The Shock of the Now

As we near the end of the 1900s, it's interesting to notice that the world of the visual arts is wide open, with a staggering profusion of artistic visions. Quite literally, anything goes. There are so many competing styles, ranging from straight traditionalism to the wildest fringes of conceptual art, it's enough to make your head spin.

There's representation and abstraction. Hand-done flourishes and mechanical reproductions. Old-fashioned craft and high-tech methods. All in all, absolutely no clear direction for the next century is evident, and that's surely a case of our being unable to see the tree for the forest. It's not unlike the crazy world of a hundred years ago, when the twentieth century loomed on the horizon and a joyous glut of artworks abounded.

The present state of affairs, which is both interesting and unnerving, is clearly illustrated by a trio of offerings at the prestigious Robischon Gallery. In the front space is Fay Jones, a solo show of expressionist representational paintings and prints. In the north gallery is another single artist presentation, Tom Nussbaum, which is made up of miniature simplified figural sculpture. Finally, in the back, there is Natural Order, a two-artist presentation of abstract paintings, prints and sculptures. "People must think I've got the broadest taste in town," says gallery director Jim Robischon. You know what? He does.

Fay Jones is a look at some recent works by this well-recognized Seattle artist. The pieces, which typify her approach, are bizarre compositions of recognizable subjects, awkwardly painted in an idiosyncratic style. There's a hip edge to these works, with the flatness of the color and the crudeness of the depiction, so it's a surprise to discover that Jones is not some upstart kid but rather a woman in her sixties, born in Boston in 1936.

Jones set out to be an artist early on, and she earned a BFA at the venerable Rhode Island School of Design in 1957. Her career plans were waylaid by marriage and a family, but in the early 1970s, with her children in high school, she began to work in earnest again. Her figural style recalls many sources, from twentieth-century American cartoons to eighteenth-century Japanese prints, but her blend is truly unique.

In this show, her paintings and prints all take on the same topic, a recent trip to Egypt. As enigmatic as these pieces are, viewers are clued in by elements such as camels, palm trees and glimpses of Pharaonic antiquities. In "Now and Then," a large triptych in acrylic on unmounted Japanese paper, Jones places a village peasant with a cat on her head on the left and a modern city dweller in proper Western dress on the right. In between is a prostrate slave from ancient Egypt. The mood is further enhanced by Middle Eastern accents like a hookah and a plague of locusts. Jones's compositions are characterized by her use of chalky, washed out colors, which lend a surprising lyrical quality to these hard-to-understand pieces.

If Fay Jones is strange, Tom Nussbaum is perhaps even stranger. Whereas the Jones pieces are individual and distinctive--although they may still be seen as part and parcel of the expressionism that has enjoyed a revival over the last twenty years or so--Nussbaum's statuettes are more linked to toys, from folk art dolls to action figures, than to the tradition of figural sculpture. They are conventionalized and they are polychromed--oh, and they are made of plastic. And this is Nussbaum's genius. Two-dimensional artists have long drawn from America's popular culture, and Nussbaum's work makes the claim that now it's sculpture's turn to do the same.

Each piece comes complete with a wall-mounted stand. At Robischon the stands are arranged at different heights and in theatrical arrays. The pieces, most of which are twelve inches tall or smaller, are made in a several-step process. Nussbaum first carves models in clay, which he kiln-fires. Then he creates molds in rubber and plaster. The molds are filled with a new cold casting material called Aqua Resin, a polymer made from resin, gypsum and powdered stone. The resulting piece is removed from the mold, polished, primed, painted with acrylic and finally varnished.

The details of the figures are simplified, and the sculptures depict ordinary people. Sometimes they're paired with animals, as in "Arm in Arm," which shows a man embracing a standing bear in a collegial way. According to Nussbaum's written statement, this piece concerns the fraternal relationships between men. Less romanticized is "Arrows," which is about the interaction of men and women. The two figures in this sculpture--a full-figured woman in a red dress and a businessman in a dark suit--are placed on individual circular bases facing each other. On the right, the woman aims a bow and arrow at the unarmed man on the left.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia