. Some of the butterflies are losing their wings, which drift downward in a spiral rich with metaphoric suggestion.
In other early work — not shown — the population of Waterston’s paintings also included monkeys, fish, mice, dragonflies, and even tiny figures, all drawn with the meticulous care of a scientific illustrator.
The artist’s recent work banishes almost all of these recognizable entities. By substituting generalized organic forms for specific plants and animals, and by using suggestively layered paint to suggest pictorial depth, Waterston’s pictures have become less descriptive and more interesting.
A striking example is a recent work called, "Returning.: Five feet square, its smooth, glistening surface teems with life, like the primordial stew out of which the first cells were born. The dark background color slowly gradates from a green fog above to a brown murk below. A web of delicate white tendrils — a trademark of his recent work — stretches from side to side, below a fitful sun. Circular creatures like giant diatoms, with a black, textured surface carved directly into tar-like paint, float besides wriggling fleets of pale worms. Jellyfish forms literally drip paint, thinner and more transparent than onion skin.
By his own description, Waterston sees himself as a sort of alchemist, transforming the stubborn material of paint into the stuff of life — blood, skin, water, and light.
By useful contrast, just beside the Waterston show is an art installation by Nicola Vruwink, one which seems prosaic and inert by comparison. A meditation on the theme of blondness, the exhibit consists of an actual living room with blond hair upholstery and blond wig lampshades, blond jokes on a tape loop, Marilyn Monroe videos, and a wall of the assorted cosmetics and mirrors that might help maintain one’s blondness. Here is the opposite of the sort of alchemy that Waterston achieves — a work of art which merely presents, but in no way transforms, the world of the familiar. Waterston is right — the art is in the alchemy.