Endless Flirting on Paper, Review of Alden Mason's Show by Molly Norris

Monday, March 29, 2010 12:12 PM | Debbi Lester (Administrator)
At 90 Alden Mason still makes it to his Ballard studio three to four times a week. But for a few canvases from the 1990s, Mason’s current show at Foster/White Gallery consists of 20 recently made works on paper all sized at 26 by 35 inches. 

In these latest works, lines of oil stick create a resist for watercolor and India ink. Gaze long enough and you can see Mason’s delicate pencil lines beneath, outlines whose makings calm hands that otherwise shake.  

In “Untitled: White Writing Square Heads,” cartoon-like figures bounce in an active field. Watercolor clouds of emerald green that match the color of gems made from Mt. St. Helens’ ash balloon across oil stick ‘writings’ to envelop ultramarine blue globs of watercolor paint that one could re-moisten and dip a brush in. Crisp rims of bare, white paper left where watercolor approaches oil gives the illusion of shapes having been cut out and pasted on. You could call this work
organically optical.  

One could pitch these works as “Sam Francis meets Jean Dubuffet,” because everybody meets somebody.  

If the world were more attuned to University of Washington’s David Shields who believes we ought to be able to use other’s quotes and passages without having to credit them, rather like a DJ sampling songs, I could simply run together all the fabulous lines from past reviews of Mason’s work.   

In a Seattle Times article from September of 2004, critic Matthew Kangas wrote that Mason has a “…talent that is split down the middle between total non-objective abstraction and exuberantly figurative works.”

On the local online site Artdish back in 2007, Reiko Sundahl described Mason’s work as, “…like watching Looney Tunes through a glass of Alka Seltzer.” Description doesn’t get much better.

In the Seattle Post-Intelligencer back in March of 2008, Regina Hackett quoted Mason talking about a childhood spent growing up in the Skagit Valley, shooting muskrats to sell for painting supplies. She quotes the artist as saying that as a child “…I loved cartoons, with figures jumping, hopping, and smooching. They were having more fun than I was. They lived in a brighter world.”

This emotion has fueled Mason’s work for over eight decades. Tulip images from when he and his mother visited those fields are still showing up in paintings along with spirit birds, cows, and totems fashioned of chickens, dogs, and salmon.

Mason distinguishes himself in his paintings as the guy wearing the hat. It’s the same thing with local artists James Martin and Gaylen Hansen; what is it with all these graybeards painting dark whimsy and showing up in their paintings wearing hats? Mason started wearing his when young to keep hay from going down the back of his shirt.

In life Mason is in a wheelchair. In his paintings he skips ropes with friends. How lucky to live so long and collect friendships like a rolling snowball. Having taught at the University of Washington for 40 years – and received his BFA and MFA there! – allows for a lot of friends and fans. A few of his ex-students have also exhibited at Foster White, including Allison Collins and Chuck Close.  

Gayle Clemans wrote in the Seattle Times in 2009 that Mason believes that his work is all about improvisation. He calls his hand a smart ass for what it draws when he closes his eyes. He calls Arshile Gorky a “kindred spirit” what with that duality of playfulness with calamity. In the same article he says that he learned while in Papua New Guinea that a blackbird is a messenger between the living and the dead.  

Art is a messenger, and Alden Mason still uses it like it was yesterday.

Molly Norris

Molly Norris is an artist and writer living in Seattle, Washington. She is currently working on a documentary about the Webster’s Woods sculpture park located at the Port Angeles Fine Art Center.

Alden Mason’s exhibit, “Endless Flirting on Paper,” is on view through April 27, at the Foster/White Gallery located at 220 Third Avenue in Pioneer Square neighborhood of Seattle, Washington. There is a special event, “Tea with Alden Mason,” Saturday, April 17, 2 PM, please RSVP to the gallery by phone (206) 622-2833 or email seattle@fosterwhite.com. For further information, please visit www.fosterwhite.com. Also upcoming is an Alden Mason exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum from November 6, 2010 through August 21, 2011.

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