No one ever said the life of an artist was easy. To the usual rigors of the profession — low pay, long hours, uncertain future — British painter Tony Foster has added some extra challenge. KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin, describes Foster's ambitious watercolor projects.
Working in the venerable tradition of artist explorers like John James Audubon or Thomas Moran, he hauls himself, food, and equipment deep into the wilds, painting directly on location, damn the consequences. His gorgeous panoramic watercolor of the Grand Canyon, completed over a ninteen-day stretch that required an 8 mile daily walk — each way — from campsite to viewpoint, is a typical example. Even more over the top is his little color sketch of a volcano erupting — done from the edge of a crater where he had been dropped by helicopter.
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These two paintings, and dozens of others done under similarly harrowing circumstances, can be seen until November 26 at the Frye Museum, where curator Richard West has organized a massive retrospective exhibition, accompanied by a handsome catalog.
The show contains works from the past twenty-two years, with subjects ranging from equatorial jungles to glacial wastelands, arranged according to theme — volcanoes, rain forest, desert country, and so forth.
The works are painted in an interesting amalgam of styles. Carefully drawn, rather conventional watercolor landscapes are surrounded with journal entries, hand-drawn maps of the terrain, marginal sketches of the local plants and animals, even little plastic baggies with souvenir tree bark and pebbles. Each picture comes with a story of foul weather, biting insects, or plunges into icy rivers, like a certificate of authenticity. Similarly authentic is the artist’s insistence that only direct experience will do — no photography please.
The net effect is a bit head-spinning — William Blake meets Sir Edmund Hillary. Here a love of globe trotting adventure joined with an almost worshipful attitude towards the natural world. It is only the wildest of the wild lands that interests Foster, and his pictures carry an implicit environmentalist message. Many scenes are painted from mountaintops, charged with a sense of the excitement of the artist literally immersed in his subject, and inspired by an almost missionary zeal to share that excitement with the viewer. When he paints Mt. Rainier, it is from the heart of the Goat Rocks wilderness, and the spirit of his picture is both deeply dramatic and more than a bit reverential.
Foster himself is a cheerful middle-aged man, trim and vigorous. He shares his travel stories with great amusement — just as he does in his paintings. He disparages his former career as a moderately successful pop artist. But the question that lingers over the whole enterprise is this: can he do it? Can the sheer energy and scope of his project lift the scales from our jaded urban eyes, spoiled by too many picture postcards and National Geographic specials, and re-awaken us to the transforming power of nature?
Gazing at one particular image, that of a Hawaiian volcano erupting at night, painted by flashlight and completed from memory the next morning, I would have to answer a qualified "yes." For all the paintings that seem a bit too familiar, a bit too comfortably picturesque, there are moments in his show like this one where his pictures and their accompanying text really do catch us unawares, like a mountaintop appearing out of the fog. For a moment, we get a sense of the awe and wonder that he so badly wants us to feel.