Alden Mason

In his most recent work, Alden Mason’s color handling and draftsmanship have merged seamlessly to produce a series of encounters with natural forces. Mason uses black to outline sketchily figurative elements, preserving enough three-dimensionality so that each image’s inner mix of squiggly acrylic colors, applied from squeeze-bottles, does not dissolve into decoration. But this line is more a border than an illusionistic spatial edge. The brushwork is like a child’s aggressive scribbling held in check by a sculptor’s intensity of concentration. The palette itself is cool, blues and greens mostly, each punctuated by occasional electric dashes of color to keep the work from going pale. Streaks of cadmium red make the eye move frenetically about the canvas. Yet the paintings have a perverse calm about them.

No matter the style, Alden Mason has always painted large, loose, colorful canvases, full of robust, hyperactive fun. He began as a nature painter. By the ’60s, he pictured floating knobby figures gamboling with plump winged machines, each shape containing a hedonistic swoosh of color. Mason began developing his own style in the ’70s, when he diluted his oils to the consistency of watercolor; he would then blot and splotch his paint into a buoyant nonfigurative allover canvas. These two-dimensional chromatic bubble-baths mistakenly gave him a reputation as a belated Color Field artist. That heroic style dealt with the death instinct and transcendental experiences, whereas Mason would generate instead an ecosystem of gurgling interactive energies that was life-affirming and right-there-on-the-canvas immanent. Full of hungry drive, every amoebalike globule of paint was consuming and about to be consumed by everything else.

In 1979 Mason gave up oil paint and began working with acrylics, returning to his pre-’70s figurative interests. Works such as Trick Dog, 1989, translate the chaos of Mason’s id into paint, producing no more than a jubilant, if quirky, decoration. The contagious virtuoso performance—where color dances against black ground, line against field, dog with fish—jocularly masks the artist’s failure to merge the formal and psychological elements of the work. Better are the “Spirit Bird” pieces. In Spirit Bird After the Sing Sing, 1989, a dead bird lies on the green earth, while a live one dive-bombs past trees. One tree has the shape of a totem head. Two pathways through this pastoral wood fan out to the left and right, putting the viewer at a crossroads. The painting is not so much about mortality as it is about transformation, the kind of death/rebirth that is visited upon us any time we face a life-changing, but uneasy, decision.

In Spirit Bird Delivers, 1989, Mason depicts two black figures in front of a pagodalike hut. A black featherless bird roars past like a jet overhead. As mysterious as it is, everything feels explicit, calm, and natural—as if the artist had encountered a sacred place within himself.

Jae Carlsson