Corporate art

At times the mind reels at the talent located in PDX. Turn any damp corner in town and you’ll find it. From the high-profile design gurus of Weiden + Kennedy, Nike and Plazm to the indie stars in UNKL, Junktown and Stumptown Press, you can’t lift a mossy log without some genius with a backpack full of pencils crawling out. I’m not the only one who feels this way. All throughout Portland there are companies of all sizes and agendas that are taking advantage of local talent and making their way in the world outside puddle town. Take LAIKA, for instance. This small design and animation firm has been turning up rain-drenched talent in Portland longer than most, and making a nice name for themselves in the meantime.

Established in Portland for more than 30 years now, the former Wil Vinton Studios – most famous for those mid-’80s claymation icons the California Raisins – LAIKA/house is a self-described “dynamic community of filmmakers, designers and animators.” LAIKA has its hand in every aspect of animation and design, working in short- and feature-length formats, CG, stop motion and traditional animation styles. Best known for its commercial work, we have this “dynamic community” to thank for three out of your five favorite animated commercials, with clients ranging from M&Ms to Macy’s, Honda, Coke, MTV and They Might Be Giants. LAIKA’s range of work is almost overwhelming.

But in their off time, how dynamic is LAIKA, really?

“After Hours,” currently on display at the Compound Gallery, 107 N.W. Fifth Ave., is a quick way to find out. The show is an exhibition of LAIKA employees’ personal work and is designed give an idea of what inspires the talent at LAIKA’s studio. Initially, the show, housed in the elegant Compound Gallery, is surprisingly benign. One would think so much young talent spending their daytime hours bending to corporate standards would really push boundaries in their personal work. But at first glance, the work in the show resembles the storyboards and kitschy animation LAIKA is known for. My initial reaction was that “After Hours” felt more like a studio showcase than individual work. But on closer inspection it became clear that what makes LAIKA work is the amount of personal touch its designers and animators put into their work. The work hanging in Compound was less company-style, but more what the company is defined by.

It was nice to see Tyler Stout represented. His poster design is unique and psychedelic in Portland, and seeing silkscreen that’s not advertising anything is a distinct pleasure these days. Courtney Booker, whose recent show at Homestar was one of my favorites in recent memory, and her “Untitled # 1-3” with their collage qualities and graf influences were some of the strongest pieces in the show. Jon Klassen’s “Finally and It Really Would Be” as well as Chris Applehan’s “Sandcreek” and “Boston Common” showed the immense level of non-PDX talent LAIKA also attracts, these two artists being two of the most engaging professional illustrators in the U.S.

Which is not to say that the work is unique. Works like Ovi Nedeico’s “Beef Cake” and Vera Brosgol’s “Ladies With Hats that Resemble Birds,” while outstandingly executed, fit easily into the animation canon inspired by the golden age of Walt Disney and Chuck Jones. Neither artist is derivative, really. The lines are exacting, fluid, creating engagingly cute subjects, but the work ultimately lacks the sense of personal character that so defines the most intriguing modern illustration. And this seemed thematic for most of the show. The work is wholly amazingly executed and remarkably cute/sad bird-free, which in Portland is a delightful surprise. But compared to the work usually found in the Compound Gallery, “After Hours” feels almost stodgy, as if the hours these men and women have dedicated to brilliantly adding color and pertinence to corporate America has in turn grayed their own palates – if only barely.