April 21-27, 2005
Jim Houser comes to grips in his new work.
For painter Jim Houser, preparing for his upcoming solo show was like starting over. "My hands shook a lot, and I didn't feel comfortable at first because I hadn't done it in so long," explains Houser, taking a break from installing "Babel" at Bainbridge Street's Spector Gallery, about ending something of a self-imposed painting hiatus.
Before starting to paint for this show in January, Houser's paintbrush had been mostly inactive since last summer after a grueling stretch of shows. By October, Houser's wife, fellow painter Rebecca Westcott, had become worried about his painting block. As she was preparing to visit her parents in Nantucket, Mass., Houser had finally begun to paint again. "Even if she was worried," he remembers, "she didn't leave worried."
Westcott, who'd just been awarded a Pew Fellowship, was killed Oct. 12 in a tragic roadside accident at age 28 on her way home from Nantucket. For Houser, painting again went on the back burner. After a few months of trying to pull his life together, Houser reapplied himself to his craft.
"The first painting I did was a Christmas painting for a friend of mine," recalls Houser, who for the first time in his life finds himself painting during the day in natural light. "It was just a small panel that said "Hold Fast' on it," a phrase which, to Houser, means more or less "keep it together."
The painting won't be in the show, but "Hold Fast" is significant; Houser's work culls words and iconography to create cryptic charts of thoughts and ideas. Recurring images (such as birds, plants, the Tower of Babel) and text ("hush," "ghost," "depths") become imbued with meaning. While Houser is hesitant to discuss those meanings, he's admits it's hard for him "to separate what I make from who I am."
Which is what made "Babel" such a difficult task. "I want it to be a pretty thing, and a happy thing," he admits, explaining that there's much of Westcott's work that's seeped into his own. "But there's a lot of elements that are coming out, shit that I'm dealing with, that might not necessarily be happy."
In one austere painting, three birds on a black canvas converse. A green bird says: "It's so good to see you. You were gone a long time. It's been forever since we were together."
A pink bird replies: "I am the same person I have always been, but I have been to countless joyful and terrible places. Come sit. It will be good to talk."
In another, Houser renders his trademark busy symbolism in blue-and-brown duochrome, leaving half the brown canvas uncharacteristically empty.
Houser's only fear in assembling this show, which will be the launch party for a career-retrospective book also called Babel (Gingko Press), was upsetting people. "But the more I thought about it, y'know, it's part of it. I can't pretend. I can't hold stuff in that wants to come out."
Inasmuch as "Babel" will showcase Houser's recent work, it will also celebrate Westcott. Spector was the site of Westcott's first solo show in September. Along with the obvious influence of Westcott on his work "There's leaves and vines that are all over the place, those are hers" "Babel" will also include a collection of Westcott's paintings.
Houser feels it's his duty to preserve Westcott's spirit in his life and in his work. "This is what I feel like she'd want me doing," he says. "It's my job selling paintings but in this case, I don't really care. If nothing sold, that wouldn't be what I judge this show on."
"Babel," April 22-June 18; opening reception, Fri., April 22, 6 p.m.-10 p.m., Spector, 510 Bainbridge St., 215-238-0840, www.spectorspector.com.