Arts and Entertainment

STANDING ROOM ONLY: Before grunge there was the Northwest School of Art

The magnificent thing about Northwest art is that it’s so hard to define. Take, for instance, a term like “grunge,” which purported to categorize the wildly diverse music scene that erupted in Seattle during the early ‘90s. What the heck is grunge? The word is as indistinct as it is laughable, though that certainly didn’t stop the geniuses of Madison Avenue from marketing “grunge-wear” (i.e. plaid shirt, torn Levis, stocking cap) to New York hipsters for ungodly sums of cash. The definition arrives after the fact, a default judgement that pushes disparate elements into a single bin.

Then again, when you say “grunge,” just about everyone knows what you’re talking about. Behind their diversity, many Seattle bands did share some common aural characteristic that seemed to reflect the rainy, dank, over-ripe atmosphere of Seattle itself: a sort of churning guitar sound, heavy rhythms, a certain Beattlesque pop sensibility coupled with a punkish, devil-may-care attitude.

So it goes with the group of artists who came to be known informally as the Northwest School. These painters, who emerged in and around Seattle during the ‘30s and ‘40s, shared no common manifesto or group identity. If they were linked at all, it was through their poverty and their overarching drive to create art that was true to their inner and outer environment. They denied belonging to a “school” at all.

However, as with so-called “grunge” bands, there did arise something resembling a style among these painters. And that style is all about the special light that diffuses the Northwest landscape, covering objects in shadows or illuminating them with fractured and often brilliant sunshine. As important as the landscape in shaping these painters style was the culture of the Northwest itself, with its unique blend of immigrant and native populations.

Thankfully, many of the works of the Northwest School have now been brought together in one exhibit. Iridescent Light: The Emergence of Northwest Art is a special exhibit running through March 31 at the Museum of Northwest Art in LaConnor. The exhibit is accompanied by a book of the same name, written by Deloris Tarzan Ament and Mary Randlett, which provides a new look at the history of art in the Pacific Northwest. The show features over 100 paintings, sculptures, glass art and photography by such artists as Mark Tobey, Morris Graves, James Washington, Jr., Philip McCracken, Phillip Levine and Doris Chase.

And in conjunction with MoNA’s new exhibit, Seattle actor/playwright Todd Moore will be reading from a new, one-man play entitled “Thoreau at Home,” written by University of Washington Professor Emeritus David Wagoner. The play, based on the Journals of Henry David Thoreau, will be presented one time only this Saturday at 7:30 p.m.; admission is $4 adults/$2 students (members, kids get in free) and includes a tour of the new exhibition at 6:45 p.m. by docent Frank Hull. MoNA’s regular gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday; call (360) 466-4446 for more information.

And now for some quick hits: For some reason, one of the finest sleeper movies of the year, “In the Bedroom,” has yet to make it to Whidbey Island. However, for a short time, this excellent domestic drama starring Sissy Spacek is only a ferry-ride away at Port Townsend’s Rose Theater. If you like quality film, you shouldn’t miss this one. The movie, by first-time director Todd Field, revolves around the themes of class, miscommunication and revenge. It really is a rare gem, full of excellent performances spurred by a pitch-perfect script. In its quiet, subtle portrayal of a family torn apart by violence, it packs more emotional wallop than a thousand Schwarzenegger movies scrunched into one. Call (360) 385-1039 for showtimes.

Also of interest is a brand-new exhibit going on right now in Seattle at Paul Allen’s Experience Music Project. The LP Show, housed in EMP’s Special Exhibits Gallery, showcases an eclectic collection of 1,500 album covers that have been chosen solely for their spectacular graphic design. The collection, on loan from New York’s Exit Art Gallery, features the private collection of former Columbia Records art director Alex Steinweiss, who created the first artistic album cover for Rodgers & Hart’s Smash Song Hits in 1939. The exhibit runs through April 14; call (206) 441-5991.

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