Breadth of life 

Portraits of the Montana artist young and old

James Todd is a lightning rod for the swirling forces of humanity, capturing their soulful manifestations on earth in his art. He captures the universe inside a pool hall, behind the eyes of a child, in a jazz musician making love to his saxophone on stage.

Two years in the planning, the James Todd Retrospective at the Art Museum of Missoula pays tribute to this Great Falls native and prolific Missoula artist. Todd was also an influential teacher at the University of Montana for 30 years, during which he chaired the Humanities Program before moving on to the Art Department. He is, in the words of exhibition curator Stephen Glueckert, “A true artist-scholar.”

Just north of the gallery entrance, four acrylic self-portraits, each done in a different style (futurist, pointillist, cubist, and realist), suggest the extreme breadth of Todd’s technical skills. But this is just a corner of the whole picture. His featured works also include woodcuts and wood-engraved prints, painted sticks, charcoal and graphite sketches, oil, and watercolor work. And his technical breadth is still but the tip of his artistic breadth, because a deep sense of social history and politics informs his work, and his content includes the whole world, as well as what awaits us beyond the sky.

The upstairs gallery features an eclectic array of Todd’s work from his 60-year career, arranged chronologically. Because of Todd’s attention to history, it is a chronology not only of his artistic development but also of the second half of the 20th century. The psychedelic renditions of the Beatles’ “Fool on the Hill” and “I Am the Walrus,” for example, will make you pine for the love and protest culture—or at least the sex, drug, and rock ’n’ roll!—of the ’60s. In many of his works, a sense of hidden meaning beckons the viewer to dig for clues. You can study the side-by-side depictions of Tijuana and Las Vegas, by day and by night, looking for the essence of these predatory cities and find a hidden message in the form of “Jim Todd, 1998” patched on the front of a baseball cap worn by a watercolor scarecrow guarding a field in West Virginia.

The chronology culminates in the southeast corner of the room, where a series of twelve calendar drawings using various symbols and archetypes show the personalities of each of the 12 months of the year. Opposite the calendar pictures are four of Todd’s newest paintings, one for each season, in explosively dazzling colors.

The retrospective comes full circle with a series of recent woodcut prints, each based on graphite sketches drawn by Todd as a young child and saved by his mother. Each woodcut remains true to the original Todd-the-boy sketch, in what amounts to a bold endorsement of the wisdom and artistic intuition of children. Todd gives his literal “inner child” complete authority to choose the subject matter, while Todd-the-Elder adds to it what bits of technique and insight he has acquired in the intervening years. Despite the revisionist finish, the archetypes that his inner child latched onto, such as Carnival, Cowboy, Dentist, Combat are as primal and stark to today’s viewer as they must have been to the young James Todd.

Downstairs, Todd’s work is arranged according to themes: portraits, jazz, pool, political and foreign themes, and religious imagery.

His portraits come to life as people you not only recognize, but may even know. Others, you have always wanted to meet, like Pablo Neruda, Frida Kahlo, Thomas Merton, Charles Darwin. Masterful portraits, they show the unspoken inner truth below the surface. In the jazz section, portraits of musicians ooze with soulful character. My favorite painting straddles the border between jazz and pool, the acrylic Afro-Cuban Jazz. It is a Picasso-esque diagram of the molten core of Afro-Cuban musical gestalt, depicting musicians connecting, shape shifting into their instruments, and painted in the passionate colors of red and yellow that we hunger for this time of year in Montana.

Opposite Afro-Cuban Jazz is the acrylic Pool Sharks, which shows a similar shape-shifting human merging with an instrument, this time in the context of the pool hall, which for Todd seems to be a crucible for the elemental showdown between the cutthroat Darwinian forces of the jungle and the trappings of civilization.

When Todd taught at the University, he was known as a guardian of fairness. An active member of the teacher’s union, he worked hard to make the administration abide by its own guidelines and not play favorites. A hardworking, honest, astute fighter for justice, Todd’s ethics shine most astonishingly in the political and foreign theme room. Glowing white, Mexican Workers at Night illuminates the dark jungle with its radiance, alongside members of The Counter Insurgence, a cryptic glimpse into the warrior’s heart. Twilight in Vietnam shows a lush Eden under a rain of napalm fire, beneath a squadron of advancing choppers. A chilling group portrait of South American dictators entitled Guardians of the Southern Hemisphere stands beside the ghost of Henry Kissinger in Chile.

Be sure not to miss Montana: A Buried History, a historical pictograph of the labor movement in Montana, a story of Indians, gold, bones, mineshafts, missile silos, big business, and silenced voices.

Given the vast range of experience that Todd communicates, you have to wonder if Zen Monk Laughing at Leaves is a self-portrait. Then perhaps you take a step back and realize that, in a sense, everything in this exhibit, even the ghoulish depictions, is a type of self-portrait. Todd is showing us what the world looks like behind the eyes of a brilliant artist.

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