To be Continued

Realism and abstraction at MoNA


What: "The Art and Legacy of Joan Kirkman" and "continuum...continued"

Where: Museum of Northwest Art, 121 S. First St., La Conner



Cost: Entry is free


Wednesday, July 17, 2019

The two exhibits currently on display at the Museum of Northwest Art in La Conner reveal different perspectives of Washington painting in the last century. 

On the main floor, “continuum…continued” includes selections from the museum’s collection that illustrate the best of the Northwest “mystic” artists.

A 1953 Life magazine article introduced Americans to Seattle painters Mark Tobey, Kenneth Callahan, Guy Anderson, and Morris Graves, proclaiming “They translate reality into symbolic and distinctive art [and] embody a mystical feeling toward life and the universe.” 

While the four never admitted to being either a group or “mystical,” they all acknowledged the influences on their work of East Asian art and the landscape of the Pacific Northwest.

By the 1960s, Tobey had become one of America’s most highly regarded artists. In his “white writing” style, he created a painting all at once, as in a performance, giving equal weight to every corner of the canvas. But to those who called him the Father of American Abstract Expressionism, Tobey replied that “pure abstraction” was an “impossibility” for him.

His “Meditative Series, #6” hangs near the gallery entrance. It’s an example of this novel “over-all” painting style. A large canvas nearby—“Wayless,” (1978) by Craig Langager—shows how a younger artist followed in Tobey’s footsteps.

A delightful spoof of the influence of Tobey’s work on two other major painters is Neil Meitzler’s “Birth of Northwest Art,” a triple portrait of Tobey, Graves, and Jackson Pollock. Tobey dreamily blows his “white writing” into the air; Graves gathers it, seeming to wonder how he can use it in his own work, while Pollock hides behind the canvas like a thief in the night.

A few of the painters who shared this inspiration are still with us. Max Benjamin settled on Guemes Island in 1959, where he remains. His “untitled (Kent State),” created in 1995, is one of very few with a program. In this powerful painting a carmine flame sweeps up the center. Does it scoop up skulls and ribs? And, to the left, do anguished faces look on or it is only smoke?

Dederick Ward lives in Anacortes. His beautiful “Dip Slope” bridges the gap between landscape and abstraction. Viewers see a cliff or snowbank, tinted perhaps by the setting sun, beautifully rising into an azure sky.

Upstairs, we are treated to rarely seen work of a regional genius with “The Art and Legacy of Joan Kirkman.” Contrasting with the innovative painters, Kirkman was viewed as a traditionalist. She was a highly regarded fashion illustrator for major Seattle department stores and a figure drawing instructor at several universities. Interesting samples of her commercial work are in the Benaroya Glass Gallery on the main floor.

Kirkman was also a prolific fine art painter. Several dozen of her colorful oils and watercolors line the walls. Her female models recline in a reverie—nude, draped or costumed—amid tapestry, flowers, carpets, furniture. My favorite (none of them are given titles) was a study of a young woman, looking away over lilacs and fruit on a table, a few wayward hairs giving her a decided personality.

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