Painter Norman Lundin has long been a fixture on the Seattle art scene. Highly influential as a teacher at the University of Washington for nearly 40 years, he is also a nationally recognized artist, with shows in many galleries and museums. Now he has added one more title to his resume - guest curator. Several years ago, the Frye Museum invited him to assemble an exhibit of figure drawings, and the resulting show, The Perception of Appearance, has recently opened at the Frye. It includes over a hundred artists, both well known and emerging, from across the country. Here with our review is KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin.
The art world, particularly since the middle of last century, has widely renounced the long-held idea that an artist’s ability to depict the human form is a crucial test of their skill. Depiction in general has fallen into disrepute— replaced by strategies, interventions, appropriations, and other mostly non-visual conventions of the current art scene.
The Frye Museum thus presents its current show of figure drawing wearing its derriere guard credentials proudly. In the catalog essay, guest curator Norman Lundin — the dean of NW representational artists — writes that “to use a traditional approach in today’s art world is to be almost radical.” In obvious agreement, critics in the two dailies used the terms “old-fashioned” (Seattle Times) and “fiercely unfashionable” (Seattle P-I) in their reviews.
The emotional temperature of the drawings varies drastically as well, from the cool detachment of a half-dozen meticulous, photographically accurate pencil drawings (not my favorites), to the expressionist intensity of images where the figure emerges out of an urgent scrawl. A good example of the latter is a worried self-portrait by northwest painter Romey Stuckart, her face half hidden, her hair and torso part careful drawing, part anxious scribble.
The drawings are hung in unlabelled, roughly thematic groups. There are sections devoted to portraits, swimmers, children; groups of drawings dominated by line or rough execution; narrative works and a small but engrossing group devoted to death and decay. One of these drawings, Angel by Ruprecht von Kaufmann, depicts the moment of expiration itself, when a mysterious figure attached to a respirator begins literally levitating from a hospital bed. It is a testimony to the skill of the artist that the drawing is neither sensationalistic nor macabre — only deeply strange and compelling.
Sex as a subject does not merit its own group, but the erotic is present as a subtext in many of the images — a natural consequence of a show with so many nudes. The venerable painters Sydney Goodman and Philip Pearlstein weigh in with their own tasteful erotica. Pearlstein’s drawing of a woman astride a stool with a bird’s head is a wry takeoff on the myth of Leda being ravished by a swan; Goodman’s self-portrait contemplating a model’s midriff is a reenactment of naked Susanna being ogled by the elders. Other longtime stalwarts of the representational scene are present as well — the late Gregory Gillespie with bristling pencil portrait of a deranged man, the Pop hero Wayne Thiebaud with a skillful but conventional standing nude.
Susan Hauptman’s self-portrait is hard to miss. Beautifully rendered in charcoal and larger than life, it fixes you with a drop-dead stare. Reportedly a genial and engaging personality, Hauptman comes off in her picture as an ice princess, surrounded by a gold-leaf halo and slowly pealing off immaculate white gloves. Sketchy fireworks exploding in undefined space besides her suggest passion or anger barely under control.
Catherine Murphy was one of the first artists to successfully buck the 60s and 70s non-representational tide. One can see why in her spectacular drawing "Ilene’s Back." On a literal level simply a view of the upper back — it reveals on closer inspection an inner life of its own. Like a Chuck Close portrait, its realism is composed of a universe of abstract dashes and spots, repeated with an almost musical rhythm. Like all good art — and many pictures in the show — it transcends easy categories of traditional or modern, and stands by itself as a record of vision transformed.