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People's choice at Tacoma Art Museum

TAM celebrates 80 years by giving patrons what they want

“Street Orator’s Audience” by Jacob Lawrence, tempera on paper, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Roger W. Peck by exchange, 1995.10. © 2016 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Photo courtesy Tacoma Art Museum

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By definition, "people's choice" shows are always well loved. When the works the people have to choose from include such giants of early modern art as Mary Cassatt, Jacob Lawrence, Edward Degas and Pierre-August Renoir, how can the popular choices go wrong? On the other hand, such shows tend toward the middle ground and overlook anything that's challenging. In other words, they tend to be meh. "Celebrating 80 Years - People's Choice" at Tacoma Art Museum displays much of each of those tendencies.

The show is heavily weighted toward late 19th century European art and early modernist American art. Dark and somber imagery dominates, but there are many wonderfully bright spots. Lesser works by great artists are well represented, such as Camille Pissarro's "The Fishing Port, Dieppe, Morning, Overcast Sky" and John Sloan's rather boring "Street Lilacs, Noon Sun," but there are also some outstanding works by great artists such as the ever-popular "Heads of Two Young Girls" by Renoir, which has popped up in many shows at TAM, and Lawrence's "Street Orator's Audience," the People's Choice "Top Pick" award - which proves that museum patrons in Tacoma have sophisticated taste.

The oddity of Lawrence's tempera painting makes it stand out. It depicts a fairly common scene, an orator speaking to a street crowd. But we do not see the orator and have no idea what issue he or she is tackling (other than the word "Blind" on a sign, which provides a veiled and possibly misleading hint). We puzzle over the expressions on the faces of listeners crowded behind a ladder that is unexplainably placed between them and the orator. Climbing up the ladder is a figure wearing black and white striped pants (we see only the legs). Compositionally the black and white pants resonate with the white shirt of the man on the lower right to create an interesting framing device. We feel more than understand what is going on.

Similar to Lawrence in style is Robert Gwathmey, whose colorful serigraph "Singing and Mending" sympathetically pictures the downhome reality of a poor African-American couple, the man strumming a guitar and singing and the woman mending clothes. It is simple, rich and beautifully designed.

I have commented favorably on the Renoir in previous reviews of shows at Tacoma Art Museum, but it bears mentioning again if, for no other reason, for the brilliant glow and shimmering brushstrokes of the pinks in the girls' cheeks. Less sentimental than the Renoir and more realistic, William Glackens' oil painting "Natalie in a Blue Skirt" presents a marvelous example of the same kind of luminous paint application.

I did not intend when I started writing this review for it to be a comparison of similar works of art, but so much in this show begs for just that. Such as Isabel Bishop's etching "Noon Hour" and Raphael Soyer's lithograph "Casting Office," both of which picture pairs of female figures in black and white that are compositionally a dance of asymmetrically balanced forms both positive and negative. And Degas' little bronze dancers literally depict dancing but also dance figuratively in the quirky yet realistic contrapposto of their bodies, with particular emphasis on the negative shapes between arms and torsos.

This show can be seen as a history of the beginnings of modernism in America with nods in the direction of the Europeans whose work influenced the early American modernists. It is a great companion show to What's New at TAM in the adjacent gallery. See it soon, because it has a shorter run than most shows at TAM.

"Celebrating 80 Years," Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., through March 27, $12-$14, Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific Ave. Tacoma, www.tacomaartmuseum.org

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