Anyone who's ever been to the Jundt Art Museum at Gonzaga University knows that they can put on a mean exhibit. In recent years, we've seen shows honoring both solo artists like Wendy Franklund Miller, Yuji Hiratsuka and Robert Harrison, and also theme shows such as last year's "Day of the Dead" and "Drawn to the Wall." Local, regional, national and international artists have all been represented, and there have even been shows ranging from the reverent -- think "Images of Christ," with its haunting interpretations of Christ from the Renaissance through contemporary times -- to irreverent -- the kitschy collection of department store shopping bags in "Art & amp; Commerce."
Their current show, "Past and Present Northwest," represents the Jundt's fine collection of Northwest art, including previously viewed pieces, local artists and nationally recognized artists.
It's no accident that the first piece you'll find upon entering the gallery is Harold Balazs's Sarcophagi Androidia with Child. The upper portion, or lid, if you will, is weathered and handcarved, incorporating Balazs's trademark interlocking designs and suggesting the lonely implacability of a centuries-old totem pole. The underneath portion is an astonishing contrast in silver and gold leaf. Balazs here effectively combines past -- with the familiar black and gold stripe of Tutankhamen's crook and flail (symbols of the god Osiris) -- and future, with its strange tubes and other robotic internal organs.
"This is from the 'Balazs at 70' show we had here in 1998," notes Paul Brekke, assistant curator for the Jundt Art Museum. "This piece was very popular, and we're pleased to have it in our collection."
Sarcophagi Androidia also works as a strong visual metaphor for the entire show. Here we have a local artist of national stature, working in indigenous materials while influences from the distant past emerge in the constructions of the present.
Just beyond the sarcophagus is another significant piece in the show, Guy Anderson's Ascending. This enormous abstract incorporates edgy, angular strokes of cream paint and slightly feminine earthy boulder shapes.
"Guy Anderson is one of what you'd call the 'Big Four' in the Northwest School of painting," explains Brekke. Morris Graves, Mark Tobey and Kenneth Callahan are the others, the latter two of whom are also represented in the show.
The Northwest School, which has also been called the Northwest Mystics or the Northwest Visionaries, was nothing so clearly organized as a school or an artistic philosophy, but rather an informal term for an emerging group of artists working in and around Seattle in the 1930s and '40s. Their influence continued to be felt in the 1950s and '60s, where many of the works in this show originated.
According to the book Iridescent Light: The Emergence of Northwest Art, by Deloris Tarzan Ament, however, many of these artists saw their identification with one another differently.
"None of them shared any feeling of groupness," she writes. "They weren't painting buddies; some of them barely tolerated each other. Small wonder they all denied being any sort of 'school.' They had little in common beyond poverty and the drive to paint or sculpt in a way that was true to their inner being and their environment."
So, one wonders, are most of the pieces in the Jundt show directly influenced by the "Northwest School"?
"Not necessarily. You don't visually see it, perhaps," says Brekke. "But there is something about Northwest art and the images that are produced here. They often have a bit of the poetic or ethereal to them, and their colors, their relationship to the earth, is also unique. The artist Louis Bunce, who is not in this show but is also considered a Northwest School artist, has said that here, "nature flows up the street." And I think he really understands that, how we can have our urban centers but yet be so close to nature -- and by that I mean what's real as well as the more traditional sense -- in the Northwest."
Walking through the show, one gets a sense of what he means. Paul Horiuchi, another artist associated with the Northwest School, has a major piece in the show with Shapes and Colors of the Past #2. Because Horiuchi was born in Japan and only moved to the U.S. when he was 15, his work has an innate "zen sensibility," with its various shades-of-fog mustards, plums and charcoals and its abstract and collage elements. "A lot of the Northwest School artists were influenced by the Asian art that was so prevalent in Seattle at the time, but Horiuchi already had that," Brekke remarks.
Horiuchi's work is very different from, say, Helmi Juvonen's poignant linoleum cuts, or perhaps Neil Meitzler's Landscape, a seemingly delicate piece that evokes the solid crags of mountains and the fragility of clouds. But it is similar to Yuji Hiratsuka's traditionally Japanese forms and collage elements. As for Juvonen, the dark shapes and childlike innocence of her prints are a subtle complement to Michael Spafford's Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, taken from Wallace Stevens' poem of the same name. His bold black-and-white woodcuts have a disarming simplicity that belies the cleverness of his composition. This show is held together not just by shared region or by the fact that all these works share living quarters in museum storage, but by such tiny, exquisite connections.
In addition to works by local artists like Kay O'Rourke and Robin Dare, there are also pieces by artists featured in recent Jundt shows, including Wendy Franklund Miller and Robert Gilmore. New discoveries among up-and-coming regional artists also pop up, including Scott Kolbo's dark visions and Kevin Haas's fascinating Residue of Labor. His photo-lithograph of the Empire State Building, for example, tells an intriguing story. Completed in 1931 and constructed of Indiana limestone, the Empire State Building is once again, sadly, the tallest building in New York. Haas, who now teaches printmaking at WSU, finished his piece by sprinkling it with limestone dust from the exact same Indiana quarry.
It's fitting perhaps, that the last wall of the show is devoted to the eight panels of Jacob Lawrence's Eight Studies for the Book of Genesis. His distinctive, stylized images of a Baptist church in full sermon fervor hearken more to the Harlem choirs of his childhood than to his years as a professor of art at the University of Washington, but there's no denying their importance. Combining three processes (silkscreen, chine colle and lithography), the series appropriately ends on this apropos note: "Creation was done and all was well."