Seattle painter Juan Alonso has a compelling personal story, a high community profile including his being honored later this month with a Mayor’s Art Award, and a long and distinguished history of local exhibitions and commissions. But his current show reveals an artist whose career is still very much a work in progress, including as it does pieces in several distinct and in some ways contradictory styles. KUOW's art critic, Gary Faigin, joins us with his observations on an artist who continues to evolve in sometimes surprising ways.
The opening act in the three-part narrative of the current show is engagingly provided by four strong paintings from the artist’s recently concluded Grey Matters series. The heavily-layered images of symmetrically arranged, grey-black tentacles and tendrils are an abstract exploration of themes previously expressed by the artist in his trademark floral compositions. Like the imaginary, vaguely-tropical flowers of those earlier pieces, Alonso’s ink and graphite scrollwork seems to twist, probe, and reproduce almost as we watch. If these more neutral entities lack the color and organic energies of their hothouse predecessors, they make up for it in the wider range of possibilities they suggest, like the Rorschach blotches they consciously resemble.
The most obvious point of departure for an image like "Borealis #3" is the ornamental ironwork produced by Alonso’s Cuban family, including the father who arranged for him to flee to Miami when he was in fifth grade, and whom the artist never saw again. The heavy, confident arabesques of the ink and graphite swirls are the stuff of porch railings or villa gates, with a dominant thick motif in the foreground composed of an Omega shape perched atop two mirror-image bass clefs or question marks, and a partly hidden background figure shaped like snakes or uncoiling springs. One is reminded of Art Nouveau constructions like the Paris Metro stations and domestic furnishings of Hector Guimard, work that was also inspired by natural forms.
Not at all like the clean lines of Art Nouveau are other features of the work, features which add complexity to the effect. Red ochre streaks drip downwards from the lower edges of the tentacles, suggestive of stains of rust or blood. These filmy streaks also serve to give the heavy shapes an upwards motion, as though they are both decaying and ascending at the same time, weight giving way to spirit. Even more enigmatically, a complicated galaxy of pencil marks fills in nearly all the surrounding white space, a set of calligraphic notations in the form of squiggles, loops, filaments, and waves, like a faint musical soundtrack playing in the background with a distinctive rhythm but no clear melody, or the floating thoughts and ideas that eventually merge into a visible artistic result.
The other three images in the series also employ layers of ornament and complexity, their dark central forms suggesting a variety of entities both organic (octopi, spermatozoa, insects ) and man-made (heraldic emblems, chandeliers, embroidery). The Grey Matter series as a whole seems to me to clarify and strengthen the subject matter that underlay the artist’s earlier floral work, and I’m all for it.
Alonso’s more recent works seem to follow two widely divergent directions, and it remains to be seen which tendency the artist chooses to pursue in his paintings to come. Most interesting to me were the six small water-media-on-paper paintings that Alonso has produced in response to the adjoining show by sculptor Marita Dingus, which features highly stylized figures with purposely naïve, folk-art inspired faces.
Alonso’s takes from Dingus’s work her non-literal, flat, and frontal treatment of the features, but the resemblance ends there. Alonso’s faces are liquid, diaphanous, and barely recognizable. The artist has exploited the property of ink wash to puddle and stain to create a strange set of transparent and semi-transparent shapes . The resulting works have a look suggestive of the microscopic view of a paramecium, or an x-ray of an internal organ or lobster-like creature. In the center of these blobs is a set of vague features, perhaps the artist’s own; one of the images called Countenance #2 also refers directly to a series of masks done by Alonso in the late 80s. These images remind me of a jazz piece where the improvisations, riffs, and solos always cycle back to a central melody, grounding the work and giving it context; here the motif of the face serves as melody, with the controlled accidents of water flow and layering serving as riffs.
Even smaller watercolors – called "Fading Ghost" 1 & 2- use puddles of intense, veil-like color to accomplish pretty much the same thing; their presence here serves to remind us of how central color used to be to Alonso’s work.
Curves, color, sensuality, and space are all banished from the final series on view, a set of geometric abstractions with the ominous titles "Subterranean" and "Underground." All that remains from the earlier work are the dark palette and the drips, which here threaten to dissolve the entire image like a chalkboard left out in a storm.
Basically a series of black, blurred stripes against an even more fuzzy grey background, these ink and graphite paintings represent the most radical effort yet by the artist to break with his colorful artistic past. There’s a reminder here of the emergence of American minimalism in the wake of abstract expressionism, but there’s a danger that in his effort to evolve, Alonso is choosing a style that is simply unsuited to his talents and temperament. While there is an elegiac and tragic sense to these muted, layered images, they seem to me more dull and dreary than moving, as though the Northwest murk had finally had its way with the spirit and freedom of his earlier work. Certainly this wet and cloudy region has spawned more than its share of artists who celebrated and even basked in the grey, but Mr. Alonso has not made a case so far as to why he too should follow in that path.