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Desert Songs: Jim Waid's Abstract Landscapes

by John Perreault

Jim Waid, a painter of high ambition, has been able to regain both the physicality and the true mission of painting through non-minimalist abstraction, landscape reveries, floral dreamscapes, process and textural swoops, yelps, swipes, and epiphanies. His method of scraping or combing through dark overlays to the luminous color beneath makes light palpable, His use of complex, often opposing textures and tonalities lets color sing. And what is the true mission of painting? Nothing short of life- affirming transformations of the way we see. Through his work we see nature and painting with new eyes.

Periodically the death of painting is announced and yet it never goes away, nor should it. In my younger days when I was a painter as well as a poet and critic, I too predicted painting's demise, seeing the future instead in sculpture, objects, concepts. Well, the future is here and painting has survived; we are grateful.There is something magical, symbolic, world-making about this art that consists of adding color and texture to and making marks upon a flat surface. In a brave new world of computer screens, painting is-what a relief!-physical.

Just when we think we have had enough of painting because it has become anti-painting, dumb painting, ironic painting, conceptual painting, inept painting; just when it appears that at long last painting has been surpassed; just when painting has nothing left to say-a painter like Jim Waid comes into focus. He has been here aII along, but now the work can be seen more clearly. I personally have been following his work with great interest since 1979, but now "bad painting'' has inadvertently cleared the way for good painting. By "bad painting'' I mean the self conscious courtship of offensive subject matter and. the self-righteous use of mechanical or inept paint application practiced for far too long and applauded for far too long in the art capitals. By the latter, l do not mean tasty, dull, above-the-sofa painting, and l certainly do not mean decorator abstraction. Instead I mean the Jim Waid kind of painting, the challenging kind of work that gives painting a good name once more. His paintings exhibit the particular intelligence of painting. Just as there is musical intelligence, emotional intelligence, interpersonal intelligence, and physical intelligence (as in sport, dance, glassblowing), there is, I proposes a painterly intelligence and Waid has it.

Waid thinks with paint, with color, with texture, and with form. Since he uses various scraping instruments to striate and luxuriate his charged surfaces, l cannot say he thinks with a brush. He thinks with rakes and combs. Relationships between objects, qualities, or entities (including persons and plants) are more complicated than mere words will allow. Spatial relationships are metaphors. Sculpture has to do with matter located and weighed down in measurable space; painting deals with more complex perceptions that include the spatial relationships that occur in dreams and visions as well as in rooms, cities, deserts. Thus Kandinsky was right: painting is music, and because it is only trivially factual, it is music in a way that sculpture can never be.

Viewing Waid's large and consequential recent paintings, three words came to my mind: gorgeous, complicated, and although it is a noun rather than an adjective, jazz. Jazzy would imply silly or light. Waid is neither. His work is serious without being ponderous, like jazz.

"Gorgeous'' is not a fashionable art historical or weighty art critical term, but l am forced to use it. Beauty alone is not wild enough, can be confused\ with safe, calm, pretty. Beauty is distant, whereas the gorgeous is immediate. It is too much rather than just enough. Waid has looked at nature long and hard. On one trip to Arizona several years ago he took me to his favorite gorge; clearly he saw\ things I could not see. But the bone dryness was but a seeing for the miracles that would occur when water arrived. Desert people like nature laid out plain. It is in thorns and surprising blooms, as ephemeral as the chef's or musician's art, that we see origins and creation.

Complicated'' is to my mind a plus. The simple, when it is not simple-minded, can be very important. One need only think of Shaker design or, yes, a Malevitch square, a Barnett Newman zip, and all things Zenlike in their silence and weight. But when it comes to painting, complicated is nowadays required. Blank or all-black canvases have already said what they were meant to say. l supported Pattern Painting in its day, because the minimalist grid needed to be filled with color and light. I still think Robert Zakanitch, who paints giant floral patterns, is a fine painter. Jim Waid paints flowers too, but they are not "real'' or pre-existent images of flowers. He paints the idea of flowers, the emotion of flowers-particularly desert flowers. With hardly a literal, guidebook flower in sight, he paints the sexiness of flowers.

But that is not all. Thee grid strudure or anti-structure has become the standard anti-cubist ploy, but Waid's paintings are off-grid. Nevertheless, the paintings are perceived as all-over in impact, if not design. ls it size? The majority of his paintings are at least eight feet wide; Sabino (p.17) is eleven feet; Pollen Path (p.1 2) is fourteen. Surely these landscape formats have some effect, but I suspect it is the all-over intensity that removes the paintings from Cubist, relational composition. Each square inch has something happening; there is no rest. Waid's light is not Turner-esque or Impressionist, yet it has a flattening effect. It is like a blast of heat. A golden desert light prevails, which is the light that breaks through after a sudden rain, a morning light, a mystical light, a light that is Byzantine. Waid's daughter now lives in Istanbul and he has visited enthusiastically; in the recent paintings mosque-gold and desert-gold have met.

Yet almost anything one can say about these paintings can be contradicted. Are the paintings abstract? They may be inscates, using British poet Gerard Manly-Hopkin's mystical term, but some forms are certainly flowers. Waid is as abstract as Arthur Dove, but not as naturalistic as Charles Burchfield. These are both painters Waid admires. In both, nature is alive-and in motion. Going further, Waid maintains that he does not depict nature but creates the way nature creates. There is a spiraling unfolding of forms, an extravagance. His paintings rhyme with nature and, in some magnificent examples, are nature.

Last but not least, "jazz'' came to mind because of the improvisational manner of working, which, by the way, is directly communicated by the results rather than what the artist might have to say. Waid does in fact glory in his improvisational technique, loves jazz, and in his senior year in high school began a mini-career as a jazz disk-jockey and radio announcer: KENM in Portales, New Mexico (1960) then KGGM, the CBS affiliate in Albuquerque (1961-62). Jazz encompasses polyrhythm and syncopation; Waid performs the visual equivalent. In Skipper (p.24) (or Fucalan, p.1 3, or Sabino, p.1 7) bright forms march across the surface or into space and are juxtaposed to color bursts and other repetitions; irregularity is off-beat and enlivening. As with the best of Abstract Expressionism, there is speed and movement and risk. Although more structural and certainly less Cubist than de Kooning and Gorky, Waid is a Southwest heir, with Pollock for breadth and scale. Waid's Arizona is like Pollock's Wyoming: an inspiration. The Beat, the Beatific, and the rhapsodic return.

Let us now take a closer look at some of the paintings:

Yucatan (1990, p.13) is about a shadow seen at the lower half of the painting, but not quite completing its path across the view of microscopic flintlike and animal-like shapes or perhaps Klimt- Iike explosions of fabric (a rain of blue squares slightly off-center). As elsewhere what Waid calls shake marks-small repeated arcs-are in evidence.

Desert Honey (1990, p.10) is darker, denser, with a stricter sense of plants growing up from the bottom edge towards some grander version of the sunlight that already seems to prevail. Nevertheless, longline passages above suggest the sounds of desert animals: blasts, chirps, hums, and buzzing. Or are these diagrams of movements normally too slow (or too fast) to be seen?

Sabino (1992, p.17) has the reds of a blood orange. Tempered by the deep black that has not been scraped away or drawn into, greens that verge on lime seem perfectly natural in what would normally be a lurid juxtaposition.

Oracle Night (1 992, cover) demonstrates that Waid can tackle the nocturne mode as well as the poem of high noon. Here his scratchboard technique can be seen most clearly, moving acrylic forever away from washes and transparencies (or that dead plastic surface) to depth, resonance, richness. Unless one is stain-painting or attempting to imitate tempera, working with acrylic can be deadly. Since acrylic dries within minutes, it means the artist has to work fast to scrape away at the final layer of paint. This I suspect allows intuition to take control. It also communicates a sense of immediacy.

Origins (1 993, p.14) is an explosion of gold. The full range of yellow to orange to red is brought into play topped by some daring purples and browns and tweaks of green. This is the kind of painting that could give you a tan.

Pollen Path (1994, p.12) is vision of nighttime that allows the blacks to come to the fore and become aII the more velvety. This is accomplished through seeds and nodes of color, and the high- speed lines that are like photo-traces of cosmic rays.

Beverly's Garden (1994, p. 28), named for Waid's wife who does indeed garden, is an atomic Redon, a Kandinsky on peyote, a mixture of jewelry and spring.

Skipper (1994, p. 24) seems to be titled for the run of golden swirls or disks that moves from the lower part of the lower quarter of the painting to the upper right corner, suggesting a stone bouncing on the surface of water. Red and rose keep the yellows under control; black holes and "leaves'' avoid becoming voids by sticking to the surface through rhythm alone.

Waid is a participant in the painting discourse established by modernism and continued by Abstract Expressionism in the '50s. Some may still assume that this discourse has been abrogated or subsumed by subsequent and apparently oppositional positions. I think not. My own hypothesis is that the development of this discourse was temporarily bypassed, temporarily delayed. It had stalled in its tracks because of market factors and, l am afraid, a failure of criticism. The formalism that Clement Greenberg founded moved into minimalist and left him behind. Color Field and Post-painterly abstraction may have eschewed literature, but it also left out passion, soul, and myth.

Changes in art over the last thirty or so years lead me to propose that art styles can be discontinuous, can appear, disappear, and then reappear. The art spotlight moves from place to place, driven by the need for new objects to sell. A style is rarely played out to the end, it is merely interrupted. A style can also become a cult, like the justifiably ill-fated Magic Realism of the '40s or Greenbergian gel-painting of the '80s. On the other hand, a style or approach to artmaking, if it has any vitality at all, will return to finish up its business, to move ahead. A change in name will not continue to fool art history. Cannot the appropriation/quotation work of Mike Bidlo, Barbara Kruger, Sherrie Levine, Robert Longo, Kenny Scharf, David Salle, and the Iot be seen as Pop? And we have seen the return of minimalist and conceptual art too, although they are not called such.

Of course, one can never step into the same stream twice. Waid shares with his Abstract Expressionist elders the exploitation of accident; the courtship of the unconscious; the utilization of push-and-pull kinds of spatial, color, and form oppositions; the use of technique to force inspiration; and a certain now underrated propensity to seek the primordial. Waid, however, tends to move from the abstract underpinning of his canvases towards representation-not of surrealistic dreams, but of gardens, deserts, floral and vegetative microcosms. His paintings are more about joy than angst. His paintings are new.

John Perrepult is an art critic living in New York City He is Past-president of the American Section, International Association of Art Critics (A.I.C.A.)

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