Thoughts on the Clayton James show at Gallery Cygnus

Maggie Wilder: Elizabeth, your collaborations in printmaking with many Northwest artists have given you a window into the work of many influential figures. Any thoughts on the Clayton James show at Gallery Cygnus?

Elizabeth Tapper: When I walked in I knew the work was from the hand of a master. As in music, there are composers and performers, and Clayton James is both.

One couldn’t help but notice two styles. The earlier work from the nineties is a grounded landscape with distinguishable features, whereas the later work the features seem to vaporize into a more airy abstraction. The representational landscapes give you a lot to work with as a viewer. The more abstract work made me want more.

MW: Yes, and of course Clayton’s work has moved back and forth between realism and abstraction throughout his career, from figurative painting to completely abstract sculpture, back to painting again. Many contemporary artists seem to make this meander.

ET: Well, you know, five years before Clayton was born was the legendary Armory Show, which turned the art world upside down. Photography had usurped paintings function as a recorder of phenomenon, and that essentially freed artists and challenged them, too, to redefine their purpose.

MW: Yes, that search for meaningful employment seems ongoing!

ET: Several major experiments were launched in the 20th century. One was finding meaning in the process of art making itself, and the other was a focus on materiality. Before, paint had to look like something else. Suddenly, paint was free to look like itself.

MW: The notion of reality was challenged in art, and in science, too. And as our sense of reality changed, our sense of perfection changed, too.

ET: Ha! The Impressionists, and the Abstract Expressionists later, Discovered that it wasn’t all about precision. Giving up control brought some amazing rewards.

MW: Clayton’s work seems like a delicate balance. The earlier pieces have more “information.” The colors are very appealing. They seem to radiate a pleasure in standing in the particular spot on earth. With the later pieces, I don’t feel him just standing quietly at the easel. I can feel his arms moving paint around, almost like he’s dancing with the weather.

ET: Yes. It’s no longer about information. It’s more about his subjective response to what’s going on outside and inside. In my own work I start with something “real”, and then ask myself what interests me about it. So Clayton starts with something we know a little about. We’re standing in the mountains, and then he becomes, perhaps, more interested in his soul’s response to that situation.

Abstract painting is the most difficult thing to do! People think it’s easy, and there’s a lot of it out there, most of it made to dazzle the viewer with . . .

MW:. . .groovy technique! (Both of us grimace and laugh, as if we’d just been served Jello.

There’s a feeling of fleetingness in the later work, a feeling of power that might be even a little dangerous, power that can’t be contained, and not a lot of light. His palette, like so many Northwest painters, is subdued, like he’s trying to make friends with a dark winter.

ET: Yes, there’s a contentedness I sense there, even in the threat of a storm. I hear “All is well. And all will be well.”

MW: That certainly takes on a significance coming from a ninety-three year old.

ET: He’s the last of a generation, and you won’t see work like this again.