Monday, August 8, 2011

Weekend Wrap: Elizabeth Leach at 30, Terry Toedtemeier, etc.

 Helen Frankenthaler's Sun Rain
By Barry Johnson

The very first thing I wanted to do this weekend was drop in on the Elizabeth Leach Gallery, which opened 30 full years ago, when, as Elizabeth Leach herself reminded me, we were still young, she and I.

Thirty years in the commercial art gallery business is quite a feat, and Leach celebrated by packing her gallery full of art by some of the bigger name artists she’s represented in Portland over the years. So, for example, Louise Bourgeois, from whose multi-panel piece Leach borrowed the name of the whole celebration, “The Shape of the Problem.”

Many of those big national names come from Bourgeois’ generation. Robert Rauschenberg is represented, along with Mark di Suvero, Sol LeWitt and Helen Frankenthaler, among others. As a group, they all play with the idea of how art communicates, what its essentials really are. I was beguiled by the soft gestures of the Frankenthaler in the show, lines and curves and color in a sea of white space. Certain simple elements, a particular comma of a line or shade of blue, can stop us in our tracks for reasons we can’t fathom, and the Frankenthaler piece did that for me. (A little later, I revisited the effect in a Frankenthaler print at the Augen Gallery.)

Leach has also nurtured local artists, of course, and helped project them into national careers of their own. In the show at her gallery, a set of Melody Owen collages on glass based on “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” may transport your thinking on Lewis Carroll’s great story. And Malia Jensen has created a very realistic bronze fork of a tree, with a white cast cotton paper “pillow” hung between the limbs, another of the surreal, poetic juxtapositions she seems to relish.

“The Shape of the Problem” spills over to the Feldman Gallery at Pacific Northwest College of Art, which is primarily devoted to more regional artists. If you follow the local scene (and I’m not-so-subtly arguing here that you should, if you don’t), the artists are immediately recognizable: Christine Bourdette, Robert Hanson, MK Guth, Chris Rauschenberg, Matt McCormick and many others, some of whose work is more legible in this sort of survey format than others.

Terry Toedtemeier's Rock Cairn
Just down the street from the Elizabeth Leach Gallery, a gallery full of Terry Toedtemeier photographs waited at PDX Contemporary Art. Toedtemeier was the greatest historian of the photography of the Columbia River Gorge (you can see for yourself in “Wild Beauty,” the book he and John Laursen worked on together, right before his death), and also one of its greatest photographers himself. But these photos aren’t from the Gorge. They fit into a wider geography of the American West with a side trip to Maine.

I liked the wit of some of these photographs, especially the one of a little business at the edge of the vast Arizona desert, one with a sign that says “Dinosaur Tracks.” Was the proprietor selling peeks at the tracks? Casts of the tracks? Water to those drawn to this parched place by a savvy ad campaign? I have no idea. And the set of shots from Native American ruins in Chacon Canyon have the same melancholy majesty, to me at least, as Greek or Roman ruins. Most of these images weren’t developed by Toedtemeier (his longtime friend, Phil Bard printed them), though one corner holds four that he printed himself, meticulous but no more so than the ones by Bard. One of those is called “Rock Cairn (shot-up bucket),” with its carefully, even artfully stack of rocks and embedded bucket, riddled with bullet holes. And again, I was asking questions, though the big one was, “Huh?” Toedtemeier liked questions and riddles, and he didn’t mind leaving them unanswered and unexplained.

After leaving PDX Gallery, I walked over to Blue Sky Gallery (celebrating its 35th anniversary as a non-profit photography gallery, and which Toedtemeier helped to start, though Chris Rauschenberg has been its driving force.) Paul D’Amato (another early figure in the history of Blue Sky) was showing portraits of the residents of the Chicago projects, Pilsen and Little Village, big and beautiful images that I found affecting. The empty project grounds behind the subjects are almost as desolate as Toedtemeier’s desert scenes, but the people themselves burn with life and their own private stories.

I jumped next door to Charles A. Hartman Fine Art and landed in a mini-exhibit of modern photography masters. Brett Weston’s desert, I realized, is altogether softer than Toedtemeier’s, practically watery and gestural (like that Frankenthaler!). I’m a fan of Frantisek Drtikol, and he’s represented by a small beautiful portrait of a young woman from early in the 20th century. Garry Winogrand? Andre Kertesz? Photographic gold.

By this time I was almost running through the galleries: I wanted to see more, but I already had seen too much. At the Augen Gallery, the front room was full of a survey of prints by more great 20th century artists — Calder, Picasso, Hockney, Lichtenstein, Motherwell, Lawrence, Bearden. And then I paused for a bit longer to take in a new set of Rick Bartow’s transformations at the Froelick Gallery. Bartow’s figures are caught between the human and the animal — coyote, bear, buffalo — smeary, in a state of flux or transition, moving forward and back at the same time.

That was my course on one afternoon. It could have been entirely different: The city has so many galleries now. Friday night I visited some Eastside galleries, and I have several more shows on my list this month. Maybe I’ll see you out there.

NOTE:


This post appeared originally on the Arts and Life page of the Oregon Public Broadcasting site.

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