Arts & Culture

The Gallery at TCC: Bill Colby retrospective is a 60-year journey of love for the sea and shore

Bill Colby really loves water. It flows through every painting, every woodcut and print currently up in The Gallery at TCC, even if it’s ostensibly part of a rock or a bench. For nearly 60 years this well-known (and well-collected) Tacoma artist has been exploring the textures, flow and patterns of water, running it through his forests, sands, mountains and (naturally) waves. Now you can walk that journey with him in "Bill Colby: Water and Rocks" just up at TCC – a retrospective of the skill, joy and experimentation that Colby brings to the element.

It’s not a very even show, mostly because, as Colby says in his artist statement (pick up a glossy brochure – a nice touch thanks to Colby’s Arts Commission grant) for many of those decades he was inspired by other things. In the 1950s it was taverns and family, in the ‘60s dead birds and baroque architecture, in the ‘70s he turned to Indian and Roman staircases and Chinese vases. By the 1980s, though, he’d turned back to mountains, moving to canyons and rocks a decade later, and most recently wood and forests. But throughout it all he’s maintained a visual fascination with the concept of water, and hangs his works to make the most of the comparisons.

The earliest work in the show is "Sun at Short Sands" from 1956, with a modernist aesthetic reminiscent of the Northwest School, juxtaposing his already distinctive curvy lines of sunlight and water with angular shapes of hill and town. His "Rocky Shore" of 1970 – a vague, amorphous watercolor study of green-hued sand and waves – hangs beside the more sharply delineated ‘Ancient Rocks" of 1983, which float airily above gray-blue waves and are etched with Indian, Native American and fossil symbols.

Other groups of similar works sit together: Four works each containing a blue-white orb, which hang like a moon over flowing horizontal waves, or his sumi-e rock paintings, with thick sharp edges, blurrily cloudy shadows and (in the later "3 Rocks") a veneer of gilt and aqua paper collage.

The middle gallery is dominated by his 2014 "Stonewall Bench" works, highly abstracted woodcuts of oval grain patterns colored vividly in reds, oranges, lime greens. There are experiments (his "Blue Wave" print has a positive and negative version, the whitecap frills lapping at the hulking, semicircular rock) and some acrylics, though these aren’t as thoughtful as the prints, focusing primarily on color blending with saturated indigos. His very recent work explores the interplay of patterns: biomorphic leaves, wave lines, triangles and splodges, as delicately layered as washi paper.

There’s even an oil, spread out behind the reception desk in a swirl of ocean wave.

"Water and Rocks" is a testament to one of Tacoma’s most respected artists, but it’s also a supremely joyful immersion in a love affair between art and water.