FOR A LONG time, Michael Longstaff didn't get around to painting.
He was busy with his artist's books, wonderfully poetic little affairs with strange texts and muted photographs that he painted over in whites and pale pinks. And he was doing photographic collages and commercial illustration, including for the Tucson Weekly. He was well rewarded for this work, too. He won a purchase award for an artist's book from the Tucson Museum of Art at the 1997 Arizona Biennial; last year he picked up grants from the Tucson/Pima Arts Council and the Contemporary Forum of the Phoenix Art Museum. The Center for Creative Photography bought some of his work, a rare thing for an artist so early in his career (he turned 30 last year).
Then a friend in Tucson, a painter, told him, "You're a painter who's afraid to paint." The remark stayed with Longstaff, but he still wasn't ready to make the leap from his complicated processes into the pure plain of the canvas and the free flow of pigments. Two years ago, he traveled to Oaxaca, the southern Mexico state bristling with painters, and caught its "painting vibe."
"I came back ready to paint," he says.
Longstaff made a deal with Etherton Gallery, which runs the Temple Gallery, for a one-person show and gave himself 100 days to paint. A suite of the very first Longstaff paintings is now on view at the Temple, and remarkable works they are. Soft-edged and atmospheric, they alternate between thickly painted patches of oils and acrylics and loose, thin washes. The colors are lovingly layered, golden yellow over pink in the glossy "Stepping Through Monsoons"; beige and pink over gray in "Describing Giants."
Longstaff has not abandoned a long-standing interest in surface textures either. He's scratched and scraped his paint, using sharp tools to "draw" lines and figures into the thick pigment. Nor has he given up collage. Bits and pieces of rugged cloth are unexpectedly glued onto the paints here and there, and texts torn from books are glued onto the lovely "Leaving the Island."
That painting, he says, was one of the first in the series. It's a fine abstraction, a yellow-white painting overlaid with a geometric assemblage of rectangles in royal, navy and pink, red stripes, a green vertical. The glued texts fit right in with the painted shapes -- and relate the piece back to the ambiguous narratives of his artists' books. So when he finished this work, he "tried to stay away from text. You can get sucked in and turn it into narrative."
Two other early pieces, alluring paintings on steel, also tell stories. The raggedy metal makes a fine surface for the alkyd and oil paints, and its ripples and tears only add to the visual interest. "Wait for Balloons; Joy" has a painted nude male and a big fish scratched into the paint; these figures are set below a horizontal swath of yellow emblazoned with the words "Slow Traffic." A free-form poem adjoins the man, reading in part, "They say you can ask anything -- He will always tell you the truth."
Much as Longstaff wanted to avoid narrative, though, most of the subsequent paintings do suggest some kind of story. He's gotten away from text, but he's made primitive drawings of human figures on almost every canvas. Sometimes, as in "Going Blind; Clown," they're positioned in a space with horizontal lines suggesting a landscape. Other works set the figures in a vaguely architectural space. "The Trouble with Angels" has a trio of blurry figures standing in front of arches and doorways.
They're weirdly childlike figures, with great balloon heads and stick limbs. Longstaff freely admits getting inspiration from the work of his 5-year-old daughter, who sits alongside him in his barrio studio. And the inspiration goes both ways.
"My guys always have stripes," he says. "She copies my stripes and the skinny arms and legs. I copy her big heads."
He also bore in mind Picasso's famous advice to "paint like a 5-year-old." The child figures are effective, suggesting at the same time a child's work and a child itself. They're little metaphors for humanity, drifting through their weird spaces, unsettled and untethered among their beautiful colors.
By the last painting he made for this show, Longstaff himself was ready to stop painting the little people. "Six Engines; Daylight" is another geometric, but it's bolder and simpler than the earlier "Leaving the Island." Thickly and sensuously painted in oil and acrylic on panel, the work sets two rows of three blue squares each against a divided field of orange and rich brown-earth. A wavy turquoise horizon line separates the two fields of color. The blues within the squares progress from cerulean sky-blue to deep navy and gray. Longstaff, surer than ever with his paints, allows a trail of deep-blue to escape from its confines, snaking over the brown paint. It's a work of pure delight.
"In photography and collage I used to hide behind the process," Longstaff says. "I'd always been interested in the hullabaloo about painting. Now I know. I come out of the studio joyous."
Michael Longstaff: Mixed Media Paintings continues through Wednesday, February 23, at the Temple Gallery, in the Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, and prior to performances. For more information, call Etherton Gallery at 624-7370.