May triple play: a look back
Yes, it's biennial time -- which essentially preoccupies
most of the critical energy allotted for the visual arts in Portland
for the next two months.
Regardless, group shows such as the biennial --
with its 20 artists -- are difficult to sustain. Those shows open
dialog but leave definitive statements to the solo offerings.
People expect too much from surveys. Thus, the private galleries
offered the strongest shows in May.
It's interesting to note that, in person, all three
of this month's featured artists have a distinct physical presence.
Even without the art, their personalities make one take notice.
Maybe Greenberg was right, in that "personality"
is necessary for truly first-rate work. Frankly, any postmodernist
who thinks individuality is obsolete is kidding oneself. Individuality
is the adaptive, problem-solving element in any culture. So, a
bunch of narcissistic expressionists isn't invalid, it's just
dull ... like talking to yourself. Luckily, there's no narcissism
in these three shows.
Tom Cramer, for example, has vowed publicly to shun
prints because it seems disingenuous (anti-mass-production?).
Sandy Roumagoux is fearless and witty in spades -- the kind of
person most kids wish they could grow up to be. Lastly, Malia
Jensen defines poise, a rare presence anywhere. These qualities
are reflected in their work. Without personality and experience
all you have is craftsmanship and résumés -- which
adds up to professional mediocrity.
Baby Ancient: Tom Cramer
522 NW 12th Ave.
Portland, Ore. 97209
Risk is necessary -- especially for abstraction
-- and Tom Cramer is one of the few artists who seems to know
this on a cellular level. This shows in his latest painted and
metal-leafed woodcarvings. Two years ago, Cramer risked everything
by changing his style. By making a mid-career shift from the diminishing
returns of pop media overload to the challenge of spiritualism,
he still embraces an inherent newness and a periodic shininess
that keeps his art -- and consumer culture -- honest, valid and
Cramer recently visited Egypt, and a lesser artist would have
copped the worn and ancient look of artifacts and antiques. But
in Cramer's case, the latest painted woodcarvings look nearly
newborn. He is no Ozymandius, and his Egyptian experience clearly
sank in beyond aping surface treatments.
Bravo. Youth is a most expensive aesthetic currency,
and Cramer is generous where most other artists hold back. It
suggests he isn't complacent. His painted woodcarvings are best
when rough and physical -- a true heir to action painting (think
Richard Pousette Dart) and Paul Klee's maxim of taking a line
for a walk.
2000," by Tom Cramer.
Works like "Sun 2000" have physical swagger
and envelop the viewer with a multitude of similar, yet distinct,
visual patterns. No social message is necessary; this is reflection
and hedonism all in one. Luckily, Cramer's show is not some hackneyed
discourse on Zen balance: here is a modern guy who wants the best
of both worlds and sometimes gets it.
In other cases he pulls back. An homage to filmmaker Stanley Kubrick's
"2001" suffers from slickness. Other less-successful
works try to bridge Cramer's earlier pop iconography of stars
and hearts, but the risky dialog with his recent past is necessary
for his progress.
Abstraction is demanding because, compositionally,
it is very easy to repeat oneself.
Voyage," by Tom Cramer.
The less iconographic metal-leafed works offer a
much better bridge to his past. Shiny is the new kiddy-pop-rave-culture
in "Velvet Voyage."
With this stunner, Cramer proves the impracticality
of youth can exist as mature content. "Velvet Voyage"
isn't just a mirror ball; it is a connection to the atavistic
but structured group behavior found in modern raves and the potlatches
Risky, newborn, rustic, mystic, ancient -- Cramer
has addressed most of the things that, although constant in human
history, have been passé for the last 30 years.
History is on Cramer's side.
Romulus and Rebus: Sandy Roumagoux
Mark Woolley Gallery
120 NW 9th, Suite 210
Portland, Ore. 97209
for Poodle in the Sea of Tranquility," by Sandy Roumagoux.
Sandy Roumagoux is one of the most confident brush-handlers
in the West and answers all but the most intractable nihilist
as to why painting is still relevant.
She has a way of making the absurd serious.
Her aims for this show were formal: to confound
the traditions of landscape and portrait painting by making the
central figure(s) -- typically, drooling dogs -- discordant and
invasive to the scenic natural landscape backdrops.
Beach," by Sandy Roumagoux.
In other words, she has gone beyond both Edward
Hopper and Oscar Kokoshka by pitting opposing aesthetics against
This would fail if it weren't for that wildly confident
brush of hers. But it is why she's so good.
In a painting like "South Beach," the
flying, palpably panting black labs literally radiate heat, capturing
the thermal distortions that are just as quixotic as any ultra-minimal
of "South Beach."
The difference is that painting can only do this
through gusto and skill. It invites scrutiny of the author's handwriting.
Without this eritcreture we would have a declaration
of independence signed by no one (and, therefore, not so rebellious).
In this case, Roumagoux has thrown a Boston Tea
Party -- which works in a way such that one ultimately ends up
wondering if discernable authorship is even necessary for dissent.
"The Muffy Overlook and the Yaquina Bay Estuary"
says it all. Roumagoux can paint the ultimate in kitsch and sociological
rebus: a pet portrait that forces us to look at our attachment
to the environment. It highlights that disturbing gray area of
ownership of another living being and parallels our stewardship
of the environment.
Muffy Overlook and the Yaquina Bay Estuary," by Sandy
Where does stewardship begin and end, and when is
it slavery? When is it silliness? When is something so ridiculous
it must be serious? The only thing that can be said is that the
sphinx-like confidence of Roumagoux makes the work all the more
Sometimes authorship of the human hand calls all human activity
into question in a way which newer mediums, such as video, would
not be able to conscript nearly as well.
Every media has its strength, and painting is good
for reflecting on what we humans do. The brushstrokes are like
a legal paper-trail implicating us -- for better or for worse.
The Polymorph: Malia Jensen
604 NW 12th Ave.
Portland, Ore. 97209
Jensen's "Portraits" at PDX Gallery.
In crowded public gatherings, Malia Jensen doesn't
seem to breathe; she walks into a room and doesn't disturb a single
molecule in the space. It's almost as if all her actions take
place when everyone else blinks. She radiates respect.
Her latest show at the PDX Gallery hit me the same
way. Her "Portraits" are diverse objects made of diverse
materials. "Horse" is a cast-resin sculpture of an extinct
primitive horse, with a color reminiscent of semitransparent cola
or Dr Pepper.
"Horse" seen at the right of "Bunny"
doesn't draw attention to itself. The only words that come to
mind are Res Ipsa Loquetur, Latin for "the thing stands
Her "Horse" is a scion of independence
and poise. This ancient animal came before any domestication.
Clutch Up" and "Purse, Snap," by Malia Jensen.
Her two purses (one with a clutch lip, the other
with a snap) are made of soap, and what could be cleaner? They
evoke Louise Bourgeois, Claes Oldenberg and Kiki Smith, but seem
to be of slipperier stuff than can be accounted for by art history.
One could even attempt some virginal textuality and make a fool
of oneself. But that is probably the point; it is private.
Every year, more artists (ugh -- Tracy Emin et. al.) try to evoke
privacy with a bed (can we have a moratorium on hackneyed beds,
please?). But Jensen picks a better medium and richer object with
The centerpiece of her show is "Bunny,"
a white, bear-sized beanbag rabbit of canvas and leather. Why
canvas and leather? Some fetish for Chuck Tanner hightops? There
is no obvious answer, but the floppy ears and bag-of-laundry body
puts one into a strange, protective, fatherly mode.
In fact, many of Jensen's materials have a delicate quality, highlighting
the reality that preservation is an integral part of what is considered
art. It's doubtful that the unknown carver of "The Venus
of Wellendorf" considered it an unusual masterpiece worthy
of icondom. Yet, it has survived so it is an ICON.
In this latest show, Jensen's titles are more opaque
than the big show last year at Portland's PICA, which depended
on wordplay. Still, Jensen continues to sweat the details and
the result is even more explicit and condensed. Like Beuys, she
is building a personal iconography of materials: soap, resin,
horsehair and photography.
One gets the sense that she juxtaposes materials in order to highlight
the atavistic, basic elements that we would otherwise take for
granted. In a world where we rarely see the chicken lay the egg,
we are often left wondering which came first. For this show, the
questions are the only explicit entities.
All three shows speak very well of Portland. It is obvious that
the Rose City has a kind of "Land That Time Forgot"
aspect in relation to modernism. I know, I know: that old
dinosaur again. But lets face it: if you saw a Triceratops, it
would make your weekend. We're not talking about real modernism
where there is a constant belief in "progress." We know
better. Instead, it has regained a faith in human endeavors but
goes beyond postmodernism shorthand for complex issues.
Postmodernism is too nihilistic, and for the most
part humans are driven by hope. In these three shows content still
matters (Roumagoux), hard work and spirituality are not dead (Cramer)
and in the end we can have the deconstruction and fractured multiplicity
of postmodernism (Malia Jensen's work).
Still, even in that context, Jensen's work is truly
personal, and supports a very modernist cult of the individual.
Heck, the show is called "Portraits."
Post-postmodernism is simply a lazy, stupid term.
Something akin to hyper- or extended-awareness is headed toward
the ballpark -- but still inadequate.
I propose that all three shows deal with complexity
outright (Cramer has fractals and Roumagoux and Jensen have adopted
a meaningful form of absurdity) and are more or less trying to
engage monstrously large issues or systems. Issues that, through
computer modeling, data-mining, etc., we have suddenly been able
to engage in detail and not in euphemistic shorthand of: "*target*
white, balding male 35-42 moderately affluent, probably owns a
We now know his details: he has a three-year-old
dog named Boo and never plays golf on Tuesdays. He reads art criticism
in nwscuttle.com -- staying on Jeff Jahn's page for an average
of 12.62 minutes per visit.