More than 100 Spafford works will be on view this spring during an unprecedented collaboration by Davidson Galleries, Greg Kucera Gallery and Woodside/Braseth Gallery.
It’s a Michael Spafford spring in Seattle, bringing a refreshing, vigorous look at one of the most esteemed artists of the Pacific Northwest. There will be abundant opportunities to get to know — or get reacquainted with — Spafford’s commanding work through a large-scale, joint exhibition by three of Seattle’s most prominent galleries; smaller displays at 4Culture and the Jacob Lawrence Gallery; and an authoritative book published by Lucia|Marquand and distributed by UW Press.
At 82, Spafford, a Seattle resident, has been creating art for a long time, abstracting from Greco-Roman mythology to make huge paintings of visual and thematic tension and smaller prints of distilled potency. More than 100 of these “Epic Works” will be on view during an unprecedented collaboration by Davidson Galleries, Greg Kucera Gallery and Woodside/Braseth Gallery. (The show opens March 31 at Woodside/Braseth and April 5 at Davidson and Greg Kucera galleries.)
You might be familiar with Spafford’s public artwork “Tumbling Figure — Five Stages” (based on the myth of Icarus falling from the sky) on Jefferson Street. Or you may remember the 1982 controversy surrounding his “Twelve Labors of Hercules” murals for the State Capitol Building in Olympia, which were commissioned, installed and then removed because they were considered too abstract or even obscene — much to the dismay of the artist and many art lovers and taxpayers.
Now Spafford’s works are the subject of a unique joint gallery exhibition. Greg Kucera Gallery and Woodside/Braseth Gallery, combined, will show about 80 of Spafford’s bold paintings — some very recent work and some dating back to the 1960s. Davidson Galleries, in keeping with its focus on original prints and works on paper, will feature Spafford’s masterful prints. Each gallery will showcase different mythologies.
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Multigallery exhibitions have been mounted in New York to showcase big names like Jeff Koons, but very rarely in Seattle, according to Kucera.
“It’s momentous and Mike is so deserving,” Kucera said. “And with our combined square footage, we can produce a spectacular show.”
“I feel very gratified that people are paying attention to my work,” Spafford — by all accounts, a modest man — said during a recent phone call. “I’m nervous that people are paying attention to me.”
When asked why he returns to the same myths again and again, he said, “Certain stories allow me to make a painting. But I haven’t quite got it yet. The paintings are too darn attractive. I want them to be visual rather than pictorial. There’s a real difference there.”
This is a key point: Spafford does not illustrate these myths. He uses them as launching points to explore opposing forces in his art. You do not need to know the specific myths to be impacted by the taut emotion, the drama of color and form, and the contrasts of light and dark.
But knowing the myths amplifies the interpretive possibilities, allowing us to relate them to difficult personal or sociopolitical situations. Spafford most often draws from sagas of conflict, as with the battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs, or from moments of fraught creation, as with the birth of Athena.
There are discomforting drives and sexualized conflicts in these works. There is also profound beauty and the possibility of balancing, or at least apprehending, powerful forces. Spafford’s work has often been called “timeless,” which says more about its ability to reflect continuing struggles and complex human emotions than some kind of ahistorical distance.
For Spafford, these timeless myths offer “an opportunity to put opposites together. It thrills me to try to do that.”
Spafford’s clash with the act of painting is also evident in the way he builds up paint and then scrapes it away. The paintings at the Kucera and Woodside/Braseth galleries show these hard-won textures, along with imposing scale and vivid coloration.
The show the three galleries are mounting is intended to be “a full and clear view” of Spafford’s work, according to Sam Davidson.
“This puts Mike back in the context of the major Pacific Northwest artists,” John Braseth said. “But he’s also an international artist. This is a celebration of the career of a beloved figure.”
Within the local art community, Spafford is respected and admired. He influenced countless emerging artists while an art professor at the University of Washington, where he taught from 1963 to 1994, alongside other great artist-professors including Jacob Lawrence and Alden Mason.
Fittingly, the upcoming exhibitions and book have blossomed from a communal effort.
In addition to hosting the “Epic Works” book-launch party, the Jacob Lawrence Gallery at the University of Washington is presenting a one-week exhibition that highlights Spafford’s process, with 14-footlong charcoal studies, a painting, a woodblock print and the woodblock itself — all related to the Odyssey or the Iliad. During the month of May, 4Culture, the cultural funding agency for King County, has selected several of Spafford’s prints and an oil paint and cut-paper work from its public art collection to show on the street-facing wall of its Pioneer Square office, a stroll away from Greg Kucera’s gallery.
And the large-scale, three-gallery exhibition is the result of a lot of work not just on the part of gallerists but also the artist’s family. Spafford’s son, the photographer Spike Mafford, and Mafford’s wife, Lisa Dutton, who is a filmmaker and self-defined “creative collaborator,” have spent three years archiving the works and exploring the possibilities of a museum retrospective. Local museums expressed interest in an exhibition down the road but Mafford and Dutton wanted something soon, while Spafford is around to enjoy it.
This three-gallery exhibition not only provides that opportunity, but underscores an ongoing commitment to the artist’s work. (Spafford’s longtime gallerist Francine Seders closed her Phinney Ridge gallery in 2013.)
“Spike and Lisa have worked crazy hard on this project,” Kucera said. “It’s been a labor of family love and hard work and fortitude.”
About his father, Mafford said, “That he is a painter willing to explore those stories, no matter how uncomfortable they make us, is, I believe, a gift I need to honor and carry on.”
“Epic Works,” a three-gallery exhibition of paintings and prints by Michael Spafford: April 5-28, Davidson Galleries, 313 Occidental Ave. S., Seattle; April 5-May 26, Greg Kucera Gallery, 212 Third Ave. S., Seattle; March 31- May 26, Woodside/Braseth Gallery, 1201 Western Ave., Seattle.
“Michael C. Spafford: Epic Works” book launch, 6-8 p.m. Friday, April 6, Jacob Lawrence Gallery, Art Building, University of Washington, Seattle. The gallery also hosts an exhibition highlighting Spafford’s process March 31-April 7.
A small display of Spafford’s works from the King County Public Art Collection will be on the street-facing wall at 4Culture, 101 Prefontaine Pl. S., May 3-31.