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When Beth Sellars, curator of Suyama Space, was invited by Cable Griffith, curator of Cornish College’s Main Art Gallery, to organize a show, she was allowed to select any artist, any subject. She knew at once that it was a Robert C. Jones show she wanted to present.

She describes Jones as one of the finest painters of the Northwest, yet one of the least-known. He’s an abstract painter, consistent but always evolving. The current retrospective includes works on paper from the 1970s and a progression of intensely colored oils and acrylics throughout the years up to today. It’s a show offering surprises and rewards, especially for those who look beyond the surface.

The paintings are hung in a loose chronological order. They begin with the earlier abstractions, geometric, even architectural compositions, from a master draftsman. Blocks of color are carefully arranged to reinforce their vividness and their response to one another.

Then gradually there’s a shift. The paintings are still abstract, yet by the ’80s the geometric shapes are softened. There’s a lot going on under the surface. The undulating lines are as important as the vibrant colors. The paintings now have an organic quality. It’s this flow, the sensuous curves, that demand attention.

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As you look carefully at the later works, you realize that there are elements of the human body there, not whole beings. There’s an elbow here, shoulders there. You’ll see the curve of a leg, the breast of a woman. What appeared initially to be a totally satisfactory abstract design with brilliant colors shimmering from the canvas, will upon closer attention suggest two figures standing facing each other. Once you’ve identified them, you wonder how you could have missed them. Surely they have been deliberately placed there.

The texture too is important. You’ll notice small strokes, dabs of paint that create multiple layers. You’ll see where a blue is under-painted with pink or reddish strokes, pigment placed to enliven the canvas.

The 80-year-old Jones was born in Connecticut, studied and taught at the Rhode Island School of Design and taught also at the University of Washington, Sheldon Jackson College and the University of British Columbia. As a student he interned with abstract expressionist painter Hans Hofmann. A recipient of many prestigious fellowships, he’s had solo shows at numerous regional museums. He lives in Seattle with his wife, the painter Fay Jones.

The video (in the room just off the gallery) presents Jones talking as he paints. In it he reveals that he never considers himself a realist but that his paintings are naturalistic, that, indeed, they fluctuate between the abstract and the real. He says his works are a collection of moments spread over time. He’s pleased with this work, considers it hard and honest work, work that does no harm. He wants the paintings to reflect his good life, its simple pleasures.

So spend some time with these drawings and paintings. The labels help you enter his world, but eventually you don’t need them. You’ve unlocked his secrets and are so much the better for it.

Nancy Worssam:

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