It’s a well-known fact that while comedy doesn’t always produce outright laughter, it does require a happy ending. So if the paintings of Lucky Tuck, now on view upstairs in the Utah State Capitol, are comedies — some of them are deliberately funny — can they be said to have happy endings? Contemporary Art works, like those of most of the important movements throughout history, prove themselves by thoughtfully invoking the concerns of the day. They may not be honest about just where concern for the public’s welfare gives way to old-fashioned competition for the public’s attention and support, but humor generally enters the equation only when it’s satirical — and so the fun is still serious.
Lucky Tuck’s story begins and ends, for now, in Utah: specifically it begins on a small farm in the Salt Lake Valley. At 16, he took off to find himself and see the world, or maybe just to find paying work that let him create whatever he thought fit. Illustration and design work for advertising agencies in Los Angeles led to years spent overseas, starting in Japan, where, as graphic artists will know, boundaries between sources and styles have long been looser than in other places. Eventually he found his way to Europe, and then returned here to take advantage of that artistic liberation called retirement.
Tuck’s subjects are as Utah-native as he is, but his technique owes more to an assortment of Modernist artists, primarily Post-impressionists, than to any historical Utah realists. “I like to show the strokes so that the magic of the tool can be seen up close, and then transform as you stand back,” he explains, and at the same time reveals in part why his brushwork so often resembles Vincent van Gogh’s. Post-impressionism was largely a search for the structure that some artists felt had been lost by Impressionism, and Vincent’s cellular approach, like Georges Seurat and Paul Signac’s pointillism, was meant to remedy the problem. In Tuck’s “Liberty Park in Fall,” the same sausage-like shapes represent the tree’s foliage, the fallen leaves in shade, and the sun-dappled lake shore, with only the colors differentiating them. In the luminous “Sage Brush In Spring,” the sausages have become earth-toned and snake-like and seem to writhe and rush up the slope, while the lozenges of light tones in the sky radiate from the sun that is presumably hidden behind the bush. The leaves of this shrub are flecks of dark green, gold, and light green that give it not just light, but depth. This isn’t Vincent, who also liked to load his brush with several colors and swirl them onto the canvas, which gave them complexity and introduced depth into the paint itself, not just to the illusionary space. But Tuck’s colors do come to life and play energetically.
It may seem at first viewing that this is a less sophisticated art, but it’s important to bear in mind that this is a sophisticated illustrator who knows how much realism each project requires, and knows precisely how to obtain it. In “Scrub Oak in Full Moon,” there’s not a lot of detail in the oak, which after all is seen at night and in its own shadow. But the moonlight on snow is carefully distinguished from those shadows, which is something anyone given to walking at night in winter will recognize. Speaking of shadows, Tuck’s mastery of them is visible in “Still Life Magnolias,” where the vases and their decorative, miniature crate stand out in front of the meticulously rendered, faux-gold leaf wall.
While Lucky Tuck’s versatility is everywhere on display, and his plants, like the “Scrub Oak in Fall,” are immaculate, his animals are where his attachment to his subjects really shines. Two goats, one “East” in a turban and one “West” in a collar and tie, suggest the popular, playful character of the animals, while his “Cows” resonate with those who know them from personal experience.
As for the happy ending, it comes in several forms. An artist who deliberately takes advantage of the way a painting can change dramatically with the viewing distance thereby offers viewers a happy ending: back up from all that visible, painterly craft and gain a magical transformation such as fools a happy eye. More than that, though, Lucky Tuck’s choice to return home with his skills intact in order to bring a lifetime’s experience to bear on the scenes and subjects he grew up with and knows so well is cause for genuine celebration.
Lucky Tuck: Some Things You See Every Day and Some You Don’t, Utah State Capitol (4th Floor), through Jan. 5.