Critic’s Picks: Portland

by richard speer

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“Bridge,” 2014, Wes Mills
Graphite on paper, 19 1/4″ x 8 5/8″
Photo: courtesy PDX Contemporary

In keeping with gallery owner Jane Beebe’s mission to showcase what she terms “quiet art,” PDX Contemporary’s March show is devoted to Wes Mills’ elegant works on paper, which Beebe calls “breaths of drawings.” These mixed-media painted, collaged, and graphite works are grounded in Mills’ travels throughout Asia and ongoing study of Tantric thought. It was in Asia that the artist acquired the antique paper and bindings that comprise this body of work. On the paper, delicate gestural and geometric marks coalesce around a central vertical axis. Mills thinks of the white space between the marks as analogous to the distance between heart and mind. Many years ago, when he lived in Taos, New Mexico, Mills owned a small art space called Barber Shop Gallery, where he showed work by regionally and nationally known artists. One day a fellow Taos resident and artist walked into the space and struck up a conversation with him. She needed no introduction; it was Agnes Martin. The two became friends, had a weekly lunch date, and went on drives together. Sometimes Mills watched her paint, an experience that seems to have influenced his already minimalist-leaning style even further in that direction. Many works in the PDX exhibition have extreme proportions, including an untitled piece 12 inches across and nearly 94 inches long. Wes Mills’ new show, titled “Hamilton Drawings,” can be seen at PDX Contemporary Art, from March 4–April 12.

“Pavilion II,” 2013, Lee Kelly
Stainless steel, 98″ x 84″ x 53″
Photo: courtesy Elizabeth Leach Gallery

For more than five decades, Lee Kelly has created sculptures that inhabit a charmed, charged middle ground between figuration and abstraction. Most often fashioned of welded stainless steel, sometimes with the addition of gold leaf, the works’ components fit together with visible seams, like puzzle pieces. Some resemble abstracted animals: kangaroos, dogs, horses mid-leapÉ Others fit together so snugly, they appear to be embracing, ˆ la Brancusi’s The Kiss or the interlocking curvilinear foam in a Verner Panton installation. At 83, Kelly has been around long enough to see art movements come and go. The playful biomorphism of his forms recalls the insouciant shapes of Henri Matisse’s late-career gouache cutouts, married with the graphic simplicity of Japanese calligraphy or the paintings of Franz Kline. Kelly has traveled widely, and his peripatetic life is evinced in his work. Past exhibitions have drawn from his exposure to Latin American culture, but the sculptures in “Pavilion” are responses to travels through Nepal and India and his interest in Eastern theological interpretations of goddess-worship. This body of work also includes paintings, which share his sculpture’s architectonic sensibility. “Lee Kelly: Pavilion,” can be seen at Elizabeth Leach Gallery, from March 13–April 26.

“Sunbeams (3),” 2014, Michael Kessler
Acrylic on panel, 46″ x 35″
Photo: courtesy Butters Gallery

While Santa Fe-based painter Michael Kessler creates his work in the high Southwestern desert, the paintings have a longstanding resonance with collectors in the Pacific Northwest. It is as if the rectilinear rigor and often blanched-out color palette of his work’s geometric components evoke the austerity of the desert, even as the branching tendrils of the work’s organic elements speak to the sylvan foothills of the Northwest’s Cascade mountains. The tension between geometry and organicism has long been essential to Kessler’s oeuvre, but of late, that tension increasingly resolves into integration. Recently the artist began concentrating on long, thin panels that can be installed vertically or horizontally, according to the dictates of a given space. According to their orientation, these panels, which can be as slim as seven inches tall by 70 inches across, recall either a broad horizontal vista or a totemic column. Frequently, the compositions are composited from many smaller elements. The decision of which components to attach to which others, is itself a crucial aesthetic choice, drawing together Kessler’s gestural inspiration and meticulous planning. As the artist recently told art ltd., “I turn the panels around this way and that until certain relationships emerge. The process is always full of surprises. I discover juxtapositions that would never occur otherwise.” Chromatically, the new works have a predominance of yellow tones: deep lemon yellows with lapidary depth, like citrine or amber pulled from the earth. “LIGHTNING,” a show of works by Michael Kessler, goes on view at Butters Gallery, from March 6-29.

“Strange Little Girl #6 (deer),” 2013, Silvia Levenson
Kilncast glass, fabric, fiberglass. Photo: courtesy Bullseye Gallery

Born in Argentina–her family persecuted during dictator Jorge Rafael Videla’s so-called Guerra Sucia (“Dirty War”)–Silvia Levenson has long folded sociopolitical themes into her mixed-media sculptures and digital video work. The artist, who now lives in Italy, also often deploys a sense of irony and contradiction (pink hand grenades made of glass; an easy chair sprouting sharp metal wires). In “The Secret Order,” she discomfits the viewer by conflating a subject familiar to us all, childhood, with elements of the eerie and uncanny. Her glass figures of little girls with the heads of deer and crows are so perverse, they could have been lifted out of a horror film. Other images include transfers of Levenson’s own childhood photographs superimposed atop astronomical maps. This motif, according to the artist, stresses the futility of trying to map that which cannot be mapped: the chaos lurking beneath the veneer of containment that barely holds our identities together. “The mysterious universe of childhood,” she maintains, “is a domain in which morality is in development and flux.” The years of childhood “delineate an era where boundaries between reality and dreams are evanescent.” This ambiguity makes “The Secret Order” a challenging, unnerving experience. “Silvia Levenson: The Secret Order” runs from April 2–May 31, at Bullseye Gallery.

“Medusa of Suburbia,” 2012
Rebecca Ripple
Plastic, aluminum, wood, tape, hair, florescent light
84″ x 30″ x 46″
Photo: Lee Thompson, Courtesy of Klowden Mann and the artist

Interior of the Death Mask of Agamemnon (Reconstruction)
2012, Tim Flowers, Oil on panel, 20″x 24″
Photo: courtesy of the artist

Although she now lives in Aspen, Colorado, and directs the painting, drawing, and printmaking programs at Anderson Ranch Arts Center, artist/curator Jenene Nagy has a long history in Portland. She was the director of the experimental art space TILT and was the nonprofit Disjecta’s first curator-in-residence–all the while exhibiting her own installations and drawings. Nagy returns to Portland in April to curate “TILT Export: Fanatic,” a two-person show at UPFOR Gallery. Artist Rebecca Ripple, who earned her MFA in sculpture at Yale University, creates challenging, sinuous works from unconventional materials, while artist
and educator Tim Flowers is known for enigmatic paintings and drawings that finesse distinctions between abstraction and representation. Together, Ripple and Flowers hold forth on the phenomenon of fanaticism among professional sports fans. Joining forces, they deploy (fanatically?) obsessive techniques and diverse materials in fetishistic depictions of the ultimate fan. “TILT Export: Fanatic,” with Rebecca Ripple and Tim Flowers, runs at UPFOR Gallery, from April 2–26.

“Letter Red Boot,” 2013, Laura Ross-Paul
Oil, watercolor, wax on Hulle paper on board
60″ x 40″
Photo: courtesy Froelick Gallery

Painter Laura Ross-Paul‘s 2012 show at Froelick Gallery, “Connections,” dealt with the ways in which people have become inextricably connected to the digital world. Notably, Ross-Paul didn’t treat this subject matter in dystopian fashion; she celebrated it. This techno-philic attitude continues in her new body of work, “Urban Forest.” This show addresses the symbiosis between the city and nature, particularly as it exists in Portland, a city in which vistas are apt to include 30-story buildings as well as evergreen trees and snow-covered peaks in the distance. In many of her paintings and monotypes, faces peer out of, or into, windows of homes by night, the visages dotted with reflected lights from inside the home and the graceful outlines of trees outside. It is a vision of the human visage and the face of nature coexisting. “The city and the forest,” she holds, “are embedded together. The trees and plants are individuals; they’re our neighbors.” Laura Ross-Paul’s solo exhibition “Urban Forest” opened February 4 and remains on view through March 15 at Froelick Gallery.