For over twenty-five years Michael Spafford has found inspiration in the heroic mythology of the Western classical tradition. Drawing on the imagery of myths such as Hercules, Icarus, and Leda and the Swan, Spafford has created a body of work of rare intelligence and power. He presents the supernatural gods and demigods of ancient legend, whose antics once illuminated the mortal world, as vehicles for his exploration of human and spiritual values in the eighties. For Spafford, art itself is a heroic endeavor, the pursuit of that which is redemptive, an act of renewal.
Spafford received his formal training at Pomona College in Claremont, California, and at Harvard University. Exposure at Pomona to the great José Clemente Orozco mural, The Triumph of Prometheus, and works exhibited by Rico Lebrun and Leon Golub in Los Angeles provided young Spafford with models that were contemporary yet based on art historical sources. After graduating from Harvard, he abandoned the formal study of art history and moved to Mexico to concentrate solely on painting. There he had the opportunity to study firsthand the masterpieces of the Mexican muralist movement; their juxtaposition of bold, often brutal imagery with a highly cultivated aesthetic became a strong influence on Spafford’s own style. Moved by the deep, abiding humanism evident in the muralists’ work (especially Orozco), Spafford sought to develop a personal vision that would integrate his knowledge of art historical precedent and his insistence on emotional and social relevance. During this period, the artist first looked to Greco-Roman mythology for a source of imagery and a means of establishing continuity between his work and that of the past. It was in Mexico that Spafford began his characteristic pattern of working on an extended thematic series over a number of years. Exploring a recurring theme over time in extended series has allowed him to savor a theme, reworking it freshly again and again, building the cumulative power of the imagery with each successive interpretation.
The Documents Northwest exhibition is selected from a series of works that has occupied Michael Spafford over the last two years on the theme of Perseus and Medusa. First coming to this theme in 1969 while in Italy on a two-year Prix de Rome Fellowship, Spafford brings a new clarity and emotional energy to the classic myth. To prove himself, Perseus, son of Zeus by Danae, must kill the gorgon Medusa (one of three terrible, snaggletooth sisters whose gaze turned men to stone) and bring her head back to his mother’s suitor. In Spafford’s hands, the legend is abbreviated to the moment when Perseus severs medusa’s head with its hair of writhing snakes and lifts it aloft. The artist has stripped the myth to its most emblematic elements, and given them radical form: a truncated male torso, a hand, and a detached, round head with protruding tongue. Gone are the extraneous anatomical details and heroic trappings – Medusa’s features, Perseus’s helmet, polished shield, and winged sandals. The images that remain, simplified and compressed, take on the archetypal power of icons. Perseus is reduced to a headless silhouette – columnar legs supporting a trunklike torso with boldly rendered genitalia, his hand thrust forward and locked in Medusa’s hair. Medusa is little more than a flat disc with phallic-like tongue and stylized serpents projecting off it, the active profile of the gorgon’s head a foil against the static protagonist, Perseus. In the majority of works Spafford has eliminated any hint of chiaroscuro; there is no modeling of the figures, only flat form and pattern.
Similarly, Spafford reduces the composition to its simplest possible configuration. Stressing the structural aspects of the painting, Spafford reduces color basically to black, grey, and white, the extreme contrast in tone serving to underscore the conflict between Perseus and Medusa. Color, if present at all, is localized and tends to emerge from behind or within the overall black-and-white field. Bloody reds and sharp yellows lift the background black and animate the extreme contrasts of light and dark; the color carves out Medusa’s head on a sooty field or peeks from the edge of forms, further energizing the often urgent physicality of the brushstrokes. Spafford maximizes the range of manipulation of pigment for expressive impact. He draws, scumbles, trowels, and scrapes the paint onto or off the surface in broad gestures that have become his signature. Ranging from thick, slablike impasto to scraped stain, these textural effects create a sensual, physical surface that is an important aspect of Spafford’s painting.
Space in these works is all but nonexistent. Compressed to two dimensions, the figures of Perseus and medusa become little more than abstract shapes. Medusa’s curvilinear head and hair play off the strict verticality of Perseus’s torso, their confrontation a factor in the interplay of open and closed forms. The use of pattern to define everything from the interior planes of the torso to its surrounding filed accentuates the highly linear conception of these paintings and Spafford’s masterful draftsmanship. Drawing integrates structure and gesture in these works, either actively as line or stripe on the surface or as the subtle pentimento of previous layers of paint now subsumed in the painting’s surface. The compositions are a delicate balancing of extremely controlled image on spontaneously generated surface and gesture.
Spafford often speaks of the need to put “more” into a painting initially so that the necessary condensation of sensation and collapsing of forms into one another can take place. The rich pentimento of these works more than suggests the extended process by which Spafford arrives at his deceptively simple-looking compositions. Spafford repaints to redefine the canvas; in each new version he reorganizes and heightens sensation, eliminating detail while managing to retain a freshness and spontaneity of nuance. He reconciles the freedom of expressive gesture with the discipline of strict formal composition.
Spafford fully exploits the emotional potential of Perseus and Medusa through the skillful manipulation of image, color, form, and composition. He brilliantly marshals the formal aspects of these works to serve the myth’s enormous capacity for expression; his extreme formal control is balanced by the cathartic impact of the imagery within the painting. The myth of Perseus and medusa in Spafford’s hands seems to suggest the deeper, darker regions of the conflicts between male and female, light and dark, life and death.
Michael Spafford is one of the Northwest’s most original and compelling artists. Always struggling against the facile and fashionable, Spafford has created a unique, monumental style that is a synthesis of powerful imagery and brilliant formal invention. He draws on his masterful draftsmanship and rigorous formal skills to create paintings that are psychologically penetrating. His vision is a timeless one, conveying both an affirmation of life and a deep awareness of mortality. Spafford’s paintings are provocative, emphatic statements that haunt memory.
Curator of Contemporary Art