By sheer coincidence, the exhibition of Paul Allen’s personal collection at EMP (see July 2006) is not the only art show in town which places 19th Century French masters side-by-side with contemporary art. The small, highly respected James Harris Gallery in Pioneer Square is presenting an August show entitled Junctions: Selected Drawings by Contemporary Artists and Modern Masters, which also hangs the old alongside the new.
Works by icons like Cezanne, Degas, and Manet appear in both shows, cheek-by-jowl with pieces by much less well-known artists from the current American avant-garde. But the similarity between the two exhibits ends there, according to KUOW art critic Gary Faigin, who joins us now with his thoughts.
Decked out with all the trappings of a blockbuster, the EMP exhibition DoubleTake is a selection of the glitzy acquisitions of a super-mogul dressed up as a major art educational experience - which it is not. Junctions has far more modest goals, and succeeds far more admirably. Score one for the little guy!
Little, in fact, is the operative work when it comes to the Junctions show. The James Harris Gallery has achieved its heavyweight local reputation in spite of its inauspicious location and pint-sized exhibition space, and it’s all the gallery can do to contain the 52 works currently on display, pressing both the backroom and the office into service. But cramped real estate is not really an issue, since the drawings in the show are both diminutive in size and meant to be viewed at close range.
The show is basically a very engaging way for two excellent galleries to highlight their wares, and since the galleries in question include James Harris, a leading Seattle venue for (mostly) Northwest contemporary art, and Jill Newhouse, a leading New York venue for (mostly) French 19th Century drawings, their unusual decision to try a collaboration led to the current Pioneer Square display. Dealer James Harris has hung the drawings from the two galleries in loosely-linked thematic groups without the heavy hand of his EMP counterpart, and the result is an at-times electrifying experience. One gives Harris much credit for daring to place works by nearly-unknown local artists (unlike the A-listers at EMP) side-by-side with Cezanne, Delacroix, and Degas, and the good news is that no one suffers as a result.
Part of the secret of the show’s success is the nature of drawing itself, where the spontaneous and direct quality of a quick pencil or watercolor wash sketch - the idea, unadorned - can level the playing field between a hero of the Paris Salon and a 21st Century Seattle upstart.
This is certainly the case with several sketchbook samples on view. A page of sketches by Delacroix (one of the heroes) hangs alongside a sheet of studies of old men by his countryman Vuillard (sympathetic, but not memorable). Nearby is the very lively notebook of local ceramic artist Jeffrey Mitchell, featuring scribbly ballpoint pen arabesques of plant and animal forms half-transformed into vaguely phallic sculptures. In the Delacroix as in the Mitchell, we see raw experience being absorbed and reinvented as art. In a sheet from his sojourn in North Africa, which includes several quick clothing studies, Delacroix visualizes a miniature tableau, with two robed Arab figures taking shelter behind the shade of a rugged and self-consciously exotic rocky landscape. Atop the rocks, the foliage of a watercolor tree emerges from its containing pencil outline like living flames. Back in France, Delacroix was to spend half his career referring back to his North African impressions.
Spontaneity also links two invented nudes by emerging local artist Collin Shutz and modern icon Paul Klee, which bear an almost uncanny similarity in terms of their scale, graphic language, and decorative quality. Both artists have chosen to create imaginary, asexual standing figures using a repeated calligraphic element – a curlicue in the case of Klee, an inky loop in the case of Shutz. Both substitute mysterious, floral forms for heads. Both drawings seem to be attempts to embody spiritual states in a bodily form through stream-of-consciousness scribbling, and both are self-contained, vibrant artworks rather than mere studies for paintings to come.
The question of which drawings were meant to stand on their own and which were most likely never intended for exhibition is in fact an interesting one, particularly in the current case. It’s my impression that almost all the contemporary drawings were done for gallery display, but that’s only true of a few of the older works, created in a period when drawings were rarely given star treatment, and paintings ruled the roost. Two lovely watercolors of almonds by Edouard Manet are a special case, done during that time when the artist’s energies were sapped by his final illness, and he turned to small studies as his chief creative outlet. I’ve always found something heroic about these late Manets, done under the cloud of death and disability, and focusing exclusively on specimens taken from his garden and lovingly observed indoors. Art may not have the ability to heal the body, but it can certainly comfort the spirit.
Seattle artist Clair Cowie has the unenviable task of accompanying the two Manet watercolors, but she has no trouble at all holding her own with her high-profile neighbor. She’s hung here because her own watercolor echoes the Manet in color, size, and washy freedom, and because she shares the French artist’s ability to suggest a lot with a little, a few strokes holding the place for many. But Manet, like most artists of his time, is not concerned with exploring a world of private imaginings, an activity which is central to Cowie’s work. Her two naked baby warriors sit astride a bucking bronco, which in turn towers over a miniature village. This is a chapter in a much longer, very personal story, one which we are invited to embellish as we so choose.
Of course there is an ironic subtext to all this mixing and matching. Since – unlike the EMP show – these works are for sale and the prices are clearly posted, we can’t help but compare and contrast this aspect of the exhibit as well. That the Cowie just mentioned is priced so low – three figures, in this case – and the Manet so high – six figures – will come as no surprise to those familiar with the art marketplace and its star system, only loosely tied to “quality”. But can we take any comfort in imagining that 100-plus years might bring a similar thousand-fold increase in the value of our Cowie or Shutz, should we choose to purchase one now? The good news is that this show is so enjoyable that such musings don’t even begin to spoil our fun - although it might give some of the living artists, struggling to pay the rent, a moment’s pause.