Sometimes, just wandering around an art gallery is the best way to take in the art. But if you just wander around “Coast to Cascades: C.C. McKim’s Impressionist Vision” in Tacoma Art Museum’s Haub Wing, you’ll miss a big clue, not just about the shimmery Northwest paintings but about C.C. McKim himself — a mystery man who reinvented himself in his 40s through art.
That clue would be in the wall text that says just what we don’t know about Charles C. McKim.
What we do know: He was a clerk and grocer, born in Maine in 1862. Around age 40 he decided to become a professional artist. Training with local painter Charles Lewis Fox, he also joined an outdoor sketching group, absorbing both the Munich style of dark, broody landscapes and the new-fangled Impressionism that had been sweeping Europe and America’s East Coast for a couple of decades.
And then, in 1910, he moved to Portland, Oregon.
At the time, of course, that wasn’t unusual. The West Coast was booming, and many went there seeking opportunity. But for a middle-aged Maine grocer to become an artist and move to the other side of the country must have taken both courage and imagination. You can see both, as well as McKim’s progress as a painter, in the works now up at Tacoma Art Museum.
The show — co-organized by Portland gallerist Mark Humpal — begins with McKim’s first explorations into the Impressionist style: dense, dauby landscapes where there’s so much paint you can literally not see the forest for the leaves. The crazy swirls and thick blobs are almost abstract close-up. But the color work is startling: a lattice of magenta tree trunks behind puddles of white ice and orange leaves in “The Pond” or a storm of pink and lime undergrowth in “Springtime.”
Further into the exhibit, you can see what McKim first learned from Fox in a heavy untitled landscape from 1900, where a dark brown winter forest crowds a silver stream and distant lake. Even here, though, he’s experimenting with texture, the paint daubs creating actual bolls on the tree trunks.
But it was Oregon that brought McKim fame, and it’s easy to see why. Here was an artist painting those same soft Impressionist scenes that were getting popular — but they were of places people knew, like Mount Hood, with a cluster of dark green reeds in the foreground, the Yachats beach with shimmery tidepools, even a smoke-stacked Portland waterfront, like Monet’s of London but far mistier. A plein-air painter, McKim revisited the same location at different times: St. Peter’s Dome soaring up from the Columbia River with the entire mountain ridge rippled with pink and blue, and an identical view flushed with hazy golden light.
Not everything is wonderful. “Coast to Cascades” is part of an occasional series by the museum to highlight Northwest artists who haven’t received much attention, and it’s obvious why you won’t find McKim in a search for the top 40 American Impressionists. His work is uneven, sometimes clunky, and infused with a very imaginative approach to color that sometimes works (the Columbia in muted green-gray-blue, like a Northwest twilight) and sometimes just looks weird (Haystack Rock in a flood of lilac and apple green, or a hot pink sunset).
But as curator Margaret Bullock points out, there’s a big appeal in wandering around a gallery of Impressionist art and seeing your own countryside. And there’s something intriguing about a mystery man who leaves his life behind to find a new one in art. “Coast to Cascades” adds a welcome dimension to the somewhat clichéd idea of the West that’s usually up in the Haub Wing.
Coast to Cascades: C.C. McKim’s Impressionist Vision
Where: Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific Ave., Tacoma.
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. third Thursdays through March 26. Curator talk at 2 p.m. Dec. 11.
Admission: $15 adults; $13 senior, student and military; free ages 5 and younger and 5-8 p.m. third Thursdays.
Information: 253-272-4258, tacomaartmuseum.org.