Morris Graves centennial: the show, the séance

The artist who grew up in Seattle produced haunting, meditative work that belied a prankish streak. Admirers here have staged a centennial salute in Pioneer Square that runs through Saturday (Aug. 28).
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A self-portrait by Morris Graves

The artist who grew up in Seattle produced haunting, meditative work that belied a prankish streak. Admirers here have staged a centennial salute in Pioneer Square that runs through Saturday (Aug. 28).

Were painter Morris Graves still with us — and many claim he is, spiritually — he would turn 100 this week. Born in 1910, he grew up in a Seattle far different than the traffic-choked, sophisticated city laden with Rem Koolhaus and Frank Gehry architecture. The Seattle of Graves'ꀙ youth was one where Fourth Avenue was the main thoroughfare; where William Boeing was known because of his timber interests; where Nellie Cornish dreamed of running a school devoted to painting, theater, and dance.

Graves came of age in a time when he would have seen the Seattle Union Star, Seattle'ꀙs labor paper, document agitation between Wobblies and returning World War I vets. And he would have seen the rise in fraternal organizations, whose ranks were swelled by those returning soldiers.

The popularity of such fraternal organizations provided fodder for H. L. Mencken'ꀙs acerbic commentary on the American scene. Instead of the Fraternal Order of the Eagles; the Loyal Order of the Moose, or the Elks, Mencken suggested the formation of new societies: 'ꀜThe Mysterious Brotherhood of the Epileptic Handshake,'ꀝ or the "Liquorish Louts of Hideous Heiroglyphics'ꀝ or 'ꀜThe Despondent Sorority of Esoteric Virgins,'ꀝ among others.

While Mencken lampooned the Eagles, established in Seattle, 1898, his sympathies would have found accommodation in a fraternal organization also founded in Seattle, some 90 years hence: The Mystic Sons of Morris Graves, Seattle Lodge 93.

Inspired by the agitprop antics of Tristan Tzara and his dadaist cohorts, the Mystic Sons is the misbegotten child of Charlie Krafft, himself known as Seattle'ꀙs oldest promising young artist, and occasional abettor Larry Reid, former impresario of galleries Rosco Louie and Graven Image. Formed with the imprimatur of their friend Graves, the unorthodox structure of the fraternity — no bylaws, no meetings, and membership loosely conferred (and firmly retracted, in at least one instance) by Krafft — the Mystic Sons rears its mischievous head when the local art establishment takes itself too seriously, becomes boring, or both.

With Reid'ꀙs unmatched promotional skills, the Mystic Sons has deployed several subversive productions designed to provoke or simply amuse. In the mid-1990s, the height of enthusiasm for Pilchuck and other faddish glass works, the Mystic Sons held a raffle, with tickets sold in a Pioneer Square booth during First Thursdays, to smash a Chihuly vase. More than 1,000 tickets were sold; local media were eating from Reid'ꀙs hand.

Graves, who died at his Loleta, Calif. home in 2001, was delighted to see his namesake rabble-rousers up-end the art-culture'ꀙs lowest common denominator. Graves'ꀙ ouevre — meditative, inquisitive, haunting — belied the man'ꀙs prankish streak.

The biographical facts of Grave'ꀙs development are well known. Born in Oregon, Graves grew up in the Puget Sound country where the coastal imagery — muted colors, shorebirds, mist — was indelibly imprinted in his consciousness. With short diversions that took him to Texas, Japan, Los Angeles, and Europe, Graves remained a Northwesterner while refining his draughtsmanship and style. In 1936, Graves was given a one-man show at the Seattle Art Museum. His Rolls-Royce arrival at the opening, bedecked in formal wear and tennis shoes, was a gesture echoed decades later by Kurt Cobain when, for the cover of Rolling Stone, the musician wore a T-shirt upon which he scrawled 'ꀜCorporate Magazines Still Suck.'ꀝ Both were pranks, but with nips at the hands that fed them and with indications of discomfort with commercial success.

If Graves'ꀙ insolence was directed at the provincialism of Seattle'ꀙs art scene, he had no need to worry that such shenanigans might limit his painterly reputation, for within a few years he was included in the seminal exhibit 'ꀜAmericans 1942,'ꀝ a mounting of 18 artists from nine states at New York's Museum of Modern Art.

Having transcended regionalism, the elation Graves experienced would have been tempered by mail informing him of induction into the U.S. Army. That relationship, predictably ill-conceived, lasted mere months.

Discharged, Graves, ever the bohemian at 6' 3" and wearing the occasional cape, was once again seen walking Seattle'ꀙs University Way.

During that period, Hollywood called in the corpulent form of Charles Laughton. In Seattle to support a World War II bond drive, Laughton was captured by the mysteriousness of Graves'ꀙ paintings and exclaimed, "Who did these? Where is he? How can I meet him?'ꀝ By now Graves had entered a semi-hermetic life on 'ꀜthe Rock,'ꀝ a well-designed shack without water or electricity sited on an outcropping of Fidalgo Island. Despite that remoteness, Laughton found Graves; at their first encounter, according to Laughton, they 'ꀜsat up talking until seven in the morning.'ꀝ How that went over with Laughton'ꀙs wife, actress Elsa Lanchester, is unknown. But after Laughton died — with Graves at his deathbed — Lanchester sold the couple'ꀙs collection of Graves paintings.

By then Graves had moved off the Rock to Woodway, near Edmonds, but not before being depicted as a minor character, 'ꀜLawrence Warren,'ꀝ in Nancy Wilson Ross'ꀙs 'ꀜI, My Ancestor'ꀝ (Random House, 1950). (New Yorker critic John Broderick wrote that the reader is 'ꀜleft aghast'ꀝ at the interminable peregrination of the novel'ꀙs protagonist.)

Bolstered by that attention and a little money, Graves grew a full beard to ensure against the possibility of gainful employment in those narrow, button-down 1950s.

If Ross'ꀙs book was less than critically successful, a 1955 essay by Kenneth Rexroth, 'ꀜThe Visionary Paintings by Morris Graves'ꀝ in Perspectives USA and later printed in his collection Bird in the Bush laid laurels at Graves'ꀙ feet, placing him in a pantheon containing Chinese, Japanese, and European masters — Sung Dynasty painters, Sesshu and early Jean de Bosschère. Rexroth even goes so far as to cite some resemblance in his work to early Klees. Despite such lofty comparisons, Rexroth suggests that Graves was unaware of his predecessors — thereby further emphasizing Graves'ꀙ stature as his own man.

With MOMA'ꀙs acquisition of Graves'ꀙ works 'ꀜLittle Known Bird of the Inner Eye,'ꀝ 'ꀜBird in Moonlight'ꀝ and 'ꀜBlind Bird,'ꀝ Rexroth wrote that critics could now see 'ꀜthat here was a really different yet thoroughly competent artist.'ꀝ

With acclaim came financial security. By 1955 Graves had moved to Woodtown Manor, a faded 18th century stone mansion oustide Dublin. After six or so years, he returned stateside for the opportunity to buy acreage in Loleta, in Humboldt County, upon which he built a house designed by Ibsen Nelsen. Graves lived there the rest of his life.

With the realization that the centennial of Graves'ꀙ birth would pass without recognition, Krafft sprang to action, organizing an invitational exhibit of works done in tribute to Morris Graves. With some 150 works represented, the show at the Rock/DeMent Rock|DeMent, Corridor and Angle Galleries (within the Tashiro Kaplan building, Third Avenue and South Washington) will conclude this Saturday (Aug. 28) with a séance — open to Mystic Sons and contributing artists — designed to raise the spirit of Morris Cole Graves. With typical bluster, Krafft and Reid prepared a press release that mentions a few of the contributing artists; interspersed among them are some marquee names — Susan Rothenberg, Maya Lin, Charlie Manson — indicative of Krafft'ꀙs and Reid'ꀙs chicanery.

Among the show'ꀙs standouts, Ries Niemi'ꀙs denim biker vest is a pleasantly garish tribute to Graves and the Mystic Sons. Embroidered between the Mystic Sons logo in head- and tail-banners ('ꀜSkagit Valley Drag Chapter'ꀝ) is an image of the bearded Graves wearing a gold wig and lipstick. With a nod to Woody Guthrie, the phrase 'ꀜThis Machine Kills Pop Artists'ꀝ is interspersed among two intersecting paint brushes, a la crossbones.

A charming flower painting done in the Graves'ꀙ style, earnest and lovingly tendered by Betty Miles, 'ꀜHomage to Morris Graves'ꀝ speaks to the passion Graves inspired in his admirers. And two small paintings by James Martin, whose work often includes art-history references, sly or overt, evoke the wit and humor occasionally found in Graves'ꀙ work ('ꀜToot Brushes'ꀝ and 'ꀜDada with Strawberry'ꀝ). In the Martin tradition, his tributes are presented as amusing narratives.

Eric Nelsen'ꀙs contribution is an assemblage of goblets, faded natural science specimens, and two priapic ceramic vessels ('ꀜchalices with phalluses,'ꀝ per gallery host Nichole DeMent) that spew forth streams of blond horse hair. Accompanied by a 1981 Western Union telegram addressed by Nelsen to Graves and his partner Robert Yarber, the shrine carries an apt title, 'ꀜMemento Mori for Morris Graves.'ꀝ

DeMent herself has contributed a large-format photograph, exquisitely lighted. A small cat skull, enlarged to a menacing size yet remaining delicate, was digitally printed on rice paper and then coated with encaustic and mixed media. Ineffably, it fits well in the Graves'ꀙ mindset. Equally macabre, Art Garcia'ꀙs oil on rice paper, 'ꀜMorris Graves'ꀙ Ghost,'ꀝ depicting a bedraggled, bare-chested Graves, conveys Graves as a veritable seer.

A playful roll of dangling toilet paper, hanging from a wall-mounted holder and printed with blackbirds on every other square, presents references to Duchamp and Gober. The accompanying wall label tells you it's 'ꀜVisionary'ꀝ by Paul Young.

The visitor is happily surprised to find three Morris Graves works in the show, all of which warrant attention for their bizarre qualities. One, a painting found in the attic of his Woodway house after it had been sold, is a Dali-esque tableau featuring a disembodied hirsute head bereft of mandible and with a conch shell for a hat, looking askance at an antipodean bird skeleton with fleshy rooster feet, all of which is highly uncharacteristic of Graves's typical style.

Another, a flower painting on which Graves applied magazine cut-outs of African-American youth, suggests he had either become non compos mentis or that he had merely allowed his inhibitions free reign. In one corner is a self-portrait, above which a wolf howls at the full moon amidst constellations. The painting was a gift from Graves to the Mystic Sons.

The third Graves work is a collage with a Korean shamanistic mask, molten lava issuing from its mouth, with magazine cut-outs of another mouth and two eyes hovering above the mask and a lunar module at stage right, all overlaid on an astronomical backdrop; it all brings to mind late-stage Ray Milland in 'ꀜX'ꀓMan with the X-Ray Eyes'ꀝ submitting to the Biblical injunction 'ꀜand if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee.'ꀝ

As if a reliquary, Graves'ꀙ cap and Ray Ban Wayfarers are presented in a plexiglass box, seeming to say his spirit is present. Or forthcoming.

In this jaded age, with seemingly little value placed on the 'ꀜinner eye,'ꀝ genuine reverence expressed for an artist deemed passé by so many critics is indeed a little triumph for Krafft and his Mystic Sons.

As for the séance, one can be assured that Mencken, so refined a vulgarian, would delight in the hokum, replete with eerie theremin accompaniment. And Morris Graves, who once pushed a baby pram filled with rocks round and round the lobby of the Olympic Hotel? His cap and shades are waiting for him.

If you go: The show is at the Rock/DeMent visual art space, Corridor Gallery and Angle Gallery in the Tashiro Kaplan Building, 306 S. Washington. Open noon to 5 p.m. on Friday and Saturday (Aug. 27-28). No seating available for the séance.


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