It may be difficult to write about Mark Bennion's frescoes at Traver Gallery, but they're not difficult at all to enjoy. That is if you're willing to give them the long and concentrated attention they deserve.
They're hard to write about because they're so minimal and there's so little variety. The frescoes are all very subtle variations on a simple theme: a flat surface in monotone divided into sections that look like flat stones or concrete blocks with scratched and drawn marks and, in many of them, smaller blocks or rectangles of a contrasting color. They look like sections of plaster or stone walls from an archeological find from a buried city like Pompeii-whose walls were decorated with fresco, Bennion's media of choice and a media rarely used by modern artists. The combination of modern abstraction and media seldom used since the Renaissance lends to Bennion's paintings a timeless quality.
The following statements from the gallery website tell a lot about Bennion's art:
"Following in the tradition of Northwest artists such as Mark Tobey, Paul Horiuchi, Morris Graves and William Ivey, all of whom shared an affinity for painting on paper as well as a deep reverence for eastern art, Mark Bennion sees his frescoes as a ‘confluence of eastern and western techniques and traditions.' Like the frescos of Pompeii, Bennion's paintings themselves convey a sense of history and tradition.
"A practicing Buddhist for much of his adult life, Bennion is not as concerned with the specific story each painting or sculpture tells, as the moment of inner peace and meditation he hopes they inspire within the viewer."
The frescoes are modest in scale, the largest being 42 inches square and the smallest 12 inches square. Two of the largest immediately draw your attention the moment you walk in the gallery, one on the back wall and another on the face of the panel that separates the two areas of the main gallery. It is the brilliant light blue color that demands attention. Since none of his works are titled, it is hard to distinguish which paintings I'm referring to, but you'll know these immediately from the brilliant blue light emanating from the surface as if shown from the depths of a clear blue sea. This is the most brilliant glow I've ever seen from a painting without the use of neon or electricity. I love these two paintings.
I also love the series of four 12-inch by 12-inch frescoes on the back side of the room divider. These work beautifully as a unified set. Each is a solid surface in a dull color - gray, green, brown and some other earthy color I can't quite put a name to - with a few bands of slightly contrasting colors brushed on in broad dry strokes. They have the look of a dried-up lake bed. Cracked mud.
The one piece in the show that is not a minimalist fresco is an untitled installation (no media listed on the identity tag) consisting of a two-part sculpture and two drawings. My guess is that the sculpture is steel. There are two long bars, one rising from the floor and one projecting outward from the wall, each tapered to a point. The drawings are mounted on the wall on either side of the sculpture, and they appear to be preliminary sketches, one in each drawing, of the two parts of the sculpture. The simplicity, the sensitive use of space and the Zen-like resonances between the parts make this a fascinating piece.
This is a show that should be seen by anyone who loves pure abstraction, contemplative art; and the marvels of space, balance, color and surface.
Also showing is a group exhibition celebrating the 40th anniversary of Pilchuck Glass School.
Through Sept. 11, Wednesday-Saturday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday noon to 5 p.m.
William Traver Gallery, 1821 E. Dock St., Tacoma