Down at Pike Street Market, the Lisa Harris Gallery is host to an exhibit by one of their stalwarts, Bellingham resident Thomas Wood. Wood has long been known for both his printmaking and his pastels, but this show is dominated by oils, many painted on location. Wood depicts places ranging from the San Juan Islands to the Cascade crest. These familiar scenes are often rendered mysterious by his highly charged interpretations. Here with our review is KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin.
If Impressionism is a string quartet, a bright texture of high notes and rippling harmonies, then the paintings of Thomas Wood are more of a cello concerto, where a driving, rough-edged melody is built on tones that are dark, low, and resonant. Wood’s image of the Pacific Northwest is both nostalgic and visionary, a wild realm of modest cabins, uninhabited islands and lonely mountain meadows, all penetrated by an impossibly intense natural light. This almost violent illumination — the opposite of the misty grey many of us experience - reduces hills, trees and people alike to stark black silhouettes set against a glowing, cloud-dotted sky.
Or a glowing, moonlit sky, for almost half of these small paintings are set at night. These nocturnes are unusual both in their subject matter, and their sense of authority — partly a product of having been painted on location, observed from the source. Wood makes his working presence perfectly clear in the scene "Night Painter at Hart’s Pass," where etched onto the rocky mountain slope in the foreground is the projected shape of the painter himself, shadow arm outstretched towards shadow easel. Painting — reportedly by candle lantern — Wood carefully describes the peculiar bleached-out color of the brilliant moonlight as it picks out the bristling alpine terrain of boulder and twisted branch. Large, stylized, and unreal in the indigo sky above are the yellow dots of the big dipper, a stellar exclamation point to this celebration of wilderness and transformation.
A similar balance between the natural and the fantastic is stuck in the intriguing painting Equinox, one of the key images in the show in both its mood and its mystery. The scene is set in a moonlit farmyard, where several robust but faceless figures are engaged in assorted tasks. In the foreground a young man feeds a giant but friendly domestic fowl, while a man with a hoop gestures towards window lights in the distance. Most striking is the sky, half filled by glowing yellow clouds, half by huge yellow stars. The moon, like the sky, is exactly split between light and dark, a sort of yin-yang symbol for a landscape where everything — man, nature, day and night — is held in a magical balance.
Or is it? Looking even more closely, the foreground tree is seen to hold a giant, Adam and Eve snake, peering at the humans with unknown intent. Perhaps the snake is a reminder that this Eden is not nearly as secure as it might seem. It also serves to remind one — for nearly the only time in the show — that another aspect of Wood’s work is an extensive series of prints depicting the creatures and monstrosities of a highly charged imagination.
One wishes that the more settled parts of our homeland were a bit more like Wood depicts them. In his version of Bellingham, simple, cabin-sized homes cling to a hillside overlooking a calm bay. In one image a lone gardener wears the colors of the earth he works, while building up garden plots whose shapes echo the islands beyond. In another, particularly successful night scene, everything is aglow — houses, twilit sky, and most strikingly, freighters at anchor, their bow and stern lights stretching out towards the shore in parallel striped reflections. The shapes here, as elsewhere, are simple and monumental, the colors muted.
A recent book retraces the steps of Renoir and Monet in their Impressionist heyday, photographing the modern look of the scenes they immortalized in their paintings of the Parisian hinterland. Alas, much of the world they celebrated has since succumbed to the advance of industry and urbanism. Time will tell if the similarly celebratory paintings of Thomas Wood enshrine a fated realm, or one which will persist to inspire and challenge artists for some time to come.