The art of the century just past was dominated by expressions of inner struggle and challenges to the established visual order. In a quieter mode, some painters like the Swedish artist Carl Larsson and the American Fairfield Porter, focused instead on the business of everyday life, creating an idealized record of their immediate household amidst its surroundings. In a similar spirit, local resident Kurt Solmssen has for many years devoted his painting attention to his family and his environment — the remote Puget Sound hamlet of Vaughn. Solmssen’s latest show has just opened at the Foster-White Gallery in Pioneer Square. Here with our review is KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin.
,There is a fascinating animated sequence on the opening page of Kurt Solmssen’s website, where a photo of a shoreline vista slowly dissolves into the vibrant painted version of the same scene. What’s the difference? The focal point of the view, a handsome, gabled house nestled in trees and shrubbery, has been drastically ratcheted up in color, but is otherwise unaltered. The scruffy foreground of assorted plants, debris, and pockmarked sand has been simplified into bold, almost abstract shapes - a Solmssen specialty.
But the most striking thing of all is what happens to the other houses visible in the photograph. Like so many of us, Solmssen would prefer his Puget Sound waterfront without its dense patches of suburbia. In his painted version of the locale, the rest of the shoreline has been returned to nature, whole clusters of houses replaced with evergreens and autumnal brush.
Though a realist, Kurt Solmssen does not so much record what he sees, as use his surroundings as a point of departure for poetic homages to waterside life, the delights of color and light, and the joys of the loaded brush. His paintings are rich, fluid, and celebratory. Obtrusive elements — either human or natural — are kept out of the frame of view, or like those beachfront homes, edited away. The family activities are always calm and genial, the weather generally, though not always, sunny.
What distinguishes these paintings is not so much the subject matter as the sophistication of their pictorial language. In the very large painting, "The Yellow Boat," for example, we hover two dozen feet above a young man sitting on a set of concrete stairs leading from a closely cropped lawn down to the water’s edge, beyond which floats a wooden dinghy. The geometry is as severe as the color is lush. The picture is divided nearly precisely in two by a corner to corner diagonal, the boundary between land and water, green and blue. A boxlike hedge, its edges squared off like a wall, frames the warm grey box of the stairwell, its right angles contrasted with a round tabletop alongside. The blankness of the green gray lawn is broken only by a precisely bounded grey triangle of clothing.
In counterpoint to this strict geometry are contained areas of vigorous brushwork. The squared-off hedge, for instance, is built up with slightly messy, calligraphic, strokes of warm and cool. The seemingly flat lawn vibrates with a similar quilt of closely harmonized strokes. The faceless figure, his bathing suit sporting the same Kelly green as the hedge, acts as foil to the real subject of the picture — the electric yellow rowboat, framed by deep blue and hovering above its own shadow, an ode to the almost alarming clarity of high summer in the Northwest.
By way of contrast, the picture, "Puget Sound Green and Grey" memorably evokes the chill, water-logged atmosphere of those many days… when the sun does not shine. A pale and vaporous lawn slopes down to a nearby shore, where washed-out sea and sky are separated only by a tiny grey band. Groves of nearly colorless trees on the left frame the view, becoming more melting and translucent as they move into the distance. Here the counterpoint is not a blaze of color, but a row of calligraphy — the beautifully depicted, highly acrobatic fruit trees that are the one distinct, lively element in a world gone fuzzy and grey. One thinks here of Whistler, also a fan of Chinese brush painting and the use of ever-so-subtle tonalities.
Solmssen also shares with Whistler — many generations later — the belief in art for art’s sake, art freed of the polemical, the theoretical, and the didactic, art responsive to the world of visual appearances and the creation of pleasure. In this day and age of mad bombers and musclemen governors, it is an undertaking not without a certain appeal.