Sketches and Sculptures
Artifacts of time and place
What: Curator talk and Clayton James Celebration
When: 1 pm Sat., Jul. 22
Where: Museum of Northwest Art, La Conner
Wednesday, July 19, 2017
The first thing you’ll notice about Whiting Tennis is his sincerity.
He talks about prehistoric art and science fiction and how nobody knows what ancient artifacts meant to the people who made them. The audience at a recent talk at La Conner’s Museum of Northwest Art loved it.
The tall, gangly guy looks like a displaced cowboy and works full-time at his unique approach to art.
Every week, Tennis attends a life-drawing class. His sketches, he admits, have little to do with the model. Using both hands at once, he watches his fingers push the pencil and the drawings flow like “automatic writing.” One hundred of these renderings are the center of his “Painting, Drawing and Sculpture” exhibit—some spidery, some geometric, some perhaps plant/animal half-breeds or weird space creatures.
Whiting chooses a few drawings to enlarge into paintings or sculpture. This is much more demanding. While the drawings flowed freely from his unconscious, the process of painting is “heartbreaking and difficult and scary.”
He casts the sculptures by pouring plaster into cardboard molds. He likes to leave the corrugation marks. If the finished work looks like “building materials,” that’s deliberate. “A body can be rendered by the same tools and materials you could build a shelter with,” he says. A two-by-four stands in for a bone.
Tennis’ almost monochrome paintings may be off-putting at first, but they quickly grow on you. The large canvases convey weight, completion, sufficiency. “The Brown Studio,” a formal composition with some red and blue, is the most colorful. One can pick out doors, steps, windows, flooring—even a coffin. A statue on a plinth, “cardboard” tracery or painted “wood grain.” There are childlike scrawls and “damaged” areas looking like the canvas has been walked on. Judging from the approval of the audience, his large paintings are eagerly collected.
Kelly O’Dell’s animal and fossil shapes in the Benaroya Glass Gallery are a meditation on vanishing species, with mounted “trophies” in white glass and repeated images of rhino horns and heads. The much-honored O’Dell is a graduate of the Pilchuck School who presently lives in Stanwood. Her exhibit, “Transient (h)ours,” reminds us that, like the extinct ammonite and the endangered rhinoceros, we humans will also pass from the Earth, perhaps leaving no more evidence than the threads of gold leaf and bronze in the artist’s simulated amber beads of lustrous glass.
In the upstairs gallery visitors can feast on the art of the late Clayton James and the equally fine work of his talented spouse, Barbara Straker James. The confident mastery of James’ technique was already full-blown in his abstract “Still Life with Red Orange” (1954). After returning to painting in 1991, he created several of his finest landscapes, such as “Geologic Menhir,” (1997) and “Snow King” (1997),
There are fine examples of his sculpture, recently given to MoNA from his estate: The beautiful “Ode to de Chirico’s ‘Nostalgia of the Infinite’” (1975), and two of his Etruscan style “war helmets.” James, a lifelong pacifist, responded to the Vietnam War by creating a series of menacing sculptures—an uncanny prediction of an age of dehumanizing violence, of terrorists and police who hide their faces—Darth Vader lookalikes.
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