Arts Magazine: What is the grass?

From Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program

What is the Grass?: an exhibition of new paintings by Doug Argue

A child said, What is the grass? fetching it me with full hands; How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is anymore than he. Walt Whitman "Song of Myself"

This lyrical passage from the most famous of Walt Whitman's poems, collected in Leaves of Grass and published in 1885, is especially meaningful to the painter Doug Argue. The title of Argue's exhibition, "What is the grass?," acknowledges his regard for Whitman and the inspirational effects of poetry on his outlook as an artist. As the father of a young boy, Argue feels that Whitman's words speak to his own belief that many questions cannot be answered.

The birth of Mattison Argue in 1989 opened for his father a floodgate to memories of his own childhood. Then, in 1991, Argue traveled around the United States-driving for four and a half months from city to city, museum to museum-on a grant to study American painting. Missing his little son, he was especially aware of the absence of children in the artwork he encountered. He noticed that most paintings ignored children, either as subjects or as potential viewers. Those that did include young people tended to depict them in passive positions and provoked patronizing or sentimental responses. This discovery inspired Argue to create a series of father-and-son paintings in which the child actively and honestly participates.

On view in the Minnesota Gallery from January 28 to April 10, 1994 Argue's new series represents a significant departure from both his popular large-scale figurative paintings of earlier years and his more recent monumental works. These oil paintings and watercolors, each distinguished by an almost tangible sense of place, are far more intimate in scale and content. And each picture presents an imagined or remembered world where reality exists on numerous levels-Argue as the little boy, as the father, and as both simultaneously. The narrative structure of these works moves beyond the individual moment to make a more generalized artistic statement about the fears, anxieties, love, and wonderment of childhood.

Although the parent-child relationship pervades these images, the child is always the central player, while the ubiquitous father is peripheral. As presented by Argue, the child is a unique individual fully in tune with the fundamental verities of life. He possesses a healthy sense of fear and clearly discerns the enormity of the world.

Argue wonders, through his artwork, about what it means to teach a child. Is is enough to pass on what you have learned? Of what significance are familial rituals? Are they events that rationalize the unknown? Or are they truly rites of passage?

Argue's subtle (and sometimes not-so&#151subtle) scale distortions, exaggerated perspective, and quirky cropping of the picture plane (the father's face is rarely seen) refute the representational reality of these pictures and emphasize the emotional charge of a specific experience, place, or memory. The father's enduring attendance does not always sooth the anxiety of a particular event (like looking straight into the face of an ugly, snarling dog). In fact, the giant hands and arms of this parent might make the child (and the viewer) feel a bit uncertain about what it means to have power in the world.

Part of growing up is forgetting the things that we understood as young children. Argue's pictures seem to dispel that amnesia and provide for the viewer a vehicle for traveling back into time to remember just what it was like to be so small.

Doug Argue's artistic accomplishments have been recognized by the Jerome Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Bush Foundation, the McKnight Foundation, and the Minnesota State Arts Board, all of which have awarded the painter fellowships. His work has been shown throughout the region and featured in exhibitions at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the New Museum in New York.

"What is the grass?" is presented by the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program (MAEP), an artist-controlled curatorial department of the MIA devoted to the exhibition of works by artist who live in Minnesota. The MAEP is made possible, in part, by a grant from the Jerome Foundation.

Artist-led tours of "What is the grass?" are scheduled for Sunday, February 13,

and Sunday, March 13, at 3 P.M.

Cynde Randall is an artist and a program associate for the MAEP.

Citation: Cynde Randall, "What is the Grass?: an exhibition of new paintings by Doug Argue," Arts 17, no.2 (February 1994): 12-13.