The Kittredge Gallery – the wonderful art gallery at the University of Puget Sound (UPS) – has hosted some fantastic shows in its time. Notable exhibits in recent years include Jim Riswold’s large, bright and kitschy photographic images of Chairman Mao (“Mao Home & Garden” March 19-April 18, 2007), Tracey Long’s gigantic wood cut prints (“Juxtaposition” Oct. 12-Nov. 29, 2008) and a spectacular 40-year retrospective of the work of ceramic artist and UPS professor John McCuistion (Sept. 4-Oct. 8, 2008).
Focused on the strong work of individual artists, these shows were striking and memorable for clarity of vision and purpose.
In July 2009, however, Kittredge Gallery entered into an arrangement with the Tacoma Art Museum (TAM). The partnership handed management and programming of Kittredge over to TAM staff.
Not content, seemingly, with letting Kittredge Gallery be an art gallery and simply featuring the work of worthy artists (as well as hosting annual shows of UPS art students), the TAM partnership has shifted the focus of the gallery and not necessarily for the better. Now, apparently, every show has to teach a lesson – become a source of discussion topics and writing assignments. Granted, there have been good, focused shows under the auspices of TAM – like Michael Johnson’s sculptures and Lisa Sweet’s modernized (or post-modernized) devotional paintings.
It is when the TAM curators try to delve into group shows centered around a didactic theme that the wheels come off.
The current show “Nature/Sculpture/Image” is a case in point. Here, Kittredge’s “large gallery” has been made to serve as a second-run venue for artists whose work has been recently featured at TAM. For example, Doug Jeck’s “Cain and Abel,” an almost life-sized ceramic nude man with real hair and an oddly proportioned body, was recently part of TAM’s Neddy exhibit. Further, the teaching theme of the show – how artists interact with the natural world – is so broad and malleable as to be a catch-all for whatever TAM wants to throw in.
Thus, works like Michael Fajans’ “Net (Public People)” – a blown up and artfully altered photograph of people in an urban setting – are included in the show. The point that the artist sees no demarcation between the “manmade” and the “natural” is a valid one, but it robs the show of focus and turns the show into a visual hodge-podge. Even with the elasticity of the artist/nature theme it is difficult to understand why Judith Poxson Fawkes’ tapestry “Malachite and Onyx Arch” is included.
Nevertheless, there are several outstanding pieces in the show such as Kesler Woodward’s “Seattle Birches” – a close-up of two birch trees in which the thick paint wonderfully mimics the crusty texture of the trees. William Morris’ “Rocks” are exquisite beach stones of blown glass done in speckles and swirls of green.
After the disjointed experience of the “large gallery,” it is soothing to move back into the “small gallery” where pages from Abby Williams Hill’s sketchbooks, matted and framed, are on display. The exhibit is called “Abby Williams Hill: Wanderlust.”
Originally from Iowa and educated at the Art Students League in New York, Hill settled in Tacoma with her husband at the turn of the last century. She was commissioned by the Great Northern and Northern Pacific railroads to travel the West to capture the natural beauty of the landscape in paint.
UPS is a major repository of her work and paintings from the Hill Collection are on permanent display in Jones Hall, Collins Memorial Library and the Slater Museum of Natural History.
“Wanderlust” features ink drawings on paper and well as charming, yellowed pages, some with tears, from Hill’s sketchbooks. Many local scenes of Vashon Island as well as scenes from trips to Montana and the American Southwest are depicted. Hill also traveled to Europe and her interest in the architecture of Belgium, Germany, France and Switzerland is apparent in her drawings.
Hill exhibits a deft handling of her materials and a poetic working of space in scenes like “Hamma Hamma.” Done in 1912, the drawing shows a simple cluster of fir trees along a shoreline that recedes into space.
“Nature/Sculpture/Image” and “Abby Williams Hill: Wanderlust” run through April 9. For further information visit www.pugetsound.edu/kittredge or call (253) 879-3701.