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Friday, March 21, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Visual Arts

Bloody battle of Giants and gods reverberates to the present

Seattle Times art critic

Exhibit review


Michael Spafford, new paintings, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, through March 30, Francine Seders Gallery,

6701 Greenwood Ave., N., Seattle (206-782-0355 or www.sedersgallery.com)

Through the clouds of Mount Olympus, a sudden storm of boulders and burning trees rained on the gods. Their rivals, the Giants, had stacked mountain on top of mountain to climb up to their enemies' perch. Earth and sky reversed.

What follows is an old story — the Greek tale of the battle between the Giants and the gods. But when Seattle artist Michael Spafford paints the subject, it resonates like the daily news. For decades, Spafford has used mythology as a metaphor for contemporary political and personal power struggles. In the war-heavy atmosphere since Sept. 11, 2001, his stark new series "The Battle of the Gods and the Giants" has the force of Picasso's "Guernica."

According to the myth, Cronus castrates his father Uranus and each drop of blood that flows from the wound turns into one of a superhuman new race: the Giants. The Giants attack the gods, who are led by Zeus — a son of Cronus — and his warrior-daughter Athena. There's only one catch. The Giants can't be killed by an immortal, so the gods have to enlist a human hero, Hercules, to finish them off.

The grappling figures in Spafford's series have no heads — the artist simply leaves them out of the picture. The battle they're fighting is driven by their genes more than their minds. The compositions are all motion: bodies toppled and careening. Athena's spear bypasses one figure to pierce another. A sword-thrust from Hercules finishes off the Giant Alcynous. Poseidon crushes a Giant with a chunk of some island he's wrenched out of the sea.

There are just five images hanging in the main gallery: three oil-on-paper studies and two large canvases. (One of the studies is dated Sept. 11, 2002 — Spafford's memorial to the trauma of the previous year.) The two paintings each have a wall to themselves. Both the images and the installation are powerful.

As always, Spafford keeps his figures simple and restricts his palette, in this case to black, white and red. The atmosphere around the figures is a murky netherworld. You can't tell if it's day or night — everything looks smoked in blood. Spafford builds up a dense sooty armor of paint on some figures, then scrapes others nearly transparent, as if their ghosts had already fled.

The kind of power plays Spafford outlines make some people uncomfortable. In the 1980s, his striking two-part mural "The Labors of Hercules" at the state Capitol became the target of a squabble among lawmakers, who discerned something provocative in the imagery.

The murals were first draped, then removed and placed in storage. Another set of murals by Spafford's colleague, Alden Mason (whose work is on display at Foster/White this month; see review at right), were also removed.

Mason's murals are now hanging at Centralia College, which has requested the long-term loan of the Spafford murals as well to hang in a new performance hall. Spafford has said he would rather see the site-specific murals destroyed than hung in another location.

Sheila Farr: sfarr@seattletimes.com

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