Arts & Culture » Visual Art

Feel-Good Art

James Pearson at Visual Arts Collective

by

There's lots of color warming up the gray ambience of Boise's Visual Arts Collective these days, coaxing spring to catch up with the calendar. In the midst of this particularly drab, lingering winter, James Pearson's bright, enthusiastic abstractions cannot help but lift one's spirits with their sunny disposition.

Pearson's 13 acrylic paintings, spread thinly around the cavernous space, are nothing if not eye-catching. Their shimmering surfaces have a visceral appeal. They are confident and exude a youthful exuberance and are unencumbered by any conceptual baggage. Despite their fresh feel, however, there is something vaguely familiar about these works, as if we have experienced them before. A sense of deja vu permeates this show.

Now in his late 30s, Pearson was born and raised in Kentucky, where he currently lives. In 1993, he and his wife moved to Boise for several years, and he continues to visit here from time to time. Although he had some art training in high school, Pearson is for the most part a self-taught artist. He shows with various galleries around the country who cater to the "outsider" crowd, but he manages to sell most his work on eBay's EBSQ art site. I see on the Web that until a few years ago, Pearson incorporated stylized figurative or architectural shapes into his paintings, which usually were rather unsophisticated black line drawings superimposed over colorful abstract backgrounds, touted on EBSQ as "modern figurative abstract painting" (talk about covering all your bases). Frankly, from what I could see, such elements were ill-conceived, and it is encouraging to find them absent from the new work.

In his artist's statement, Pearson says his time in Boise "inspired me to recommit myself to visual art," and to a large extent, the work in this show is the fruit of that experience. He told me his stay in Idaho also changed his palette, and his comments elsewhere indicate that the high-desert landscape and atmospherics intensified his colors and perhaps simplified his forms, directing him to pure abstraction.

Pearson makes a point of describing his work as "contemporary" without defining what exactly he means by that. In fact, he is a totally besotted fan of modernism, taking his cue from those exponents of emotionally charged colors and bold strokes like Matisse and the Fauves, the Blue Rider school of German Expressionism, Abstract Expressionists Mark Rothko and Franz Kline, and the dean of California modernism, Richard Diebenkorn. In his own art, however, Pearson emulates these aesthetically heroic figures without breaking any new ground, offering fresh insights, or taking their achievements in a different, more contemporary direction. These paintings simply reflect a cheery, faith-based optimism and personal world view, and love of color.

Yet he does have an innate talent, especially in terms of color relationships, design and technique. Besides being a visual artist, Pearson is also a musician and composer, and the influence of music on his abstract painting is very evident--he describes the works in this show as "tone poems." Both in terms of structure and the improvisational aspect of his technique, Pearson's canvases demonstrate a musical sensibility and intuition that gives the work its charm and vibrancy. In this, he has obviously taken a page from the Swiss-born Expressionist painter Paul Klee (who was also a musician), of whom he speaks highly and with whom he clearly identifies. Wassily Kandinsky is a similar influence in this regard, subscribing as Pearson does to Kandinsky's ideas of form as expressions of inner feelings and emotions, but in Klee, Pearson has truly found a soulmate. As with Klee, we can appreciate Pearson's abstract paintings as color melodies, geometric patchworks that create overall patterns of shifting planes and tonalities. Pearson, like Klee, is fond of children's art and his paintings have some of the same childlike innocence and optimism to them.

Noticeably absent from Pearson's list of big-name modernists who inspired him is the fellow who practically invented abstract expressionist painting, Hans Hofmann. Other than Klee, this is who Pearson's art reminds me of most. All of the ingredients that one sees in Pearson's art were synthesized and advanced over 60 years ago by Hofmann: the exuberance of the Fauves, Matisse's dynamic color planes and harmonies, the rawness of the German Expressionists, Cubism's structure and simultaneity. Pearson's statement that "in my current abstract paintings I'm playing with foreground/background and horizontal or vertical movement" is a replay of Hofmann's innovative pictorial organization and design. That's why at the VaC show we feel like we've been here before.

The exhibit's title is "What Good Comes From This," a reference to the changing seasons and to recent crises in the artist's family life which somehow only reinforced his positive outlook on life. In other respects, they refer to his experiences connected to his move to, and departure from, Boise. Pearson can be exasperatingly vague about his art, tending to speak in generalities concerning his approach and what he tries to achieve or portray. When asked in 2003 what direction he saw his work going in, he replied: "I'm a spiritual person, a husband and a father. I'm prepared to go wherever these ideals take me." Our conversation at his opening proceeded along similar lines. With a painter who assigns matters of art to a higher power, it is difficult to nail down specifics.

All the paintings are executed predominately with a palette knife, the layers of pigment rendered in wide rectangular bands of impasto, laid on alternately thick and thin, blending hues on the canvas or scraping back to reveal underlayers of other colors. It creates a staccato effect that makes for a complex consideration of surface and texture, establishing a strong tactile quality. Some have a seasonal or environmental feel while others seem almost architectural. The large title piece, What Good Comes From This, is a jazzy work whose brash reds alternating with stark whites and aquamarine make it practically leap off the wall, while What Is Now Proved Was Once Only Imagined, with its off-whites, pastels and flesh tones evoking sun-baked painted stucco or adobe, plays a softer song.

Nine smaller works are grouped in suites of three that share a common feel and look. The best of these groupings is the one that includes High Lonely Hills, Where the Wind and Sound Carry, and That's Where We Ought to Be, all related to his move to Boise. Their high-keyed colors nevertheless convey an earthiness that echoes the sharp contrasts of an Idaho spring.

Not all the works on view are a success. Epilogue and some of the smaller pieces have less life or chromatic imagination, and struggle compositionally. The autumnal The Primroses Were Over, with its thick translucent layers of burnt orange, is simply overdone. But overall, Pearson's joie de vivre is infectious, so drop by and cheer up.