Alden Mason: “Burpee Garden Paintings” at Greg Kucera Galle

“Paintings and the Whole Rigmarole” at Foster/White Gallery

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Now 88 years-old and still painting (while seated), Alden Mason provides a thorny question for historians of Pacific Northwest art. Two exhibitions at Foster/White and Greg Kucera constituted the retrospective regional art museums should have given him (the most recent otherwise were in 1987 and 1988). Last of the University of Washington School of Art professors who were also educated there under founders Ambrose Patterson and Walter F. Isaacs, Mason retired early in 1981 after teaching Chuck Close, among others. Close helped him get two shows in New York at Allan Stone Gallery where the Burpee Garden paintings that are now on view at Greg Kucera were first shown. Pooling and pouring diluted oil onto canvas, Mason made a minor contribution to Color Field painting that was duly noted by New York critics.

Despite their popularity in New York, the “Burpee Garden” paintings remain aclosed set within Mason’s oeuvre. Rainbow Rocker (1973), like Dandelion Day (1973), Burpee Surprise Package (1972) and Brown Bingo (1976), balance a full palette, thereby sidestepping the narrower, more decorative color scheme associated with much abstraction in that vein. Seen outside New York for the first time in 30 years, they comprise an important contribution to the development of modernist painting in the Pacific Northwest.

By age 70, Mason reinvented himself again. Always sniffing a trend, he became a figurative Neo-Expressionist with strong overtones of the tribal and ritual art he had observed in his travels to Africa, South America and Australia. In these works, color was sacrificed at the altar of drawing. With uniformly white or grey backgrounds (as if they were sheets of paper), Mason sought to capture the spontaneity of his drawings. Subject matter was restored; painterly power diminished.

Love Me Please (2005) is about a squabbling gay couple. Man & Wife (1995) portrays a disintegrating marriage scene. Tit for Tat (2007) suggests an angry tribal ritual complete with aborigines in white body paint. Hand It Over (2007) depicts a spread-out corpse, perhaps a self-portrait. And Two Ways to Heaven (2007) also seems to suggest an “intimation of mortality.” It could foretell Mason’s late-late period with its fractured space. A return to complete abstraction? Who knows? Mason’s mother lived to 104. There may yet be time for museums and art historians to sort out this uneven, divided, but constantly fresh and invigorating, artist.