Life-long Seattle resident and self-taught artist Joe Max Emminger has quietly built a large and enthusiastic following in the 20 years he has been exhibiting in local galleries. His work — sometimes lumped in with artists dubbed folk or outsider — is, in fact, a very pared-down and sophisticated visual diary of his life and preoccupations. Places he frequents, like Green Lake or Lopez Island, make repeat appearances, and many of the characters are those from his domestic life. An exhibit of his newest paintings is now at Grover/Thurston Gallery in Pioneer Square; here with our review is KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin.
Telling stories is one of the oldest functions of painting, and it remains one of the reasons many people paint. Unlike artists of the past, however, who painted tales (like those of the Bible) that their audience already knew, contemporary art features narratives that are often subjective and self-referential. Artists as different as Edvard Munch and Marc Chagall have used narrative art to explore the world of their own memories, experience and desires, and their pioneering work has inspired many artists who followed.
The Seattle scene includes a number of strong artists in this modern narrative vein, including Gaylen Hansen, Fay Jones, and James Martin — this last artist also on view this month with his trademark madcap scenarios at Foster-White.
Like these other painters, Joe Max Emminger has evolved a distinctive, non-literal style, one which involves repeat appearances by a small troupe of characters. Like Hansen and Martin, Emminger frequently includes an alter ego, in his case a mustachioed gentlemen with a black fedora. Also shared with his colleagues is a certain floating, free-associative quality, like that of a dream.
What sets Emminger apart, and gives his images a particular punch, is the extreme elegance and simplicity of his pictorial language. Recalling the late work of Matisse (clearly a major influence) Emminger relies on a black, calligraphic outline and bold colors to animate his ultra-spare scenarios. The modest-sized works, painted in acrylic on paper, are filled in with flat, solid color, most frequently a vivid red and/or blue. His human and animal characters have a deceptively primitive, cartoon-like quality: heads are seen either straight on or in profile; bodies are always front-facing. Settings are also kept to a minimum — a stick-figure tree here, an unadorned horizon line there.
In many of the scenes, the artist is accompanied on a high-spirited, outdoor excursion by his wife and dog. Pictures of the couple without their canine companion seem to focus on various aspects of their relationship, while pictures of each of them alone depicts their solitary interaction with the natural or spiritual world. The mood is generally upbeat but not sentimental, with the occasional hint of the tragic or ominous. And not a single one of these pictures offers an easy or obvious interpretation, straightforward as they seem to be.
There is clearly something gone awry, for example, in the picture with the ironic title, "Beautiful Summer." The painting portrays the artist and his wife comfortably seated inside the highly elongated body of a giant, striding bird. The bright red Joe Max Emminger figure wears a black hat and carries what looks like the branch of a tree; his bright red spouse wears a summer hat and a string of pearls. Glowing in a ultramarine sky is a white, midsummer sun (or moon?), while below a coat rack tree holds a full load of ripe red pears. The fly in the ointment of this dry season idyll is a mysterious figure: curled up, colored grey-violet and either lying upon or within the ground with his eyes closed, letting the clawed feet of the energetic bird literally walk upon him, separated from the rest of the scene in his own panel of dark green.
Whoever the prone figure is, his appearance strongly suggests that he is both part of the ongoing life of the main characters — and yet unable to share it. The artist seems to be alluding to the way that someone absent and unseen can still be a living, if unconscious presence in our everyday life. The understated treatment of the subject seems especially pointed.
Presence and absence also seems to be the theme of another husband-and-wife image, fittingly entitled "Memory." Here another idyllic moment, a couple kissing while exchanging gifts, is complicated by the inclusion of a disembodied male head, floating in front of or inside the figure of the woman. Is this figure meant to be the future, or the past? A child yet to be conceived, or a loved one lost?
Aside from its ultimately inscrutable narrative, a picture like "Memory"is highly satisfying on a formal level. The looming figures of the husband and wife are like mirror images of each other, each with giant heads and tiny, delicate hands and feet — but the man is almost leg, the woman almost all body. Their transparent, pointed profile noses overlap to make a perfect triangle, with an extended outline that echoes the shape of the man’s hat and collar. Each figure has an associated celestial body — he a shimmering white sun, she a golden moon. And the woman is filled in with the same red-orange shade as the surrounding earth, while the man is colored with the rich blue of a summer sky.
Compared to his paintings of even ten years ago, the current work of Emminger uses a much more limited range of imagery and approaches. The palette has been simplified, the pictorial strategy narrowed down. For some artists, the taking on of new challenges and a varying of the mix can be energizing. But in the case of Emminger, now working at what seems to be the top of his form, less seems to be more. Trying to suggest a world of feeling and experience with such simple strokes has made him stronger as both a painter, and a teller of compelling tales.