The title of "Epicenter: Essays on North American Art," a collection of essays by nationally known, Seattle-based art critic Matthew Kangas, evokes associations...

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“Epicenter: Essays on North American Art”
by Matthew Kangas
Midmarch Arts Press, 390 pp., $25

The title of “Epicenter: Essays on North American Art,” a collection of essays by nationally known, Seattle-based art critic Matthew Kangas, evokes associations with earthquakes and central points of pressure and activity. Over the past 25 years, Kangas has contributed to such publications as Art in America, Vanguard and The Seattle Times, choosing topics and adopting a contentious writing style that reflect his interest in shaking things up. Kangas questions preconceived formations of art history and criticism, particularly regarding icons of abstract expressionism and Pacific Northwest art.

Kangas’ relationship to Seattle and the greater Pacific Northwest region is passionate and complicated. He writes about his subjects with prose that is cerebral, extravagant and even bombastic at times. Surely this style must arise out of his dearly held convictions about art and artists — particularly artists who, in Kangas’ opinion, have been overrated (like Mark Tobey) or underrated (like Max Benjamin).

Kangas left Seattle, his hometown, for Reed College in Portland, and then went on to graduate school at Oxford and a career writing about literature and art in New York. In his introduction to “Epicenter,” Kangas tells of his return to Seattle in 1977. His time in New York had been highly stimulating and, back in Seattle, he found himself suffering from “intellectual isolation.” Several of the earliest essays in this collection are attempts to remain in dialogue with the intellectual and artistic ideas of the East Coast. He engages in bold and exacting reassessments of the prevailing critical positions on such big-name New York (that is to say, “national”) artists as Franz Kline and Jackson Pollock.

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For Kangas, the Pacific Northwest initially was primarily defined in relation to what the New York-centric art world had already deemed worthy in the art “out west.” Apparently needing to stake out a sophisticated critical position on the most well-known art of the area, the so-called Northwest School, Kangas was, and often continues to be, vociferously severe on what he deemed the “turgid accomplishments” of Tobey and Morris Graves, his least favorite members of this loosely defined group of the 1940s and ’50s. Kangas has condescendingly described their use of the “decorative aspects of Asian art” in order to “conceal their own technical limitations.”

In a later, more broad-minded but equally provocative take on the Northwest School, Kangas argues for an acknowledgment of what he calls these artists’ “Homoerotic Imagery.” This reorientation of much of the work of these “Mystics of the Northwest,” away from a spiritual, formalist interpretation toward a sexual, biographical one, generated hot debate when it was first published as an essay in the journal Art Criticism in 1986.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given his complex relationship to the Northwest and his propensity to reinvestigate terrain, Kangas is drawn to local artists who are not characteristic of this nationally recognized Northwest School. Instead, Kangas has championed less “mystic,” more “modernist” abstract artists such as Walter F. Isaacs and more socially driven, visually eclectic artists such as Buster Simpson.

The essays within “Epicenter” are mainly chronological within each broad section; the reader can sense Kangas’ gradual warming up to his West Coast artistic environment over time. Indeed, one of the first local subjects to command Kangas’ respect and attention is directly related to the local, urban context — Seattle’s public art. Some of the strongest, most generous essays in the book are about the public-art processes and products from 1975-1985, a period defined by Kangas as Seattle’s golden age of art in public places.

Although Kangas’ very specific and insular references to historical and critical art approaches may appeal primarily to academics, fellow critics and the most devoted art lovers, his essays could also make for interesting reading for the curious novice as well, particularly due to their informed and fiercely unique approaches to familiar territory within the art world.

But it also seems as if Kangas at times deliberately provokes with his rowdy opinions and occasionally dismissive tone. Kangas would probably approve of readers voicing their own contradictory positions. Throughout the essays, he stresses the importance of the interpretation of art by individual viewers. With this emphasis in mind, it is disappointing that there are not more images to contemplate in this book. This scarcity of visuals is especially unsatisfying, because Kangas provides evocative, careful analysis of the visual qualities of many works of art that are not illustrated in “Epicenter.”

Ultimately, the strength of this collection of essays lies in Kangas’ ability to carve out varied approaches with which to discuss and debate art. He provides broad art historical and social contexts along with his personal, impassioned judgments. Kangas’ unabashed, well-versed and willful style creates both pleasurable and irritating tremors.

Gayle Clemans is an arts writer and lecturer who is completing her Ph.D. in Art History at the University of Washington.