Art LTD. Magazine
by suzanne beal
San Francisco Chronicle, Saturday, April 25, 2009, Kenneth Baker
Waterston's big artistic gamble pays off
The art public has accepted installation too uncritically as an open-form mode of invention. Masterly examples by artists such as Dan Flavin (1933-96), Joseph Beuys (1921-86), Jannis Kounellis and Barry Le Va have unintentionally paved the way for all sorts of slack, self-indulgent production by others.
So San Francisco painter Darren Waterston risked a lot when he set out to create at Stanford's Cantor Center his own version of a Victorian "mourning parlor."
In it, he daringly mingles his own paintings and watercolors with relics of the university and of its founding family. Any note of flippancy or false feeling might have poisoned the whole affair.
Extremes meet here: the Victorian obsession with remembrance of the dead, with its class-conditioned overt display of grief, and contemporary culture's instructions to "get over it" and indulge our instinctive wish to deny mortality.
When 15-year-old Leland Stanford Jr. died of typhoid fever in Florence, Italy, his parents embarked on an eight-month procession of mourning that made headlines and culminated in the founding of Stanford University in the boy's memory.
Of course, we continue to profess and feel sympathy for anyone whose children die, especially when they die young. But we regard as pathological the immersion in grief expected of privileged Victorians, particularly women.
Waterston does not take sides. He merely sets up the polarity of attitudes, challenging us to position ourselves within it, hence the aptness of the installation mode, which makes positioning an issue on one or more levels.
Some visitors may accuse Waterston of morbidity or disrespect for including the plaster death mask of young Leland. But the object paradoxically reanimates a representational literalism that to us seems artistically bankrupt. Perhaps postmodernism's ironic and embittered treatment of representation in art disguises unarticulated fears of its magic.
Waterston has designed his own woodblock-printed black-on-brown wallpaper, incorporating butterflies and an owl motif based on a taxidermied owl in the Stanford family collection. Like a spreading stain, some 3,000 synthetic black morphos butterflies adorn the ceiling above a circular padded bench.
Yielding to the cushioned bench's implicit invitation to sit and contemplate Leland Jr.'s exemplary death proves surprisingly hard to do.
Placing his own plainly anachronistic oil paintings in this environment must have given Waterston pause. For years, his paintings have evoked something of the strange unease that comes of recognizing oneself as a conscious organism. The setting of "Splendid Grief" heightens the paintings' reminiscence of the Victorian vogue for seances and belief in the individual's spirit as "ectoplasm" that might extrude itself from the body and even survive it.
Such notions lay closer to the historical origins of abstract painting in Europe than the Constructivist tradition acknowledges.
On an unpapered wall, Waterston has scattered family memorabilia, including contemporary and posthumous portraits of the deceased Leland Jr. He has interspersed these in the salon-style hanging with his own watercolors and ink drawings of motifs, invented and borrowed, evoking omens of death and dreams of its transcendence.
Waterston's Haines Gallery show in San Francisco contains new paintings and works on paper suffused with moods and aesthetic effects similar to those he orchestrates in "Splendid Grief." His mastery of fluid media is apparent in both shows, particularly in the haunting watercolors at Stanford and in grand paintings on panel at Haines, such as "Assumption" (2008).
We see too seldom the alignment of artistic difficulty with difficult issues and feelings that Waterston achieves in these concurrent shows. People who genuinely enter into them will not soon forget them.
Splendid Grief: Darren Waterston and the Afterlife of Leland Stanford Jr.: Installation. Through July 5. Cantor Center for Visual Arts, Stanford University. (650) 723-4177, www.museum.stanford.edu.
Darren Waterston: Recent Paintings and Works on Paper: Through June 13. Haines Gallery, 49 Geary St., San Francisco. (415) 397-8114, www.hainesgallery.com.
The following article is taken from The Oregonian, September 28, 2007:
When Mind by D.K. Row
There's perhaps no better subject for San Francisco artist Darren Waterston than St. Francis of Assisi. The life of the patron saint of animals was filled with the tumultuous internal drama that lends itself splendidly to Waterston's epic works that portray a seemingly impossible mix of the Earth, air, outer space and the Other.
As if made to order, that dream team coupling has been realized in a beautifully produced exhibit now on view at the Ronna and Eric Hoffman Gallery of Contemporary Art at Lewis & Clark College. Collaborating with Tyrus Miller, a literature professor at University of California at Santa Cruz, Waterston has produced a series of pigment prints with written narratives that visualize the journey and death of St. Francis, who founded the Franciscans and was reputed to have suffered from stigmata before dying.
Called "The Flowering (The Fourfold Sense)," the show, which is augmented by a separate group of Waterston paintings, reaffirms the virtuosity of this bold artist who is barely older than 40: This is a show of triumphant, exquisitely realized work.
I don't recall Waterston ever showing in Portland, with the exception of a few pieces that his Seattle dealer, Greg Kucera, exhibited at the Jupiter Hotel's art fair earlier this month. For Portlanders, then, the show is a wonderful visit, and yet another fine example of the consistently challenging and thoughtful contemporary art programmed by Hoffman director Linda Tesner.
Waterston and Miller have collaborated in a very considered way here -- at least conceptually. Miller's broadsides serve as a kind of narrative hinge for the prints, suggesting the outlines of St. Francis' internal struggles.
Those struggles are vividly captured by Waterston's suite of images, which are powerful, brooding metaphysical expressions that manage to be both lyrical and imposing. Ultimately, Miller's weighty prose doesn't add much. They seem like portentous invocations by the voice of God: "He listens to the human word become entangled in its echo, tumbling and breaking apart like loosened stones plunging into the abysses of silence, until at last he knows that only the word of God, the firmest rock and highest peak, could still endure at the end of this perilous avalanche of human meaning."
Forget the printed matter, then: Waterston's hand-colored prints can tell this story on their own. Incorporating abstract and representational shapes that resemble human figures, planetary forms and floral patterns, the artist's works suffuse the spacious, near windowless gallery with a William Blake-style mysticism.
St. Francis' life was a push-pull between the mind and body. So, too, are these prints: The oval shaped figure of "Shadow," for example, seems a powerful explosion: pools of black limned by red that together forms what could be the outlines of a face, burning brightly in a way that recalls Blake's strange visions. In "Weeper," Waterston finds elemental gravity: an isolated, hunched skeletal figure below a circle of rings looming in the sky. And the figure shrouded by whirlpools of smoke and air in "Passage" exquisitely captures the transition into the Other World.
Waterston's paintings further expand on some of the motifs and stylistic concerns of "The Flowering." The paintings are larger in scale and are suitably heroic in their ambition, too: Here, Waterston works fluidly between abstraction and representation, as well as with the human figure and landscapes. Images of dense water alternate with outer space and the scientific. Often, the artist somehow imagines a hybrid world that's all of the above. Budding tendrils caught in mid-blossom loop around large bulb-shaped planets. Craggy icicle shapes envelop smooth island forms. And Pollock-esque abstract drools liberally cover parts of many paintings.
Waterston's influences represent an incredible range -- the expressionism of Wassily Kandinsky, Japanese calligraphy, mid-20th century Abstract Expressionism and colorfield painting. In lesser hands, these disparate concerns might result in utter disharmony.
But in the life of St. Francis, Waterston has found a fitting harness for his considerable talent: These many-layered compositions suggest a union between mind and body as much as a struggle between them.
review "The Flowering (The Fourfold Sense)" by Darren Waterston and Tyrus Miller; and "Constellations: Paintings by Darren Waterston" Where: Ronna and Eric Hoffman Gallery of Contemporary Art, Lewis & Clark College, 0615 S.W. Palatine Hill Road.
Review by Holly Myers, Los Angeles Times, March 25, 2005
Abstraction brings many rich rewards
At its worst, contemporary abstraction can feel like trendy cop-out: a sanctioned way of avoiding the messiness of the real world, with its complicated networks of symbols and codes, and a shirking of the artist's responsibility to communicate something identifiably meaningful.
At its best, however, abstraction opens up new worlds, gathering the energy of the known and projecting it into the unknown without forsaking the sensibility or interests of the average viewer.
The recent paintings of San Francisco–based artist Darren Waterston, now at Michael Kohn Gallery, fall decidedly into the latter category. In these works, Waterston abandons the repertoire of iconographic elements that dotted earlier compositions—flowers, vines, birds, monkeys, insects and the like — leaving only ambiguously organic suggestions of form floating against fields of watery pigment.
Far from seeming vague or obscure, however, the result feels only richer, more precise and more roundly seductive.
The key is a vigorous formal sensibility and a breathtaking mastery of technique. These are thoroughly absorbing paintings, filled with spatial and textural variety, and continually surprising: hard–edged slivers of black scatter across blurry, luminous pools of green; soft, broad, feathery strokes alternate with perfect, hair–thin outlines and craggy silhouettes; circular lumps of white paint cling like barnacles to thin, translucent washes; human fingerprints pop up occasionally throughout.
The result is a strange and enchanting landscape in which it would be easy to lose oneself indefinitely.
Copyright © 2005, Los Angeles Times.
Review by Paul Gardner, ARTnews, March 2004
Darren Waterston's musical and mystical pools of abstraction, in a series of oil-on-wood paintings titled "Ghosts," evoke moonlight dips into strange but seductive depths. Waterston's work, often executed with an interplay of light and shadow, is emphatically atmospheric, but, here, the artist emerged from the shadows with a directness and simplicity that opened a universe of poetic dreams.
On a visit to Japan a few years ago, Waterston was intrigued by the animistic Shinto religion, which embraces nature spirits like wind and water. Using hazy grays, airy whites, and chilly blacks with toasty beiges, he achieves a serene lightness and abstract clarity, creating a delicate sense of awe in a world of contemplation. A subtle melancholy, along with a sense of fleeting time, imbues Chimera, one of the artist's larger works in a show intelligently scaled (not grandiose). The artist's deliberately minimal palette creates watery whispers and rustles on a floating surface that breathes heavily and sweetly.
Waterston, who has also designed stage sets for classical ballet, admires the Czech artist Frantisek Kupka, who captured, he says, "an internal movement." Both physical and spiritual motion are keenly felt in Waterston's art. He steps gracefully between the inner and the outer worlds, which are at once illusionary and defiantly real.
Copyright © 2004, ARTnews.
The following article is taken from The Stranger, October 14 - 20, 2004:
Luminal Landscapes: Known and Unknown Worlds by Katie Kurtz
With Thirteen Paintings, his eighth exhibition with Greg Kucera Gallery, Darren Waterston's move away from landscape and figurative toward abstract is nearly complete. Given his previous work, it's hard not to automatically read this current series as landscapes. However, few of them are weighted by fixed horizon lines or any indication that they're even earthbound. Waterston continues to build on symbols, themes, and references introduced in his work long ago, all of which suggest a parallel universe that borrows from ours, but only slightly. That world is dense with organic, aquatic, and scientific matter and, even when they don't resemble anything in the known world, they still hold the integrity of figurative work and offer recognizable details, making it a bit more accessible to those who shun abstract art on principle.
Blue Passage is anchored on either side by what looks like an intergalactic cathedral. Angular shards wing about and a halo arcs above. The serene hemisphere of blues is slightly disrupted by Waterston's placement of a singular orange daub of paint near its center. This dot and similar impasto gestures that show up in his other paintings are irresolvable and end up looking like last-minute spontaneous additions to what are otherwise completed works. This tendency to texturize isn't frequent, though. Polished panels like Soft Night, where the paint looks like skin stretched taut, invite swoons. Dark and enchanting, Soft Night is the most landscape-like with windblown trees and distant rock outcroppings providing the background for a drama between spirits. Despite limited references to the familiar, Waterston's paintings still manage to elicit an emotional response, one that is more intuitive than rational and informed by what our subconscious conjures when we're only slightly paying attention.
The following article is taken from the Seattle Times, May 03, 2003:
Waterston's New Work Squirms with the Energy of a Liquid World by Sheila Farr
Over the past decade, painter Darren Waterston's career has been swelling quietly as a wave. The wave is cresting now with a remarkable flutter of exhibits, acclaim and the publication of one of the best artist monographs I've seen.
Not only is the book, "Darren Waterston" (St. Ann's Press, $65), superbly designed and produced, the writing a compelling essay by Benjamin Weissman and poems by Amy Gerstler perfectly supports the artist's work, which is amply reproduced.
Waterston's painting has been quietly evolving, too, from a style that once seemed as precious and ornate as Chinese porcelain to something more primal. The liquid world Waterston paints still has the same opulent oil-on-wood surface that's his hallmark; but now the imagery, rather than appearing ornamental, squirms with the energy of a universe in creation. Blasts of light, mutating organisms, simmering heat and moments of celestial calm. You get the feeling this is where it all started. From the lava-flow black and red of "Origins" a mural-sized painting 84 by 60 inches to the celestial glory of "Breathing," all light and air, Waterston seems to be tracking the dawn of time.
For this show, in addition to the oils, Waterston has included a lineup of delicate little 5-by-7-inch watercolors. The medium suits him.
A California native who lives on Denman Island in British Columbia, the 37-year-old artist studied art in Germany at the Acadamie der Kunst, Berlin, before graduating from Otis Art Institute in 1988. From his early shows in Southern California, he moved north, joining Greg Kucera Gallery in 1993 and Charles Cowles Gallery, New York, in '94. Since then, he's been producing as many as four solo shows a year for galleries in Houston, Vancouver, B.C., San Francisco and Scottsdale. For some artists, such intensive production might take a toll on the vitality of the work.
With Waterston's tremendous technical facility and the lushness of his imagery, he reminds me of the late-19th-century portrait artist John Singer Sargent, who at times has suffered criticism for being too facile, too fashionable. Similarly, Waterston's biggest cross as an artist may turn out to be the very ease and opulence that attract people to his work.
The following article is taken from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 7, 2003:
A Transforming alchemy links shows at BAM by Judy Wagonfeld
Darren Waterston was 19. Beatrice Wood (1893-1998) was 80-plus. They met and fell in love. Not the heady love Wood tasted as a wild young thing, acting and writing among Europe's Dada avant-garde. Not the kind that led to amorous liaisons with Marcel Duchamp and Henri-Pierre Roché (author of "Jules and Jim"). Just the love of life and art that knighted her "Mama of Dada."
But a "Mama" she was not. Madam might be more like it. Age mattered none to Wood, who linked her longevity to chocolate and young men. Once, an acquaintance called her Waterston's mentor. She snapped back, "I am not a mother figure in that boy's life!"
Always daring, irreverent and mischievous, she never stood still. In her 40s, she took on ceramics, pioneering luster glaze methods. Right through her last 105th year, she dished out naughty, suggestive remarks and mailed humorous limericks and erotic drawings to friends.
Waterston soaked it all up; her lusty attitude, enthrallment with Eastern philosophy and laissez-faire art tactics. Wood didn't give one hoot if vessels exploded in the kiln or emerged with craterlike surfaces instead of a fine glaze. She favored idiosyncratic over precious perfection.
It's exactly what she'd like about Waterston's punchy 38-by-11-foot mural at the Bellevue Art Museum. Commissioned in her honor, it correlates with BAM's exhibits "Darren Waterston and Beatrice Wood: A Personal Alchemy" and "Darren Waterston: Scapes." It links their souls modestly, without exploiting hers, which Waterston loathed to do.
As a temporary, unnamed ode, it echoes Wood's joie de vivre. Baby blue multi-tributary rivers and hot pink splotches mimic the colors of Wood's Ojai, Calif., home. Fuzzy-edged, hollow black ovals and breast-shaped white globs indulge Wood's sexual joking. Mustard-opalescent kidney shapes reflect her ceramics perched alongside Waterston's mid-1990s mandala-meditational-enlightenment paintings.
Waterston continues to explore that era's motif, the Indian concept of prana -considered the body's life force. When harnessed by Eastern medicine or yoga, prana's energy heals and transmutes to higher spirituality.
"Mandala #1" (1994), an early example, emanates light from a central focus. Though moving in the late-1990s to Far East garden fantasias (none in this exhibit) rife with overtly sexual fairies and forms, his work remained representational and narrative. Now, however, he's letting go of narrative, veering toward abstracted, otherworldly mind-body landscapes.
Waterston's art defies categorization but brings to mind the underworlds of Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516) as well as Australian's Aboriginal art, which maps a dreaming sense of the land in circle, dot and line patterns.
Alternatively, Waterston's dots, lyrical lines and shimmering orbs map elusive sensations that hover in flux, shape-shifting on a whim. Like the fluid drips and splashes of Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock, Waterston's paintings ooze his primal creativity.
"Corpus No. 1," of Waterston's new body-scapes, illuminates the impact of an autopsy he witnessed last year. Its undulating veins creep across fleshy fields, resembling mottled skin or microscopic views of cells. In "Portal"(2001), ragged black edges flank coral inflammation.
At the autopsy, Waterston was awestruck by the body's complexity and fragility. Until faced with this young victim's sudden end to all of life's potential, Waterston had considered the body resilient, strong and armored.
The dichotomy furthered Waterston's belief that we are more than the sum of our parts, serving as a shell for some grander plan. Striving to elucidate that ephemeral, inexplicable belief, Waterston purposefully attracts and repels, juxtaposing magnificence and yuck. As if playing improvisational jazz, he applies shapes, colors and "defacing" marks, such as the dancing crimson dots atop the greenish-brown murk of "Subtle Body" (2001), with abandon.
Inspired by Chinese textiles, they might be an antidote to the dark, dank forests at Waterston's Denman Island, B.C., studio, which he frequents when not at his San Francisco base.
Waterston's newest work, "In Between (diptych)" (2002), pits harmony against chaos. Ponds ripple and organs fester. Purple splats seep like bruises. Bilious blobs stain like a newborn's stools. Orifices and phallic forms celebrate sexuality, spurting bodily fluids. Coiled intestines exude and dissolve. Blood drips from puncture wounds. Nipples leak. Root-shaped nerve cells innervate stringy broken lines that make no connections. Objects lie ensnared, entangled and ruptured in a paradise writhing in nature's decay and rebirth. It's a post-apocalyptic voyage plumbing the essence of things, rather than the things themselves.
Powerfully vital, these paintings brim with sumptuous dreams, anxiety, calamities, enlightenment, hope and fear. They pulse as luminous elegies to life. Like diaries, they reveal the alchemy Waterston absorbed from Wood that urged him to face the terrifying process of trusting oneself to paint without plan. Emulating Wood, Waterston is now in it for the ride. And the results are divine.
Judy Wagonfeld is a free-lance Seattle art writer. She can be contacted at email@example.com.
The following article is taken from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 23, 1999:
Daren Waterston's fairies are rotting in high style by Regina Hackett
The warm reception given in New York to a recent exhibition of Victorian fairy paintings suggests Darren Waterston's timing couldn't be better. He too is painting fairies, although his do not belong in the sunny-side-up world of their fanciful elders.
Nineteenth-century fairies were well-scrubbed, dainty tidbits. Waterston's are seedy, self-satisfied mutants, frankly sexual and in love with their own decay.
Now in his mid-30s and living in a secluded cabin in British Columbia, Waterston is famed for his rich, painterly atmospherics in oils. When it comes to insects buzzing in a summer's glade, he's tops in the field, especially when he homes in on the sultry demise that shadows organic life even in its fullest bloom -- the smear of pollen stains, the droop of flower petals, the drip of honey from an open hive.
In his new work, now on view in his fifth solo show at the Greg Kucera Gallery, he is still using oils but has broadened his territory, which is a good thing. Waterston is wonderful at painting blooming, buzzing confusions, but he couldn't stick with these smudged gardens forever. The vapors would set in, or fainting spells. His work teetered on the edge of becoming slight, narrow and overly delicate.
Who would think that fairies could rescue a painter from the encroaching threat of delicacy? And yet Waterston's use of them is tough-minded. They are shadows and silhouettes floating in seas of cultural history.
He edges toward kitsch, what John Waters called "taste so bad it's good," but isn't interested in landing there and easily leaves it behind. Waterston is after something bigger, the history of aesthetic interactions between Asian and European cultures.
First, he possesses the key to traditional Chinese landscape painting, that ability to move land, sea and air into a fluid conjunction. All of his new paintings are based on mastery of this principle, that empty space is full of transformative possibility.
Along with fairies, 18th- and 19th-century Europeans believed their own fantasy constructions were drawn from Chinese art. The illusion is called chinoiserie and refers to the pseudo-Chinese flourishes on the paintings, teacups, linens and screens that decorated European drawing rooms and gave their inhabitants a cosmopolitan feeling.
In his authentic Chinese landscape grounds, Waterston sets loose his masterful Chinoiserie effects: exotic pleasure palaces and stately pines, distant mountains, long-legged cranes and fluffy white egrets, and that's not all.
In lemon-colored light, jellyfish hang. Fat white snakes curl in on themselves at night, and furry, dark moths soil baby-blue grounds. Everywhere there is lush, rotting foliage and open-mouthed fairies drinking dark, viscous fluids. A few of the fairies are a touch literal, overly specific. I like the ones that are part moth or made of slime, dragging their damaged wings behind them.
Somewhere between decay and crystallization, these paintings stake their claim. They bring to mind "Terence, This is Stupid Stuff" by A.E. Housman, especially the lines from a ditch: "Down in lovely muck I've lain, Happy till I woke again." Waterston's fairies are rotting, but rotting in sweet, high style.
The following article is taken from the Seattle Times, March 11, 1999:
Darren Waterston samples the Victorian fixation on an imaginary and fantastical Far East
by Robin Updike
Darren Waterston, an artist who lives on an island in British Columbia, used to paint close-ups of the Northwest's rich, dank rain forests. There was never a tree in sight in his lush oil paintings. But it was easy to imagine the trees and a forest of other abundant plant and animal life from his seductive tableaux of delicate fern fronds, pollen puffs, moss tufts and brackish puddles.
Bugs of undetermined species often flitted through these petri dish universes, sometimes ending up as bloody splats. Though Waterston's world was lovely and sensual, it was also about the harsh realities of the natural world, a world in which a squashed bug or an uprooted plant is little more than fertilizer for the next bug or plant that comes along.
Waterston's new body of work at the Greg Kucera Gallery retains many of his signature touches, including the plant fronds that waft through the paintings like exotic butterflies, and the poofs of pollen that rain down on the scenes like the ephemeral fountains of firecrackers.
But Waterston has been bitten by 19th-century Orientalism, and his new, delightful paintings are Gilbert-and-Sullivan fantasias of pagodas, Fu Manchu mustaches, paper lanterns, ripe fruit and songbirds. Interspersed into these dreamy Arcadias of pleasure and desire are teacup-sized fairies and storybook lovers, naked as they stand on lily fronds and tiny islands of mossy plant detritus.
Movement reflected Western ideas
Orientalism was the name of the Western fascination with the Far East, primarily China and Japan, that began in the 17th century and reached a zenith with the Victorians, who fine-tuned most of the visual cliches about China and Japan that drifted into the 20th century. Orientalism was the world of pig-tailed, dome-hatted Chinese men, storybook pagodas and dragons, and beguiling women. Orientalism, though based very roughly on Chinese and Japanese imagery, was largely a figment of the Western imagination.
Waterston has always had a Victorian sensibility, so his dalliance with Orientalism isn't really such a leap. If anything, the Orientalist motifs in these luscious, often large, paintings are a witty way to slide into a little erotica, which these works also contain. Westerners in the 19th century (and before and since) also associated the Far East with sensual pleasures that were supposedly unknown in Europe.
And though Waterston's naked little fairies and spirits aren't precisely engaged in sexual activities, they're surely about to. Then there's the imagery of female and male genitalia that's been slyly slid into these fairy-tale paintings. If you bring the kids, just make believe those noticeably vertical (spouting) rock formations in the background are volcanoes.
Fantasy and humor
Many of these oil-on-wood paintings are sublimely fantastical and quite beautiful. "Plumeria" is a muted plum-gray world of graceful lanterns (or are they dropping flower buds?), sinuous vines, feathery fronds and what looks like a ripe nectarine hanging from a ribbon like the forbidden fruit. In "Mandarin Pleasures," a diptych, odd creatures with human heads and torsos that turn into wisping tails tip their heads up to drink lustfully from teapots magically pouring some fairy elixir into their mouths. In "Jasmine," a blue-gray night scene, glowing moons rise over arched garden bridges and mysterious pagodas.
There is plenty of tongue-in-cheek humor in these pieces. The rock formations in the distance and other perspective tricks are references to traditional Chinese landscape paintings. And the band of fairies and sprites tripping through these paintings suggests the naughty, lustful fairies in "A Midsummer's Night Dream" or the slightly sinister fairies depicted in Victorian fairy paintings. Above all, these paintings are about enchantment. They succeed in enchanting completely.
The following article is taken from the Seattle Times, October 24, 1996:
Rethinking the landscape by Robin Updike
If Darren Waterston had been born 150 years ago, he might have been one of those daring young men who journeyed to the far corners of the world in search of exotic plants and animals.
Like the several generations of adventure-seeking explorers who followed in Charles Darwin's footsteps, Waterston is intrigued by natural history. In his studio on rural Denman Island north of Vancouver Island, he keeps scholarly books on plants and insects, and takes regular walks in the woods to make field notes. Knowing of Waterston's keen interest in bugs and squiggly things, neighborhood children bring him specimens they find.
But instead of publishing books on exotic flora and fauna like the Victorians, Waterston uses his observations to paint seductively beautiful paintings. Though hardly nature studies, his paintings are clearly about the beauty and wonder of nature and our historical and contemporary relationships to it. Like the 19th-century natural historians he admires, the language he uses to describe natural history is filled more with poetry than science.
A show of Waterston's newest works, oils on wood panel, canvas and paper, is up this month at the Greg Kucera Gallery.
An old-growth look
At first glance Waterston's paintings look like serene abstract compositions heavily varnished and patinaed in the style of the Old Dutch Masters. They are richly textured and layered, much like nature itself.
On closer inspection, a typical Waterston begins to resemble the contents of a petri dish filled with a scoop of forest mulch, then forgotten in a dark corner of the laboratory.
There are little spores and floating bits of moss. Brackish globs of decaying material drift across the composition. There are tiny insects, delicate moths' wings, occasionally the fragile outline of a fern or small flower. The paintings most often are created with a warm brownish, mossy, golden palette that suggests nothing so much as a Pacific Northwest old growth forest.
So far so good. Mother Nature going about her business. The endless cycle of renewal and decay viewed through the romantic, optimistic lenses of 18th- and 19th-century art history, a time when nature was seen as heroic and mythical and so were the men who explored it.
But what about the splats and streaks on the paintings? They look like the contents of the petri dish have been dashed against the windshield of a car doing about 70 miles per hour. Reddish-brown streaks could be dried blood, smeared by hand across the surface. The splats suggest bloated insects squashed at high velocity.
A bit of menace
Suddenly Waterston's lovely paintings take on a darker tone. And that is precisely what the the 31-year-old painter is after.
"I want to create a tension between the sensibility of 18th- and early 19th-century landscapes and the contradiction of carefully articulated surfaces layered with marks that are much more guttural," said Waterston. "I like the idea of nature gone awry. I like to make marks that are very corporal. Maybe they're fluids, blood, bugs.
"I've always been interested in the play between the morbid and the whimsical. I try to take things that are pleasing to the eye, maybe a moth's wing, and then make them a bit horrific and menacing," said Waterston. "I like the idea of things being in a constant state of decay. At the same time something is budding, something is rotting."
In the biggest work in the show, a 6- by 9-foot canvas called "Sonata Form," there is a dramatic, 19th-century landscape in the background. It is a noble vista of a river that has cleft its course through magnificent cliffs. Painted in a golden browns, as though representing the glowing promised land, it is mythological in the manner of such 19th-century American landscape painters as Albert Pinkham Ryder, whom Waterston admires.
But, like all of Waterston's work, even this, the most pictorial painting and the only real landscape in the show, is tempered to keep it from becoming a fairly tale. Unexplained brown streaks are smeared down the length of the work. The squashed bug blotches seem right in front of your nose, miles closer than the idealized cliffs and river. There is a quiet irony here, a kind of gentle desecration of the landscape.
"The landscape has always been such a battleground," said Waterston, who notes that societies have always projected their aspirations onto the land around them. "It's been a political battleground and spiritual battleground. We have such idealized expectations about landscapes."
Old Masters' alchemy
Waterston doesn't seem like the kind of guy who likes to squash bugs. He's amiable, has nice manners and is modestly pleased with the relative success he's enjoying these days. Prices for his work are going up. "Sonata Form" is priced at $16,000; more typical prices for his average-sized works range from $3,500 to $8,500. Waterston has had solo shows at galleries in New York, Los Angeles and Vancouver, and his work has been acquired by the the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, among other institutions. This is his third exhibition with Greg Kucera.
A native of Fresno, Calif., Waterston earned his bachelor of fine arts degree at Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles. He also attended art school in Germany for a year, where he helped restore illuminated books and manuscripts from the 15th and 16th centuries at a local museum. It was there that he fell in love with the materials used by the Old Master painters, such as encaustic and beeswax, which are waxy, light-catching substances used to enhance the luminosity of paint.
While in Germany he also learned how to make gesso, a chalky substance used by Renaissance painters to prepare their painting surfaces and give them texture and depth. Waterston still mixes his own gessos, a painstaking alchemy practiced by Leonardo da Vinci, among others.
He's also studied the science and the history of colors and can talk happily and at length about how, for instance, brilliant, pure yellow was highly prized by the painters of 18th-century India. He delights in arcane historical footnotes such as the fact that those Indian painters diluted their yellows by mixing them with urine from cows fed on special diets, the controlled diets being necessary to produce the precise color effects the artists desired.
His interest in Eastern religions and philosophy comes into his paintings in other ways. Along with imagery from the natural world, there is a discernible Southeast Asian aesthetic to his work. In "Morpho," one of the paintings in the current show, an exotic bit of wildlife with feathery tendrils arabesques in the center of the composition. It's impossible to tell if the graceful ballerina is an insect or a plant. But whatever it is, it suggests paisley, traditional Indian design motifs and delicate exoticism.
Waterston admits that if he'd been slightly less interested in art, he could easily have become a naturalist or scientist.
"I love doing research on color. I like the scholarly pursuits that creep into my work. The obsessive part of me will create with great care the Lepidoptera - I like the process of the studied project - but then I want to obliterate it."