‘In the Shadow of the Master’ The Gallery at TCC shows work of master artist alongside that of an admirer

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The Gallery at Tacoma Community College is hosting a two-man show called “In the Shadow of the Master,” which is something of an example of the saying, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” The saying is variously attributed to Buddhist, Taoist or Confucian texts. (I have to confess that I thought it came from Don Diego, the Anthony Hopkins character in the 1998 movie “Mask of Zorro.”)

The exhibit is a juxtaposition of the art work of Doug Johnson – the student – and his mentor, Aflredo Arreguin. The show runs through Dec. 15 with a reception scheduled for Nov. 15, 4-6 p.m.

Seattle-based painter Arreguin has an impressive track record of achievements and awards. He has exhibited nationally and internationally and has paintings in the collections of two Smithsonian museums: the National Museum of American Art and the National Portrait Gallery. He is a fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts and was commissioned to design the poster for the Centennial Celebration of the State of Washington. He has even designed a White House Easter egg. Born in Morelia, Mexico in 1935, Arreguin attended the Morelia School of Fine Art and moved to the Seattle area in 1958, where he has lived ever since.

Themes of the Pacific Northwest, like salmon and orca whales, are recurrent in Arreguin’s work, as are themes drawn from the artist’s Mexican roots: exotic plants and birds, Mexican cultural and revolutionary heroes, and imagery from the richness of the pre-Columbian past.

Johnson, meanwhile, is a Yakima-area artist who adheres to an older style of learning; a kind of apprenticeship system by which a person learns through emulation of a master as opposed to the classroom lecture system. Johnson, who has a Ph.D. in multi-cultural mathematics, is something of a polymath. When he wanted to learn to write well, for example, he spent a year copying sentences from a writer that he admired. From there he was able to compose a set of poems and short stories written in the spirit of the admired writer. It was therefore logical that Johnson would approach Arreguin as an artist to emulate when he wished to develop his lifelong interest in the visual arts. Johnson is also the director of a Yakima publishing house called Cave Moon Press, which has published books on Arreguin’s art as well as books of poetry.

Johnson’s work in this show is nowhere near as stunning as that of Arreguin. His best efforts are some of his pen and ink drawings like “La Llorona Sombra De Arreguin,” in which an Escher-like sense of design is used to create a portrait of the legendary weeping woman (La Llorona) that is simultaneously a bird’s eye view of a geometrical garden. Johnson has a good handle on the use of pen and ink, but his use of oil paint is less adept, jarring the senses with oddly mixed colors and handling his brush strokes in an ungainly manner. His big oil paintings make one think of high school art.

There is a yawning gap here between the work of the student and that of the master. Arreguin’s paintings are often large and rich. Arreguin has a gift for using dark colors and making them readable. Some of his landscapes, inhabited by iconic animals, resemble black velvet paintings in which the colors are almost iridescent: dark hues edged and energized with neon highlights. All of his surfaces are composed of dense, intricate patterns that dazzle the eye.

Arreguin celebrates figures of Mexican history and culture like Frida Kahlo and Poncho Villa. A large portrait of Emiliano Zapata, “Mother and Son,” depicts the eternal rebel – with his characteristic handlebar mustache and big sombrero – standing in front of a dark, dense pre-Columbian statue that seems composed of thousands of jewels and functions as the embodiment of deep-rooted indigenous power from whence the freedom fighter drew his strength.

In works like “Family Portrait” and “The Jaguar Knight,” Arreguin paints a portrait of a personage whose face and presence can be seen, yet the figure also dissolves into a floral maze of vines, blossoms, birds, and animals of the Central American Jungle. This show is an embarrassment of riches in the number and quality of original art submitted by Arreguin.

The idea behind the show is interesting. Instead of being a straightforward display of the work of two artists, it wants to function as the story of the older style of learning in which a master and a student are interlocked. The master is supposed to pass the torch to his protégé, like a Jedi knight teaching his apprentice the ways of the Force.

Is this Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker, or is this more like Batman and Robin: a superhero and a self-appointed side-kick? Will the student here ever rise to becoming an equal of the master? Or is he always going to be the faithful admirer?

The model presented here seems to run counter to what has been the Western art tradition, in which the artist is supposed to play the part of the heroic individualist, seeking – almost above all else – to strike out on his or her own and forge a totally new and original path. In my own view, that mode of art-making, as a fetishizing of individualism, has its own problems. “In the Shadow of the Master” presents a welcome alternative to the individualist model and shows that art can come from a place of collaboration and community.

Somehow, though, this exhibit seems tepid in making the point. Its brilliance is in showing off the work of Arreguin and that alone makes it worth a visit to TCC’s charming art gallery.

For more information, visit www.tacomacc.edu/tcc-life/arts-culture/the-art-gallery.

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