SEATTLE — I believe what Wallace Stevens said: a mythology reflects its region. So in moving from New York City to Seattle in 1995, I was doubly anxious, knowing neither the region nor its mythology. Unlike the familiar social imaginary of New England, the West, the South, or every street in Manhattan, the Pacific Northwest lacked particularity. Sure, Boeing. Sure, Scoop Jackson. Sure lumber, salmon, Scandinavians and Microsoft. But the region’s mythology was decades in place; I just didn’t know it, except for those hints to be found in David Lynch owls, black lodges, and psychic anomalies, as well as certain key episodes of the X-Files. Now, I do. Back in the 1920s and ’30s, the artists of what would be called the Pacific Northwest School had begun teasing out the area’s interrelation of landscape, culture, and belief. The current show Modernism in the Pacific Northwest: The Mythic and the Mystical, up at the Seattle Art Museum (June 19–Sept 7, 2014), is a Lynchian mix of water, dreams, mountains, fog, and emptiness, and dreams that arise from the edge of the earth.
Set at the entrance to the exhibit, Mark Tobey’s extraordinary painting,“White Night” (1942), argues for his life and work as the central fact of the modulations of Modernism in Cascadia. Tobey (1890-1976) moved to Seattle in 1922 and studied Chinese calligraphy. He also studied Arabic and Persian script, and, as a convert to Bahai, he was no doubt keen to see divine analogues in the act of writing. In “White Night,”his white lines flurry and tangle on a slate-colored background. A primordial light streams downward from a few cosmic seeds, until, at the bottom of the painting, all’s a blur of petals, vulvas and ecstatic grass. It’s a gesture, famously known as “white writing,”said to inspire the all-over style of Jackson Pollock, who studied Tobey’s work closely when it appeared in New York in the early ’40s. While Pollock took the bursts of efflorescent energy and made them seem like nature itself, for Toby the aura of the written persists. In “Agate World” (1945), Tobey’s white strokes recall the Sufi and Kabbalistic belief in the underlying textuality of creation — letters serving as the medium of divine intelligence. Tobey’s white writing paintings are not meant to be legible, but rather to suggest the exuberant gestures of writing. The lines that would be confined as letters are instead set free.
This exchange of white for black in the outline of figures lends a metaphysical feel to his less abstract works — cityscapes, crowd scenes. Dense with detail, the paintings counter our expectation that particulars might give way to some essential underlying form. It is a vision of interconnectivity that arises out of the social, like the intimation of universal brotherhood that overwhelmed the painter on an Armistice Day in Times Square in 1918. As Patricia Junker says in the catalogue essay:
Eventually, two decades after the thrill of Armistice Day, Tobey began to create pictures crowded with figures — not always figures, exactly, but often a shorthand suggestion of figures, people enmeshed in a web of white lines that seemed to demarcate the massive force field emanating from human minds and hearts, an aggregate energy so palpable and so powerful it could almost glow in the dark.
If Tobey tended toward ecstasy, Morris Graves —his junior by twenty years, who arrived in Seattle in 1911 —spent long stretches in the dark of a psycho-cultural crevasse. But he also, like Tobey, travelled. Both painters had been to the East, and eventually made rich use of their passion for Asian art. Graves is more deeply marked than Tobey by the Symbolist and Expressionist painting of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. An early work depicts a swan, that consummate poetic emblem of transcendence and purity, blackened and dazed, as if it had just wandered away from a bomb blast.
Graves’ imagination was burdened with the obligation to establish the contours of the dark from which his art seeks to fly free. The bleakest of these date from the early forties, and embody the painter’s response to the World War II. Though political in their stated intention (of the most turbulent the artist said: ”I thought I would send it as a message to Winston Churchill.”) these works are overtly allegorical and seem as much about the state of the soul as about the state of the world. In “Crow, Surf, and Moon” (1943), yet another of Graves’ numerous totemic birds looks up, registering its distance from the dim emanations of a darkened moon. (These wartime paintings bring to mind a Pacific Northwest memorial to fallen Americans in the First World War. It’s a replica of Stonehenge commissioned by a Quaker businessman. The ancient cultic site reappears in Washington state as an altar to a barbaric war god upon which so many sacrifices were made.) How distant the Pacific Northwest must have felt in the teens from Europe’s Armageddon. That distance lessened, but was still immense the next time around. On his island retreat north of Seattle, Graves at times could be likened to Robinson Jeffers, manning his own coastal outpost hundreds of miles south. Both shared an apocalyptic gravitas, decrying Western Culture as the last trumpets sounded.
Graves, however, like his mentor and rival Tobey, is ultimately committed to the transfiguring power of the interior life. He is evangelical in his assertion of the inner eye’s reality, and his paintings show us what that eye sees. Mystical themes are swathed in soft luminescent sheets — a talismanic object, such as a cup or chalice, appears as if seen through veils. His spirituality is didactic yet syncretic; Graves frequently draws on yogic diagrams of the body’s energies, or traditional Buddhist mandalas. The more hopeful of his many allegories depict awakening and transcendence. The birds so beleaguered and enmeshed in the wartime paintings become in “Waking, Walking, Singing in the Next Dimension” (1979) what seems to be a single bird undergoing a tripartite metamorphosis, its liberating psychic energy visualized as three interconnected circles of growing radiance.
The majority of the painters and sculptors featured in Modernism in the Pacific Northwest maintained a relation to some received religious tradition. (Guy Anderson seems the outlier here, an artist caught short without a message for mankind.) Jesus is everywhere in the geologic and wooded world of Kenneth Callahan, an artist almost outlandishly orthodox, mixing a libidinal celebration of the human body with a powerful sense of Christian guilt. Before certain of his canvases you might feel like you are starting out on a day hike in the Cascades with Walt Whitman. But Whitman turns into Jonathan Edwards at a turn in the path where every rift in the rock or splayed branch seems to depict the Redeemer’s last misery. “First Seed into Last Harvest”(1943) counterpoises crucifixes and curved and contorted human bodies as they emerge from the rifts and grains of the landscape. Callahan is a touch perverse, reveling in the incongruity of beauty and death. His creation scene would be the perfect cover for an anthology of gnostic writings: at the center of it all, the serpent.
By contrast Leo Kenney, the chief second-generation Pacific Northwest artist, placed his faith in Surrealism. His early works recall the ruin-haunted dreamscapes of Salvador Dali and Giorgio de Chirico. Throughout the ’50s he was a dutiful, deeply forlorn adept of the marvelous. Then, in the early ’60s, everything changed when he dropped mescaline: figuration fled and he began to paint free-floating circles of light. Drugs and an aesthetic of immediacy did not lead him, as one might assume, to an art of improvisation and sensory overload. His shimmering contemplative circles worked at the behest of intuited continuities between the ancient and the immediate, preparing us, in their attention to the hidden structure of the world, for the dreams of Agent Dale Cooper.
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