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In the Shadow of the Master

Alfredo Arreguin and Doug Johnson at Tacoma Community College

“El Joven Zapata” oil painting by Alfredo Arreguin. Photo courtesy Tacoma Community College

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Learning art by copying the masters is as old as art itself. Artists of the Italian Renaissance traditionally did it, and even today, European artists continue to copy paintings in the Louvre. Peter Paul Rubens, as a prime example, painted a version of Titian's "Venus at the Mirror." Both artists' "Venus" hang in major museums; stylistically, they are almost indistinguishable, but one is a back view of Venus and the other is a front view, and in Rubens' version, there is a servant standing by who does not appear in Titian's version. Thus, it is with the many paintings of the same subjects and in similar styles by Alfredo Arreguin and Doug Johnson in the show at Tacoma Community College. 

Arreguin is an internationally recognized artist, born in Mexico and now living in Seattle. His paintings are in the collections of two Smithsonian museums: The National Museum of American Art and the National Portrait Gallery. Johnson is a multi-talented artist, a writer who learned to write by copying sentences from Raymond Carver's stories -- a musician who learned to compose symphonies by copying Beethoven, and a painter who learned by copying his hero, Arreguin. 

There are a few paintings and ink drawings by Johnson in this exhibition of works by the master and the student, and there are -- to our delight -- many more paintings by the master.

Arreguin's paintings are dense, exciting and exotic. His color, especially his liberal use of deep midnight blue and shining ultramarine blue and velvety shades of purple, is indescribably lush. He paints portrait heads that are made up of floral patterns and letters in the background and in the faces, much in the manner in which Chuck Close creates realistic faces out of dots and circles. In the most elaborate of Arreguin's paintings, figure and ground become almost indistinguishable as faces, figures, animals and flora weave in and out in peekaboo fashion on the canvas. The painting is precise, tight and controlled, a little too controlled in my estimation, which gives it a cold or calculated feel (but alleviated or at least balanced by the warm colors).

Many of the patterns that fill his canvases are made up of words in Spanish and English. Many of his paintings depict Mexican life, folklore and mythology, and many of them depict religious iconography.

"Family Portrait" presents an energetic swirl of plants, animals, human figures, masks, butterflies, parrots and monkeys -- many of which are hidden in the dense imagery. Most striking, there is a large monkey with a man's face perched on a tree limb and the artist's name spelled out but hidden on the major figure's forehead.

There are many portraits of famous people, including revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata and artist Frida Kahlo. "Frida and the Wolf" is a large portrait face almost completely hidden in the swirling patterns of trees, river, deer and a wolf.

There's also a quadruple portrait of Frida with versions by both Arreguin and Johnson.

Johnson paints with loose, brushy strokes with thin paint. No matter the media, they look like watercolor sketches -- many of them appear unfinished. His pen and ink drawings are tight and controlled. They employ stippled ink marks, as in "Portrait of Juan Rulfo," a large portrait head in tiny dots and dashes with repeated smaller heads making up the background, which overlaps the edges of the larger face.

Much of the enjoyment of Arreguin's paintings is in seeing what you can find in them -- true also of Johnson's art, but to a lesser degree. 

IN THE SHADOW OF THE MASTER, noon-5 p.m., Monday-Thursday, through Dec. 15, Tacoma Community College, Building 5A, entrance off South 12th St. between Pearl and Mildred, Tacoma, visitor parking in Lot G, 

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