It’s a strong month for art shows in and around Pioneer Square. An intriguing exhibit of 25 artists responding to the events of 9-11 is at Greg Kucera, part of their on-going series of museum-quality, theme shows. A nearby exhibit at James Harris features incisive colored pencil drawings by Geoffrey Chadsey based on photos downloaded from the Internet. Foster White showcases the cast bronzes, aluminum wall reliefs, and floating plastic ice cubes of sculptor Joseph McDonnell. In the midst of all this diverse activity, KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin, found several shows whose work has an interesting element in common. Here is his review.
There is a persistent rumor that the "Villa Gates" includes, amongst other wonders, giant wall-mounted computer screens displaying a changing parade of digitized masterpieces. If this story is true it proves, once again, that money can’t buy everything. What the flat image — digital or otherwise — necessarily leaves out, is the physical quality of the paint itself, and the complicated and highly textured surfaces of much contemporary art is something that can only be truly appreciated in person.
As luck would have it, four painters for whom the third dimension is a serious issue are currently on display in the galleries of Pioneer Square, and even Bill and Melinda might benefit from a visit. All of these artists use the natural world as their point of departure, and all use the tactile surface of their images in striking and imaginative ways.
In the case of Robert Helm, not only the paint but the highly crafted surface it sits on is part of a complex interplay of texture and illusion. A local artist of national and even international reputation, Helm has long been known for his stark, enigmatic imagery, where stiffly posed creatures — often birds, or dogs — inhabit a stylized, depopulated landscape that is half Eastern Washington, half Salvador Dali. His signature device is inlaid wood, added to the paintings in bits and pieces, shaped and shaded to create wood-grained walls and objects that skillfully blur the line between the real and the depicted.
Two small, highly worked paintings in this current show take the shaping of wood one step further. Dream-like portraits of life-sized birds are painted on deep wooden boxes, the boxes themselves lovingly made over — front and side — to resemble marble shards from a Roman ruin. The grey picture surface, polished to a stone-like sheen and pitted like the moon is an odd environment for these quizzical birds, caught between flatness and space, a brief flash of life amidst the process of aging and decay.
A nearby exhibit of nature studies by Christopher Reilly and Michelle Haglund features artists using very different materials in an equally tactile way. The primary medium here is encaustic, a mixture of wax and pigment with a very ancient pedigree. Encaustic has a thickness and texture very unlike oil paint, and the artists take full advantage of its unique properties. They build up multiple layers of opaque and transparent color, floating their close-ups of flower heads and branches in a complicated, murky surface that has been wiped, scraped, mixed, and melted. The details of the natural forms themselves are given real dimension, sometimes etched into the waxy surface, sometimes built up with wax ridges.
Husband and wife, Haglund and Reilly paint in such a similar manner that a viewer can be forgiven for confusing one’s work with the other. Haglund seems to specialize in iconic studies of single branches surrounded by their attributes — bugs, flowers, fruit - a convention borrowed from early religious art.
Reilly is strongest in his Monet-like pond studies as well as his insect panels, gauzy fogs of color and light with a pattern of partly visible winged bugs, posed as though mounted on wallpaper dissolving into sky.
What a contrast in tone from the quiet, reverential studies of Reilly and Haglund, to the brash, funny, and even kitschy bas-relief waterfalls of Ben Darby. Arranging and then casting long vertical columns of knives, spoons, and scissors in acrylic medium, he then uses the dimensional result as a stand-in for falling water in a jungle landscape. What message one is meant to take away from these glittering silverware cascades, besides the obvious one of the manmade supplanting the natural, is left unclear. But then, with so many earnest and thought-provoking shows around, perhaps there’s nothing wrong with a little comic relief.