Beyond Northwest Mythics
Pretend These Artists Aren't Important for a Minute
courtesy Francine Seders Gallery
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.