On a wall in a gallery, there's no safety net. It's not like the front of a refrigerator — mom's soothing words making you feel good about your finger painting. No, no. Once that painting is hung on a white wall, the artist is exposed and vulnerable.
Maybe that's why Jim McVicker, one of Humboldt's favorite plein-air painters, has given himself a slick new moniker to accompany his new show, "Diversions." For this month's Arts! Arcata, it's "Vic James" who brings the brushwork to the Upstairs Gallery. And these ain't no feel-good, fuddy-duddy beaches and mountain landscapes, either. Vic James has been doing some abstract work, and like a dog that jumped the fence, he's excited to finally be let out of the studio.
Fans of McVicker's work should be excited, too. This is a rare opportunity to get a glimpse inside the head of a man who has built his whole career on representational work. This show breaks his 36-year streak, and only four other people have ever seen the work until now. Branching out in such a public way should be appreciated as much for its oddity as for its rarity. Vic James looks at it both ways too, noting that, "Some people are going to love it and some are going to hate it and say, 'What the hell are you doing?'" Some might just think it's the best work he's ever done.
The show itself is a collection of 17 paintings created over the past four years. It's a kind of visual journal, a record of McVicker's thoughts and feelings laid down with a brush. While the images harken back to his freewheeling days cutting his chops as a painter in mid-'70s Santa Cruz, they capture the kind of sophisticated complexity and emotion that only a well-trained hand could achieve.
Some of the narratives are personal, plainly visible on the surface and almost difficult to witness. Other images are playful. It's clear that McVicker slipped into Vic James mode and enjoyed smashing the paint straight out of the tube instead of carefully mixing real-life colors. "I don't really have an interest in painting a blue sky red or getting abstract with the landscape," he says. But when Vic James emerges the gloves come off, releasing years of pent-up colors, globby surfaces and zany shapes.
Many of the pieces were created in the studio over long periods of time. McVicker would put an old, blank canvas near his feet when working on a still life, periodically leaning over to wipe a lump of crusted paint onto it. Other times he'd pick up the abstract canvas and toil away at it for a few hours. Eventually, a familiar shape would emerge. A dog's ear, a bird, butt cheeks. Whatever it was, he'd run with it, pushing paint around until the piece clicked and looked finished.
One such piece, "Madonna," looks like it might have been ripped from the pages of an abstract expressionist textbook. Crusty earth tones anchor the bottom of the piece, while kaleidoscopic colors drip from the top. Thick, impasto strokes bulge off the canvas like raw chunks of stained glass, knocking about in a loose but vaguely organized fashion. In the midst of this gaudy storm sits a fresh-faced girl dressed in canary yellow. Her smile seems to beckon knowingly, pleased as punch by all the action. Look close and you might see an angel swooping in, or the devil strutting across her crown, his tail hanging long between his legs.
Elsewhere in the exhibit are McVicker's prized self-portraits. "Laughing Self" clearly reveals how much fun Vic James has at the helm, while "Self Portrait Profile" professes his love for the paint. Viewed from the side, the latter looks like a mountain range, McVicker's face emerging only when stepping a few feet back from the canvas.
The addition of the self-portraits validates the introspective nature of this body of work. After all, these images aren't just for fun. After four decades of painting, McVicker's style has matured, his audiences expect a certain product and market pressures and art-world expectations can weigh heavy on his brush.
Cutting loose with a fresh style is invigorating, yet risky. Some may think that Vic James was set aside long ago to promote a more lucrative product, but McVicker flatly denies it. Anticipating some critics' remarks, he exposes the guts it takes to put a show like this together. "People [may] go, 'Well, these paintings he didn't intend to go into a gallery, so they're more authentic,'" he says. "I think that's just bullshit."
Indeed, if this show demonstrates anything, it's that McVicker is talented enough to work with whatever style he chooses. It's the conversation between all three styles that's critical to keeping an informed perspective on things. The thought makes him wonder if other painters have secret paintings sitting around that nobody knows about. Are there abstract painters out there too embarrassed to show their sensitive sunset paintings? Who knows? Vic James strikes a wily pose and looks askance at his new collection, saying, "Maybe this will start bringing everyone out of the closet."
Stop by the Upstairs Gallery this Friday Feb. 14 from 6-9 p.m. to meet Vic James and see the paintings he's been hiding for 36 years.