Untold Story

Fay Jones' new mysteries are as compelling as ever.

SHE HAS BEEN painting in the Seattle area for close to 30 years, yet Fay Jones continues to flourish within her distinctly personal language. Her show of new work at Grover/Thurston this month contains many of the visual obsessions she has wrestled with throughout her career—sailor suits, rabbits, beachscapes, girls’ dresses—but there’s nothing tired about her return to these subjects, and the imagery lingers long after you’ve left the gallery.

Jones is usually thought of as a narrative painter, but this description is several sizes too small. The mixed-media works in this current exhibit don’t tell stories so much as convey feeling, emotion, and sensibility. In the large acrylic and sumi work on paper titled Pressure, a vaguely male figure descends upon a young woman sitting at the beach. In the background, two girls in frilly dresses lurk like muses, and a leaping, arcing fish caps the whole composition. There’s a strong sense of a story behind all this, but it’s never made explicit—we’re always stranded on the outside. We suspect these images depict a personal history, but Jones never gives you the whole tale. The narrative, what there is of it, is meted out in discrete, mysterious doses.

Throughout this show, there are hints of troubled relationships. In Knot, Knock, human figures bump heads, while in the background a knotted sheet binds the composition together. In several small paintings (done on painted plaster inside of found sardine tins), Jones exposes small dramas between the sexes. Duet finds a distressed woman stumbling along half-dressed, as the fragment of a man (only part of his head and shoe are visible) departs stage left. But not all the relationships are cracking: In Sonic Boom, a couple dressed in what appear to be matching jogging suits embrace while looking up in unison to the sky.

The most important piece here is the large triptych, Shoals, which, again, is marked by her trademark symbols: sailor hats, bathing caps, two rabbits boxing, beaches, girls’ dresses. In the first panel, painted in greens and yellows, someone is drowning. In the second, executed in red and blue, a young woman receives a kiss from a zebra while searchlights emanate from a lighthouse and a woman in a kimono. In the third panel, the most overtly psychological, a girl in a black dress floats cradled between a man and woman. As ever, the story is ambiguous: Is the girl being held, or unceremoniously dropped? Emanating from the woman’s mouth, a cartoon speech balloon morphs into a seagull’s head: Is she screeching, or is the bird’s closed mouth indicative of a quiet, subservient disposition? Hard to say, although this much is clear: The man and woman both have red ears, so somebody must be talking about them!

This is the kind of show that thrives when there’s little cura­torial description to accompany the work, and, thankfully, there are no windy curator’s notes on how the paintings relate to the events of Jones’ life. To do so would diminish their potent mystery.


The Fay Jones exhibit continues at Grover/Thurston Gallery (309 Occidental St.) through Fri., April 30.