Visual Art

Beyond Northwest Mythics

Pretend These Artists Aren't Important for a Minute

Beyond Northwest Mythics

courtesy Francine Seders Gallery

"Rosery" by Robert C. Jones

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Courtesy Francine Seders Gallery
"Last Light" by Robert C. Jones
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Courtesy Francine Seders Gallery
"Odysseus & Sirens #3" by Michael Spafford

Robert C. Jones makes paintings of bathers, picnics, nudes, torsos, and orchards. Michael Spafford works with Hercules, Odysseus, the sirens, centaurs, and Leda and the swan. But let's strip them of the supertexts of European art history and mythology—so picked over and lifelessly life-of-leisure as they feel this December. Let's also divest the artists of their importance (which may be a relief to them, anyway). Jones and Spafford are legends in Seattle, elders who taught for decades at the University of Washington (both are now emeritus). They both have installations and paintings deposited in all sorts of desirable places. Let's take a look at what's there when all this goes away—when you just go and stand in front of what they've made.

A small new Jones painting stands out, straight ahead when you enter Francine Seders Gallery now. It is pure innocence, the kind that can only be hard won, arriving after disillusion—and looking at it is a way of healing through the eyes. It is 17 inches tall by 21 inches across and, chiefly, two colors: spring green, popping, and soft, rich pink. The green is proposed as the background, covering nearly the entire canvas. A burst of the pink appears as a circle in the center of the painting (round and fat as the sun), caged in a sketchy black rectangle, with two large curved pink shapes (also outlined loosely in black) sprouting from the top of the rectangle like fat ears on a cartoon bunny rabbit, or wings on a piece of fruit, or a giant ribbon on a boxed gift. But this green and pink image is a facade. Dark lines and surprising colors immediately begin to pop out beneath it, behind scratchy edges worn down by Jones's scraping and reapplying.

This layering of the canvas into a field of play is what I think of as Jones's voice. (That, and his impossibly elegant calligraphic lines; think of Matisse's pencil drawings of women's faces, like curling ironworks.) In some of his pictures, you might take each corner as a landscape all its own, curtains of color being parted and closed again, a cold white or a hot red suddenly escaping like steam. In one painting, which resembles a heavy black rotary-phone handle lying on its back under a blazing slice of knifed-on yellow sun, the surface—again, that facade—is cloaked in gray. But a whole rainbow's worth of colors proliferates in underlayers of puffs pushing through.

Upstairs, Spafford's show is smaller, with only one new work, a wittily surrealistic oil portrait of the four men of the apocalypse sharing a horse (it's a tough economy, Spafford says; who can afford not to share rides?). Charts depicting all of Spafford's series of prints look like tangrams: Spafford's forms are blocky silhouettes engaged in shadow play—war, sex, both. (Because he's made so many series, only a few prints are out—the rest are in the files, just ask to see them.)

It's when forms get tangled, solid black overlapping black to create unrecognizable forms hiding their hearts, that you can dive into the middle of the action and feel the heat and sweat. One print, hanging in the stairwell, is a perfect example of this twisted centerness, with two creatures in such a struggle that they're becoming one gnarled and screaming thing resting on human legs. It's a fist of mutation, as much Tim Burton as Homer. recommended


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I like how you have brought up their importance and then pushed it into the background so that you could concentrate on the art itself. More please. Our NW masters need attention and a fresh look.
Posted by timmiche on December 11, 2011 at 1:36 PM · Report this
@1 I’ll dive in with similar feelings. Some have noted that a history of NW artists has never been written. Beyond the ads the Stranger and the Weekly seem to focus most on the popular music scene and of course popular culture has created numerous books on the music scene history. But where is what has occurred in art locally been recorded? Yes, all the dirt and details. It appears it will not happen. We have the wonderful Seattle history web site called Seattle but “Seattle artist” entered in its search engine only retrieves 27 articles. The current local art scene seems to have little awareness of what gone on here for decades and doesn’t seem to be very interested in looking back and their roots aren’t from here. Hackett and Graves have contributed greatly to this need to record the local art history.
Covering Francene Seder's Gallery has been a rather rare event amongst NW art writers. Her gallery seems a giant in featuring so many of the NW's serious artists of the past. She seems to stand with Kucera and Beth Sellers (and maybe that grandiose asshole, Gordon Woodside) in being long in tooth in knowing and supporting NW artists of a certain age. And, JG, I'm always fascinated when you take on a strict response to good ol' straight oil painting and related media. The two chosen art guys here remind me of my age and the old schools (I probably mention this perspective all too often) of painting and art making that were in vogue quite a while back. And your humor alluding to the NW mystics is interesting. These two painters main careers are now dated but they have clearly produced work in recent times that continues the precise art solutions they creatively settled on. The large number of pieces Jones has in the show were (can you believe it?) made this year. Spafford's pieces seem not so current but so very representative of his oeuvre. I can never resist the intrigues and adventures in oil painting that have past by me in my life. For most of it, it was presented as what the center of art was about and as presenting the ways of the PAINTER. Then, the Paris school was still in force in American art schools. Painting as art haunts me as with many of my time. I enjoyed a couple of contemporaries getting shows in the last few years as in William Cummings and Alden Mason, Mary Henry and maybe Robert Sperry, not that I'm so warm to Cummings. When I met the young Cummings posing as an early 60’s Coffee House portrait artist, he came across and an extremely angry person and a major asshole. He also was awfully strong on being an extreme womanizer. I appreciated the Frye giving a retrospective of Cummings and him getting the support but I have a problem with his cartoony figuration that reminds me of the once popular appeal of (big eyes) painter Margarite Keane (...for many years she was married to a man who claimed credit for what she painted. To prove she was in fact the artist and not her former husband, she painted in court before a Federal Judge and jury, original oil on canvas painting. When her ex-husband was asked to paint by the judge, his reply was: "I can't today, because I have a sore shoulder." Needless to say Margaret won the case and she continues to paint those Big Eyes we have come to love so dearly). Cummings seemed to have retreated from the lechery in his last years. Spafford (with Mason) was such an iconoclast and one cannot think of him without his having major publicly commissioned work thrown out of the halls of the State Legislature in Olympia. Major censorship like this is notable, the National Portrait Gallery recent gay/religious event notwithstanding.
It is interesting that your article has not gotten a lot of response. I’m thinking this is a sign of the disinterest in the current crop of art people who are quite young and originated from other places and who mainly admire their own crowd’s work. While Jones seems a successful mainstream artist of his time trying to figure out relevant output, Spafford seems to be clearly into trouble making in many ways. His art, with its many sexual and homoerotic references, seem designed to upset not just from an art point of view most conservatives but on a family cultural basis. It seems designed to offend. As I recall, his censored Olympia works were something like 11’ by 35.’ His work overfilling the upstairs of Seder’s gallery often splayed around on makeshift tables like a rummage sale adequately captures his provocative style. I’d say any young artist is going to get up there and take a look if they really care. In an open bound folder is the odd series of paintings he made on photographs taken by his son, Spike Mafford. It is a rare example of father and son searching and stretching to find comfort and support for each other. Spike was apparently also named Mike Spafford and chose to change his birth name alt of some kind of personal angst. Spike seems to have an uphill battle in doing art.
So Jones and Spafford, in developing their art, faced, as artists, a really strange time full of incredibly difficult forces historically about what art should be. I would love to see Gary Faigin write a review of this show. He can bring such a rich insight to these things. Gary is also an important person in the history of art in Seattle. As I recall Gage was originally called something like the Northwest School of Realistic Art. It represented a push back counter group of artists unhappy with what the 70’s had done to traditional painting. I would expect our wonderful Joey Veltkamp (Joey, I know you live and breathe this stuff) and his posse would get a major kick out of these painters. So much of what’s important in the local art scene never makes it to SAM in an important way.
Posted by GFinholt on December 12, 2011 at 5:14 PM · Report this
alpha unicorn 3
“In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love; they had five hundred years of democracy and peace and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” ~ Orson Welles
Posted by alpha unicorn on December 12, 2011 at 8:35 PM · Report this
F* that I'm recovered from the stupor induced by your rant...permit me to offer two items for your, Jen's and whomever's consideration.

Recently, in a group show at Mr. Kucera's gallery, hung a very large and powerful M. Spafford painting that literally stole the show. It dominated and kicked the asses of all the local young (and older established) artists work hanging in that show. Many young and hip onlookers were overheard remarking upon this very phenomenon. Spafford was there in full glory, sporting a homemade bull mask and making a great impression-yes-at his old age god forbid! Cool hip shit! And the ever insecure overly infuenced by conflicting interests, Mz.Graves wrote nothing. Went right over her frizzy red haired BIG head! Same ol' same ol'...

Secondly, Cheryl Konkelton started great scholarship on this subject of the mystics but left for a better job(as usual). Her admission of frustration at the perceived histories and the political power structure keeping a good art scholar down are most likely the reason for the tiltle NW Mythologies.
SO someday,now that those forces are all dying off-a young,SMART, dynamic scholar will come along, throw out the shit-yes the establishments icons-and present a real and worthy history of a great regional art movement.
Posted by northwest mystic on December 14, 2011 at 9:07 AM · Report this
You and a few artists around town help to remind me of that Kafka quote-- it goes something like: slow down, pay attention, and it will roll in ecstasy at your feet. Thank you.
Posted by ....where curiousity grows like weeds on January 14, 2012 at 4:29 PM · Report this
6 a snake swallows a rat.
Posted by Devouring Time on May 2, 2012 at 12:30 PM · Report this

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