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Darkly mysterious winter scenes

Jonathan Happ at Childhood's End

“Labyrinth” oil on canvas by Jonathan Happ. Photo courtesy Childhood's End Gallery

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Jonathan Happ is an artist who is new to me. Before knowing who he was or anything about his art, I happened to glance at his paintings through a window as I was driving past Childhood's End Gallery, and I immediately thought I have to see these paintings.

Happ paints darkly mysterious winter scenes with isolated figures in landscape settings, often near streams or in deep, dark forests. The figures and their surroundings are painted with hardly any details, in mostly dark colors -- wintry blues and off-whites, murky yellowish-greens and dark grays, all with nuanced modulations of tone. They are night scenes, or in some instances, misty early morning or twilight scenes. Most attention-grabbing is that the figures wear monotone pants and hoodies and are nearly all seen from the back or side. Their faces are never seen.

With one exception.

That startling exception is "Summer Eve," a painting of a woman sitting on a hillside. The ground is painted in muted yellowish-green tones slightly lighter than the dark tones of most of his paintings. She is dressed all in white and stares directly ahead at the viewer. She wears glasses, and the setting sun reflects off the lenses. Her eyes are not visible.

Who are these people who inhabit his paintings? They are isolated or in small groups and appear to be avoiding detection like criminals hiding in the woods. There is even one of a man hiding behind a tree, there's one where the acidic yellow of a tree trunk has a ghostly glow and another that has tree limbs that look like giant insect legs. It is this mystery and ominous quality that give Happ's paintings a signature look.

Although I have never before seen Happ's art, I am convinced that I would recognize any painting of his on sight, just as I would recognize a Jackson Pollock or a Frida Kahlo, or for that matter, works by certain local artists such as a Marilyn Frasca drawing or a Susan Christian stick painting or one of Lynette Charters' "Missing Woman" paintings -- for that's what the good ones do: they find their signature look and develop it.   

"Pilgrim" pictures one of his hooded figures standing by a mountain stream. In the far distance a patch of pink sky peeks out from between tree branches as a kind of respite from the foreboding darkness of the scene.  

"Procession" depicts hunched-over hooded figures walking away from the viewer. They are like monks walking in procession, huddled at the very bottom of the painting where they are overshadowed by giant trees seen from a worm's-eye view.

There are a very few works that do not include figures. In one, we see a mass of driftwood on the forest floor like some unexpected pile left from previous eons. Another is a chalk pastel drawing of a river with rhythmical flowing white lines on the lower half of the drawing representing ripples in the water that contrast dramatically with the jagged, skeletal lines of tree limbs in the upper portion. This is a nicely drawn picture, but it does not have the foreboding quality of the other works that make the paintings so arresting.  

Also showing are paintings by Xiagang Zhu that call to mind paintings by Renoir and Monet. These are nicely composed and attractive paintings, but the style and subject matter has been done to death since the mid-1800s when they were new and radical.  

JONATHAN HAPP and XIAGANG ZHU, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday-Saturday; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday, through April 22, Childhood's End Gallery, 222 Fourth Ave. W., Olympia, 360.943.3724,

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