I’m just going to go ahead and say it: Fay Jones — who is practically an icon in the Seattle art world — makes awkward paintings. Many admirers, of which I am one, write about the flatness of her figures or the ambiguity of their emotions or situations. And those things are true, but the simple fact is that her gorgeous paintings and prints are filled with clunky, awkward renderings, almost like sketches by a seventh-grader who is pretty good at art.
I don’t mean that in a pejorative way. The awkwardness is the key to the success of the paintings. It sets up conflict, which every good storyteller knows is necessary to keep readers reading and viewers viewing. Jones, as the works in her new show at Grover/Thurston Gallery illustrate, is a master at building up tension: between the edginess of her figures and her vibrant color palette; between her characters — her familiar sailors and dancers, and the new gangsters and old-timey actors — and their slightly surreal, romantic settings; and between our ability to instantly read the paintings and our inability to really understand a complete story.
In “Who’s Gonna Slow Dance with Bonnie Day?” the solid figure and vacant eyes of a woman nail our attention to the foreground. Her polka-dot dress is sweet and down-home country, but wait; it’s sheer and short, as if she’s also a ballerina or just dressed inappropriately for a square dance. Three male figures hover behind her, assessing her, either eager or reluctant to volunteer. Interrupting the scene is a garland of lovely flowers zipping straight down the middle of the big painting. Bonnie Day, who is loosely based on a short story by Kerry Quint, seems like a familiar character — we sense the arc of the story of a girl-next-door gone astray — but Jones’ deft interruptions and tensions leave us mid-scene. We never achieve full comprehension or resolution. And that keeps us looking.
The major new element in these recent paintings at Grover/Thurston is the subject matter. A whole series of smaller paintings is based on the still photographs and photographs from the sets of Jean Renoir’s films. Think about that for a minute. They’re not based on the entire films, but on stills and shots of the sets. Jones was inspired by the fragments of a whole narrative.
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Jones is particularly drawn to this quote from Renoir: “Oh, you know, one tells the same story throughout one’s life. We have one story in mind, and we discover different aspects of it, little by little.”
Renoir’s words could easily apply to Jones’ paintings as well. But I would add that she shares with us, little by little, inviting and challenging us to construct a beautiful, tragic story from the awkward pieces.