Ghosts In The Forest

by Sheri Boggs

To walk into a room filled with large, riotous Alfredo Arreguin paintings is to enter into the worship of life. There is a feeling of reverence, sure, but also a sense of deep, multi-layered joy and sweetness. The colors and compositions are astonishing; to liken them to kaleidoscopes somehow doesn't really do them justice, and yet there they are, composed of thousands of small pieces -- fish, clouds, berries, leaves, eyes in mosaics -- all ruled by an overriding sense of pattern and structure.

There is also the sense of remembrance, of standing in the room with some enormous memorial project -- say the AIDS quilt -- and seeing familiar faces honored and evoked. The writer Raymond Carver. Environmentalist Hazel Wolf. Activist Cesar Chavez. Even Frida Kahlo's by-now-immediately recognizable unibrow dominates several large canvases. The entire exhibit exhales ghosts and spirits.

"Alfredo Arreguin: Patterns of Dreams and Nature" opens this week at the MAC, and its four parts -- Patterns, Jungle, Icons and the Northwest -- draw upon the fertile imagery of the Mexican born painter's Latin American heritage while showing his 30-year evolution into a major Pacific Northwest artist.

"Most of my paintings relate to my childhood in Mexico," says Arreguin from his home in Seattle. His voice is still sonorous with the rhythms and intonations of his native language. "The jungles, the Madonna, the animals and things like that are all from my childhood. But the fish? The fish comes from Ray."

There is a detail of one of Arreguin's paintings on the cover of Carver's last book A New Path to the Waterfall. A blood red current of salmon racing upstream, while above them the sky is filled with the airy shapes of ghost fish, The Hero's Journey is in the show at the MAC and has enormous personal and literary significance. Arreguin painted it as a wedding gift for Raymond Carver and Tess Gallagher and presented it to them shortly before Carver died from cancer in 1988. Gallagher has often described how she would find Carver sitting in front of the enormous triptych, musing, and how it quietly presided over the writing and collecting together of Carver's last work.

"Just before he died, I was gonna give him a painting of a jungle," Arreguin recalls. "He was coming out of this clinic from radiation. And he got in my little car -- he was a very large man -- and he was almost in tears and gave me a big hug and he said, 'God, I wish I could be fishing.' And I said to myself 'fishing...' that's when I started to paint salmon, when I did The Hero's Journey for Ray."

In addition to The Hero's Journey, there are several portraits of Carver and one of Gallagher, who befriended Arreguin while they were both students at the University of Washington in the 1960s.

"She used to come to the Mexican restaurant where I was a waiter. We both were going to the university, and she was always hungry and broke, so I would make sure she got fed," Arreguin laughs.

Arreguin was born in Morelia, Michoacan, in 1935. His childhood was full of loss and abandonment -- his parents divorced while he was a toddler, he was sent to live with his grandparents who both died when he was 13, his father barely claimed him and sent him to boarding school to get him out of the house. Arreguin found work as a tour guide, and a chance meeting with a vacationing American family changed his life forever. Upon returning to Seattle, the family invited Arreguin to come visit. They took him to see the University of Washington, arranged to find him a job, and gave him a place to stay.

"Nobody had given me as much love as they did," he says.

Not surprisingly, many of his works celebrate those who have devoted their lives to helping, be it their fellow man or the world they live in. A tribute to the late environmentalist Hazel Wolf fills one wall of the show, and Arreguin captures her ability to be a firecracker, even well into her nineties. His portrait of Cesar Chavez still earns profits for the United Farm Workers of America from poster sales, and even in many of the landscapes there are what Arreguin calls "whispers" of people who have influenced either his own life and/or the lives of others.

Looking into many of his paintings, the jungles are filled with eyes; the leaves and rocks form human features. This ability to treat the natural and human worlds as if there really is no separation -- in fact, to encompass multiple worlds at once -- is at the heart of everything Arreguin does. Lauro Flores, author of Alfredo Arreguin: Patterns of Dreams and Nature (University of Washington Press), writes that Arreguin is "a genuinely American painter, in the real, hemispheric sense of this term." Arreguin situates traditionally Latin American Madonnas in wild jungle settings, and his landscapes are often filled with intricate patterns of pre-Columbian, Haida and Tlingit origin. The interdependence of imagery, cultural and natural, is not limited to the West, and evidence of Arreguin's travels in Korea and Japan during the Korean War show up in enormous, Hokusai-inspired swells in Skykomish, Chiwana and more. Art critics from Seattle's Matthew Kangas to Robert Wilson have defined his style as everything from "magical realism" to "neobaroque," but Arreguin -- who has won several NEA grants and numerous awards over his lengthy career -- is less interested in labels and more interested in the effect his paintings have.

"I like how Tess describes it, what she calls 'the eternal now.' I think she got that from [the writer] Garcia Lorca, but I love that because I think it describes why people can be very emotional with my work," he says. "I am always trying to seduce the viewer with this wonderful color and imagery, and I want to give them that little chunk of paradise lost. It is way back there in all of us -- we have so many protective layers that we forget -- but I want to help them remember."

Publication date: 11/13/03