The older the artist gets, the fussier about anatomy. An extra arm joint, an oversize human head, a wing too big for its bird – the grotesque bothers him more than it used to.
And the older he gets, the less he thinks of his painting, Mel McCuddin says with a little laugh: “Every time I do a show, when it’s time for the show, I think, ‘This is not good enough.’ ”
But once in a while, McCuddin – whose show opens tonight at the Tinman Gallery – makes a painting that he knows is good. It’s rarely one that other people like as much, and it’s hard to explain what’s different about it.
It’s a feeling, McCuddin says, sitting in his white, bright and paint-smelling studio in his Millwood backyard, where he’s painted most days for nearly 30 years.
The studio is lined with paintings – some ready to hang at the show, some underway, so far just a layer of paint slopped on that McCuddin will stare at, maybe for hours, until human or animal figures or objects begin to take shape in his eye. He chooses one completed painting as a good one: a small blue and gray painting of a bird.
A good painting is one that comes closest to what he meant to paint, he says.
As McCuddin has grown older, he’s grown surer of what that is.
He’s had time to think about it. The show opening tonight at Tinman Gallery pairs McCuddin with his longtime friend, artist Harold Balazs. The show’s title, “Still Vertical,” refers to their longevity. McCuddin is 80. Balazs is 85.
Before McCuddin’s post-“retirement” life of an artist, with his backyard studio, his artist’s life began in cheap Spokane studios rented with friends, occupying hours stolen after his truck-driving day job and his family life; he and Gloria McCuddin, his wife, raised three children. And his work changed as he has searched out something “a little more meaningful” than the abstract style popular when he was starting to paint, “something a little more concrete.”
McCuddin started painting in the 1950s, when abstract expressionism – exemplified by artists such as Jackson Pollack and Willem de Kooning – was gaining mainstream acceptance. He still starts paintings like he did then, with the layer of abstract “underpainting.”
But now, if asked, McCuddin calls himself a figurative expressionist. Without preconception or planning, he finds his paintings by looking for them in the paint – staring at the dried canvases – for 15 minutes or for three hours at a time in his studio. He looks at what is clearly there – color and shapes and smears applied without intention – in search of what’s hidden.
Sometimes he takes little naps.
“Sometimes I’ll look at that thing for a couple hours and not see anything,” he said. “And if I nod off for a few minutes, just a couple minutes, and I wake up, I see something right away that I couldn’t see before. I don’t know how it works, really. It amazes me sometimes.”
His subjects are often solitary, human or animal, and return the viewer’s gaze.
“His paintings look spontaneous, but they’re actually very precise in capturing the moment, and I think that’s why people like them so much,” says Sue Bradley, who owns the Tinman Gallery and has been showing McCuddin’s work since 2003. “He paints humans and he paints animals, and they end up being a very accurate comment on the human condition.”
McCuddin’s work is engaging for its simplicity, and because the figures are in relatable situations, says Steve Gibbs, who owns the Art Spirit Gallery in Coeur d’Alene, which has shown McCuddin’s work since 1997.
There might be a “Man Half in the Bag,” literally and maybe figuratively, or a figure wearing a baseball cap and sitting in a red wagon that no one seems to be pulling. That painting is titled “There are No Free Rides.”
“There’s a real gut-level, intuitive way that Mel puts this stuff down,” Gibbs says. “I think people react to that. There’s almost an intuitive primitiveness to his painting that’s really engaging. It’s not an easy one to put into words. But there’s something about them that’s sort of primal.”
Some have called them dark. A forensic psychologist saw his work at a show years ago at a gallery in Saint Thomas, in the Virgin Islands. McCuddin heard her mumbling: This guy’s got problems.
They talked for a couple of hours, he says. She was sure he had underlying psychological issues, maybe abuse as a child? He didn’t, he told her. She finally bought a painting.
With little formal art education, McCuddin has been described as self-taught. He says he actually learns from what’s going on around him. Along with other artists – he counts figurative painters Robert Marx and Odd Nerdrum among his influences – he takes some inspiration from politics and world affairs.
It’s probably the subject matter that makes some people think his work is dark, he says. He did one called “Absentee Father.” He has painted the faces of soldiers, harrowed by war.
“The Hero,” owned by the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture and painted during the Vietnam War, shows a single figure, his bare torso and chest stitched up one side and down the other. His whited-out eyes look blind. A field burns behind him. McCuddin says it’s one of his best paintings, but not a pleasant painting.
He recently collaborated with Spokane artist Darcy Lee Saxton (then Darcy Drury) in a MAC program that paired established artists with up-and-comers. Their painting “Politics as Usual” portrays a clutch of figures. The man in the middle holds fistfuls of money, green bills falling to the ground. Among those surrounding him is another man wearing a helmet of white hair, a suit jacket and a red tie. He’s been caught with his pants down.
Bradley says she knew McCuddin’s work – some of it “quite broody and scary” – before she knew the artist. She wasn’t so sure she wanted to meet him.
“I thought I would meet a very brooding, depressed guy walking around under a black cloud,” Bradley says. “And he is the sweetest, nicest, cheerful person that I’ve met. What is that? Artists. My theory is that he paints it out – the bad stuff goes on canvas. That’s how he works it out. And what’s left is this nice, normal, cheerful guy who is aware of the sad and terrible things in the world.”