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Monday, June 21, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Woodring's World -- Self-Trained Artist's Paintings, Graphic Novels And Mysterious Machines Are, Like Him, Restless And A Bit Haunted

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

---------------- Woodring exhibit ----------------

"Boyfriend of The Weather," works by Jim Woodring, is at Roq La Rue, 2224 Second Ave., Seattle, 206-399-6952. Hours: Tuesday-Friday, 2-7 p.m.; Saturday, noon-4 p.m. Ends Sunday.

Most people call Jim Woodring a cartoonist. But the multifaceted artist is more like a magician.

Although he does create best-selling "graphic novels" ("The Book of Frank," "Tantalizing Stories" and "Jim"), Woodring explores almost every dimension. He creates paintings that almost walk away from the frame, lustrous charcoal drawings, room-size installations. Then there are his mysterious machines: small, electric devices out of a sci-fi screenplay. All are fabulistic and provocative works, fueled by an energetic, original vision.

His creations - whether giant frogs or speaking hedges - take the viewer on a special kind of journey. Here's how critic Hugh Bonar has described it: "He makes beautifully dark fables of transformation, with a sense of terror and mystery lurking within fantastic imagery. There are Arabian cities, bizarre creatures, strange machines. In the color work, every color is taken to its extreme, everything seems virtually present, on the verge of incandescing."

Many Europeans see Woodring as a guru, and he has shown in Paris, London, Sarajevo. Here, his work is adored on the Microsoft campus and his books published by Seattle's Fantagraphics. "He's like the best-kept secret in Seattle," says Chris Bruce, director of curatorial affairs at the Experience Music Project. "Yet he's a world-class genius; you can quote me on that."

As a curator at Meyerson Nowinski Gallery, Bruce exhibited Woodring. Now, he's negotiating a contribution to the EMP by the artist. "With Jim, you know this isn't art about art. This is all about a genuine need for self-expression. It's that quality, along with his innovation which, for me, elevate the work so much."

Woodring's current show at the Roq La Rue Gallery gives the visitor a window into this world: a rich, spinning universe where rocks glow, UFOs cruise by and speaking animals roam. But if this sounds childlike and charming, an actual visit will certainly change one's mind. The work is radiant and restless stuff - but it is also possessed, driven and haunted.

So is the tall, lanky, bearded man behind it.

Born in suburban Glendale, Calif., in 1952, Woodring is the purest sort of American folk artist. For one thing, he is technically unschooled. Although he once took an art history course at a junior college, his formal art instruction was a mail-order course. "That was the Famous Artists Correspondence School, which I learned a lot from. But I didn't subscribe; I bought the package at a used-book store."

From the age of 4 he has drawn every day, but Woodring never targeted art for his livelihood. His first job was running an amusement-park merry-go-round. After high-school graduation, he became a garbage collector - and, shortly after that, an alcoholic. The drinking stage of Woodring's life lasted eight tumultuous years.

He does not romanticize it. "Did being around a bunch of booze-swilling trash-haulers make me a swashbuckling drunk? No. I could drink a prodigious amount and stay up 'til 3 in the morning, sleep, get up at 5, go out and haul rotting trash in the sun. Then come home and do it all again."

Woodring took his lethal lifestyle up and down the coast. He moved up to Bellingham and lived in the country, on apples. He hopped trains, staggered through museums and "sometimes slept in the dirt." He moved to San Francisco, Santa Barbara and Los Angeles. But if there was a hell hound on his trail, the puppy took shape in his childhood.

"I was really quite a difficult child," he says now. "I saw apparitions and I heard all these voices. The apparitions I saw were frightening: you know, a big staring eyeball or huge, screaming faces. Shapes like giant pork chops just turning in the air." This legacy also came with high anxiety, "because I thought my parents were planning to kill me. I didn't know why and I didn't ask about it. I just existed in a state of full-blown paranoia."

Woodring attributes part of this to learning about mortality. "I heard this rumor that, eventually, everyone dies. So I went and asked my dad. But when he said `yes,' I was truly shocked. He gave me some pie-in-the-sky religious homily, which I could tell even he didn't buy. So I went away thinking, `You know, this just has to be wrong.' Not to blame my dad for the next 20 years, but not a day passed when I didn't think about it."

He sighs. "Whereas if he had said, `Well, Jim, your body does get old. But you never die; you've been born before and you'll be born again' - which is what I think I believe - things might have been different."

Woodring was also haunted by a certain incompleteness. "I'd read about adults who did interesting things - artists, writers and scientists. But I never knew any. All the adults I knew just had inchoate jobs and threw barbecues. I mean, I like barbecues, but these were bleak affairs. No one was bringing up the new Scientific American."

As an adult, his existence remained anarchic right up until 1979. Then, things finally started making sense. He began to "put my work together differently." Woodring also met and married his artist wife, Mary. Settling down, he took a job in television animation.

There, his colleagues were "a lot of great cartoonists" - who now hold powerful jobs in Hollywood. But Woodring, whose art has a different vision, ultimately made his peace by moving to Seattle. "Seattle gives me what I need. I like the rain, I like the greenery; I never get depressed. As a city, the place also fascinates me. It remains so resolutely out of it!"

From here, Woodring can work as he wants: executing books, album covers, paintings and commissions. On personal time, he constructs his electric machines.

These little gadgets all generate one quality: mystery. Yet Woodring talks about them in concrete terms. He is speaking, of course, about the whole of his art, for his obsessions flow easily between different media.

Whether he is painting a richly hued watercolor or sculpting an eerie face out of tin, "The point is always to provide a certain opportunity. Give me a chance to see something I haven't seen before, because it didn't actually have a physical form. When you're a kid, you see scientific apparatus and that kind of display looks so beautiful! You don't understand the things you see as `a spectroscope' or `a luminous discharge tube.' Once you do, you always lose that aspect of the magic."

The artist leans forward, hands on the table. "That magic moment before a thing is named is the moment I'm after. Making something which will have a physical existence, yet never yield up the secrets of its energy. Like the mystery of a shape moving under a blanket. Or that Vermeer painting of the woman wearing pearl earrings. Only nominally is that painting a woman. It's much more like a force field in disguise."

"To me," he says firmly, "that's art which matters, art which really promises something. Because it indicates that something is lighting it up: something otherworldly is emanating from it."

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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