An excursion to Tacoma Art Museum’s newest show is like stepping into an Aladdin’s vault or an enchanted cave where pirates hide their precious treasure. The eye is immediately delighted – drawn hither and yon as this or that fantastic object calls out for attention.
Titled “Creating the New Northwest: Selections from the Herb and Lucy Pruzan Collection,” the show is a scintillating treasure trove. The works in the show represent a who’s who of some of the finest Northwest artists of the last half-century. There are paintings, prints, sculpture, ceramics and glass. Works in the show trace an art historical arch from the 1930s and through the abstract expressionism of the 50s and 60s. There are examples of pop art and funk ceramics of the 60s and 70s. Works from the 80s mark a return to figuration and point toward the liberation of post-modernism in which artists are loosed from the fetters of prescribed styles and are free to draw inspiration from the vast well of art history and knowledge of other cultures in time and place.
The Pruzans, a Seattle couple, began their auspicious collection on the heels of their marriage in 1958. Legend has it that their apartment did not feel like a home until there was art on the walls. Unable to afford works by the East Coast leaders of the New York School (to say nothing of the European masters), the Pruzans focused their attention on Northwest artists.
Over the past 50 years, their collection has grown in sync with the rise of the Northwest as an economic and cultural center. Indeed, it was the Pruzans and others like them whose patronage nurtured Northwest artists and allowed them to remain in the region. The resulting pool of dynamic artists has become a verdant cultural ecosystem in which artists, art schools, galleries and museums mesh together to generate a local cultural tapestry of ever increasing richness that attracts yet more artists, gallery owners and collectors in a virtuous, upward spiral. It is collectors like the Pruzans that are the generators providing the financial energy to keep the whole thing going. After all, even artists need to eat and pay the light bill in order to root deeply and bring forth their fruits.
The Pruzans have been dynamic collectors – open to self-education and self confident enough to buy the work of emerging artists. The Pruzans have followed many of these artists and purchased work from all phases of the artist’s career. They have been open to new trends and new media. Beginning with painting, the Pruzans expanded their tastes to encompass ceramics when the Northwest became a center of innovation in the ceramic arts. They collected works from the likes of Howard Kottler, Patti Warashina, Jeffry Mitchell and Akio Takamori. When Dale Chihuly’s Pilchuck School helped to make the region into a major center of the studio glass movement, the Pruzans were there, crystallizing their collection with exquisite examples of that medium.
All it took was a willingness to learn about the artists (helped by gallery owners), and the courage to stay open to new ideas and the Pruzans were on their way to building this historic repository of amazing Northwest art. The collection charts the evolution of a discernable Northwest identity captured by and cultivated by the artists of this unique part of the world. Because we are all grounded in a particular time and place, artists who express themselves are also reflective of the time and place in which they exist. Thus, the climate and ecology of the Northwest has as much potential to have an influence on our artists as social and cultural conditions do.
“Creating the New Northwest” is so rich in quantity and quality that it is no small feat to get through the whole show in one visit. It is difficult to go through the gallery in any sort methodical manner since radiant objects from every part of the space are constantly beckoning for the viewer’s attention. Firm self-discipline is required lest one begin to dart from one thing to the next as haphazardly as a kid in a shop full of candy-coated toys.
Claudia Fitch’s “Chinoiserie #3,” a pair of headless, ceramic harpies glazed in marvelous motley of blue, black and white (with golden accents on nipples and claws), flank the entry like Chinese lions. Rudy Autio’s “Beltane Bull and Yellow Horse,” a large, porcelain, slab-built vessel covered in colorful nudes and animals draws one past the guardians and further into the treasure vault. From there one can visit such sweets as Jeffry Mitchell’s “Panda with a Honey Tree,” a whimsical ceramic diorama of a blue and white panda beside a de-limbed tree surmounted by a storybook squirrel.
On the walls one can have a close encounter with the big and brilliant “Big Fish – Small Pond” by Fay Jones. Here a standing figure reaches out to touch a huge, red fish that has emerged from a small blue oval. An elephant head seems to rise from the ground and a pair of daft ducks drift in an upper corner. There are big, abstract canvases like William Ivey’s untitled 1966 painting that is thick and lush and tactile. Gaylen Hansen’s “Four Fish and a Girl on a Blanket” from 1977 shows that artist’s independence from the trends of the times in its depiction of a quartet of trout possibly spawning near an Egyptian-styled, nude sunbather. Of particular charm is Louis Bunce’s “Nude with Seated Woman,” of 1934. This oil painting is as captivating as a work by a young, pre-cubist Pablo Picasso. Everywhere one looks there is something fascinating or even fascinatingly funny like Alden Mason’s “Fire One!” Here the iconic Northwest painter goes proto-pop with a garish and comical gumball machine with big yellow feet.
The Pruzans bought glass by Benjamin Moore, William Morris, Ginny Ruffner, and Preston Singletary, the latte of whom has tapped his Tlingit heritage as a source of designs to convert into glass.
“Creating the New Northwest” is sure to linger as a fond touchstone in the memory banks of those fortunate enough to see it. The show runs though Oct. 6. Go and see it. You’d be crazy not to. For further information visit http://www.TacomaArtMuseum.org.