Michael Spafford
Seattle Art Museum


February 16 to March 28

[note this was a Canadian publication using English [OED] spelling and construction rules]

A selection of work executed since 1977, this exhibition presents a realm of cosmic and psychic encounters, an arena inhabited by passions, archetypal and eternal conflict. The core of Spafford’s painting is confrontation and each work revolves around a myth open to various readings consistent with his approach. The strength of the work is its synthesis of content and visual treatment. These scenes of struggle are produced by forms that seem to have been tortured out of the canvas. Paint is scraped, scumbled and pushed onto surfaces. 

For Spafford, Being is always an act of becoming: existence, identity, self are only known through confrontation and relationship with another, an Other. Not surprisingly some of the works use sexual metaphor for struggle, this act of coming into being. The sensuality of forms is echoed by the physicality of the paint. Edges push up against each other and seem to be in continual negotiation. Spafford's palette is one of rich value contrasts, blacks, off-whites, varied grays, accented with one or two deep, highly saturated colors. It is gusty work yet carefully composed.

The mythic sources are particularly appropriate: Coatlique, the terrifying Aztec mother goddess who rules both life and death; Minotaur, the embodiment of brute natural power (bull) and unconscious libidinous forces (human body) who meets a transcendent self and heroic ego (Theseus); Leda and the Swan, an archetypal sexual relationship historically read as an encounter between the divine and human. The centerpiece of the exhibition is a wall-size diptych of the Twelve Labors of Hercules recently purchased by the museum. The diptych is a two by six array of distinct graphic treatments of each of the labors. The painting emphasizes two-dimensional qualities and clearly displays the Labours as a cycle of transformation. It is an Odyssey of personal growth and psychic test.

Most of the exhibition consists of a series of triptychs and individual paintings done over the entire period from 1977 to 1982 of Leda and the Swan. The work is inspired by two poems: Rilke’s Leda and Yeats’ Leda and the Swan. Both poems emphasize, as do the paintings, the simultaneous attraction and conflict between the male and female antagonists. As for art history, the Florentine Neo-Platonists interpreted the myth as a metaphor collapsing the catharsis of sexual union with the idea of human ecstatic union into God. Opposites find their synthesis without losing identity. Selfhood is created through contrast with an Other.

Coatlique unifies both life and death with fertility and the continuity of civilization. She demanded death, human sacrifices, in order to guarantee life and the fertility of people, animals, fields. Thus the continuity of society itself was assured. Coatlique represents a particularly horrific metaphysic of confrontation. Her consort was the Sun, who also could demand human sacrifice to appease his ruthless rule of an equatorial climate.

Minotaur also illustrates a monstrous aspect of psychic and mythic struggle. His myth cycle is one where unconscious, devouring, destructive forces fight conscious, transcendent, creative forces. Minotaur’s power is contained, literally, by the creative power of Daedalus, the archetypal genius and artist who constructs the labyrinth to house the Minotaur. In Spafford’s work Minotaur is not yet slain, struggle is not resolved so easily. Here both man and Minotaur are trapped in the labyrinth. Confined by the vision (labyrinth as manifestation of Daedalus’s vision, hence man’s vision) Mankind seeks his fate as either a destructive manifestation of his monstrous, dark side or an affirmation of his creative, light, visionary side.

Spafford teaches at the University of Washington and is one of Seattle’s most established artists. Often reluctant to seek public recognition he has been thrown into the centre of controversy lately as the Washington State legislature has attempted to stop and take down a commissioned mural project in their chambers.

Spafford’s work raises interesting questions at a time when many painters are returning to both a figurative style and a painterly, physical treatment of surface. Spafford’s work does not look like his younger contemporaries. His style has never fit easily into conventional categories. It is explicitly thematic, painterly and figurative. Highly respected by his students and colleagues, he is not well known outside a relatively narrow circle of people. Spafford’s career and status seem one of ambivalence, as are his paintings themselves, where identity is only defined by an edge, an Other, so his work needs to come up against something outside of itself. It has not yet done this. Perhaps Spafford’s ambivalence is due to an acute awareness of his own limitations. And there are limitations in his work. It is an approach able to go only so far before it is either exhausted of it seeks to confront the society and culture within which it should seek its meaning. For a painter whose work deals so thoroughly with confrontation it is ironic that Spafford wraps so much isolation and distance around his work. Even so, what has been done has been done with a vigour, an intelligence, and a directness that is difficult to fault.

Vanguard, v. 11, no. 4 (May 1982) pp. 34-5.

[this review has been reformatted for display on this website].