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'Symbiosis in black & white'

Weldon Butler and Carla Keaton at B2 Fine Art

“Bull Moose,” graphite drawing by Weldon Butler. Photo courtesy B2 Fine Art Gallery

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I am continually surprised by the museum-quality art Gary and Deborah Boone bring to B2 Fine Art. Few commercial galleries, especially not in smaller cities such as Tacoma, can mount shows such as B2's recent showing of works by Faith Ringgold and Aminah Robinson or bring in top-notch artists such as Weldon Butler, whose drawings and one relief sculpture are currently on exhibition along with paintings by a slightly lesser-known artist, Carla Keaton. The Boones also do Tacoma a great favor by showing works by leading African-American artists, not exclusively but more consistently than any other gallery. 

Butler is an established artist originally from Philadelphia, who moved to Seattle 40 years ago to study under Jacob Lawrence. From that, one might expect narrative art in the same vein as Lawrence's work. But what he learned from Lawrence was evidently not story-telling through art. Butler's work is abstract, pure and minimalist - not in the traditions established by Lawrence and Ringgold, which are anything but minimalist, but more in the tradition of Ellsworth Kelly and Al Held, with a line quality like Henri Matisse.

A wall statement by Butler explains that in the contour drawings he is "expressing two points of focus, beginning and returning to the same point and variation of line formation."

There are four large, simple abstract drawings in the front gallery. In each there are curvilinear shapes tracing an open contour that delineates paths that double back on themselves in ways that defy logic and perspective. You can't tell where they begin or end. They are sensual shapes drawn with a smooth and highly controlled line and very little shading. In contrast to the graphite lines on white paper, he throws in a few flat gray shapes. Many of these drawings look like studies for sculpture.

In the middle gallery, there is a small drawing of a rectangular cube in black, white and gray graphite that defies normal perspective, and there is a wall-size drawing called "Colossus" that hangs a couple of feet out from the wall and stretches across the gallery (146-by-42 inches). Like his other drawings, "Colossus" is mostly contour with a minimum of shaded areas. The shapes are rhythmical and seem to march or dance from left to right to what looks like a brick sidewalk that "walks" the viewer's eye off the paper.

All of Butler's drawings are strong and simple with a great touch for asymmetric balance and in-and-out movement in shallow space. It is minimalist abstraction of the highest order.

Keaton's work is all painting, some in acrylic and some in oil, and all cubistic and in black and white. There is a series of paintings of chairs that have been broken down into planes and wedges and play with dimensionality within a mostly flat format (there are a few constructed areas that jut out from the wall an inch or two). There are also three abstract figurative paintings: one a picture of two kids sitting on the bumper of a Volkswagen - one of two VWs - and a life-size portrait of a woman called "Portrait of a Single Mother." Each of these is also in a cubist style.

I was not overly impressed with Keaton's paintings because I did not find anything original or personal in them. The more I think about them, the more I think the portrait of the woman is her strongest painting. I also Googled Keaton and I saw other paintings of families and individuals that were better than what is shown in this exhibition, so I encourage you to look at some of these online, and maybe B2 can bring her back with some of her figure paintings.

"SYMBIOSIS IN BLACK & WHITE", 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday-Saturday; till 9 p.m. Third Thursdays, through June 11, B2 Gallery, 711 St. Helens Avenue, Tacoma, 253.238.5065

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