Paintings by Mark Tobey, Morris Graves, and the rest of local art’s founding fathers were everywhere this month, from a show of Morris Graves at the Seattle Art Museum, to an exhibit entitled “Mark Tobey and the NW mystics” at Foster-White Gallery in Pioneer Square. Ed Kamuda, whose show is just ending at Lisa Harris Gallery, is also closely associated with the Northwest school.
The most ambitious show by far, and one of the most comprehensive to date, is at the Museum of Northwest Art in La Conner, where twenty-one key figures in the emergence of what has become known as the Northwest School are on view. The exhibit was itself inspired by Iridescent Light, a new book on local art history with biographies by Deloris Ament, and photographs by Mary Randlett. Here with our review is KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin.
For those who cherish the notion that the mid-20th Century Northwest was a haven for dreamers, eccentrics, and iconoclasts, the artists assembled for the Iridescent Light show at the Museum of NW Art will not disappoint. Pioneers have always tended to be rugged types, and anyone intending to devote themselves to painting or sculpture in the artistic hinterland of the earlier Northwest was by definition a pioneer. The life histories recounted by Deloris Ament in her solid and engaging accompanying book include tales of lonely studios in wilderness cabins, fistfights and feuds, as well as passionate explorations of Eastern religion and native American culture. The artists staring out of Mary Randlett’s heroic photos seem grizzled and charming. With their wool caps and flannel shirts, they offered a woodsy contrast to their more citified artistic counterparts back East.
The goal of the exhibit is to both catalog and characterize the art that emerged as this region — just yesterday in terms of art history — began forging an identity all its own. The twenty-one artists were selected because they were here when it happened, and were all involved in the scene in some significant way.
That the art developed when and how it did is primarily due to the powerful impact of two artists - Mark Tobey and Morris Graves. Thanks to early pieces from both, one can trace their quick loss of interest in the literal depiction of the outside world, and their focusing instead on an inner, spiritual realm — radiating with a calligraphic white intensity in the case of Tobey, full of talismanic birds and emanations in the case of Graves.
Judging from the surrounding work, there are several ways that their fellow painters picked up on their preoccupations. The majority of the pieces are small and other-worldly, like that of Graves and Tobey. Scattered throughout are the sorts of symbolic representations of states of altered consciousness — halos, moons, and mandalas — that one rarely sees in the more jaded realm of contemporary art, but which were clearly all the rage fifty years ago. Figures and creatures appear as symbols of birth, and rebirth, light and darkness, rather than faithful depictions of the natural world.
And, as the two leaders were barely concerned with color, much of the work of their followers is also virtually monochromatic - the brown, white, black and grey palette one of the true trademarks of the early Northwest style, often linked to the weather. That murky look is not all bad; the painters in the show who do revel in color tend more towards the garish than the subtly chromatic.
In fact, the level of the painting drops off markedly as one moves away from the more well-known names, and though every artist included here is interesting, some are present at least as much for historical as for purely aesthetic reasons.
Two women are of particular note. Helmi Juvonen was a fascinating and tragic figure who became a virtual stalker of Mark Tobey, and was eventually committed. She is here because she managed to share her obsessions artistically, and her mad homages to Tobey, his bearded face drawn over and over like so many soap bubbles, are a visual translation of that song lyric, “I can’t get you out of my mind.”
Mary Randlett, friend and photographer of the artists, also proves herself of great interest as an observer of the local landscape. Her photos of the Northwest are striking, romantic and transformative, with a take on the cloudy light that owes as much to Asian art as to Ansel Adams. Like any successful art, hers offers us a way of seeing the familiar with fresh eyes — something that can be said of the best of the other art in the show, as well.