New year, new art

Yes, it is cold and wet. But you chose to live in Portland, and rain happens. So does good art, and the downtown galleries chose the First Thursday of 2007 to hang some of their newest and best. The award for best sense of humor goes to Jim Riswold’s Mao Home and Garden show at the Augen Gallery.

Yes, it is cold and wet. But you chose to live in Portland, and rain happens. So does good art, and the downtown galleries chose the First Thursday of 2007 to hang some of their newest and best.

The award for best sense of humor goes to Jim Riswold’s Mao Home and Garden show at the Augen Gallery. Part pop art with lots of historical irreverence, Riswold positions a miniature Chairman Mao on top of modern furniture and lusciously photographs the result. The overwhelming red of the photos is a fitting background for the communist founder of the People’s Republic of China, and creates an atmosphere of alertness in the gallery space. Riswold both counters and continues any sense of surreality with his accompanying wall texts, which give clues to his motivation and miniature historical lessons.

Next door at the Froelick Gallery is a group show, and a great opportunity to see the style of the gallery’s artists. Way in the back, down the stairs and to the right (think of it as a scavenger hunt) are two pieces by Michael Schultheis: Red Limacons 07,08 and Blue Toroids 03. Partially obscured algebraic equations slink across the canvas around a cloud of painterly smoke. Reminiscent of the white writing of William Morris, it is impossible to discern whether these are real mathematical relations or not, or whether the hidden writing is truly the solution to the visible terms. Frustration is ultimately defeated by the calming style of the works themselves, fluid and tonal. Or visit Rick Bartow’s screaming figure in the same gallery to release some tension-his reference to Francis Bacon seems to be an underlying theme this month.

Across Burnside at PDX Contemporary Art, Storm Tharp’s large mixed-media portraits on paper dominate the gallery. Although the images are available on the gallery website, it’s standing in front of these life-scale drawings that really impresses. Francis Bacon, the great painter of distorted psychological portraits, said, “The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery.” Tharp combines this idea with an interest in materials, specifically the reactions of ink and water, to create inescapable portraits that cause both interest and discomfort. Color combinations and distortions that are reminiscent of a hallucinogenic experience combine with precise draftsmanship and Japanese print influences to produce incredibly memorable works.

On a seemingly lighter note, the Blackfish Gallery is showing their newest artist/member, Eve Bennett. The first few works that the audience encounters seem innocuous and fun, including the life-size collaboration with Ema Aultman, The Game/Home Sweet Home the Board Game. Turning to the south side of the gallery, however, Bennett’s interest in death becomes evident, as small animal parts suspended in beautifully crafted coffins are displayed next to decaying muslin. Overall, the show is united in its tactile nature, and one wants to touch (almost) everything that Bennett creates to somehow appreciate and understand her perspective.

The Portland Art Center encourages this sort of interaction with some of the works in its show, The Other Portland: Art and Ecology in the 5th Quadrant. Created by various local artists to bring attention to the environmental conditions on the North Portland Peninsula, the pieces incorporate organic matter and incisive artistic interpretation. James Jack welcomes visitors with a balance of toxic mud and moss. Susan Harlan’s slides of decaying matter shown on a light table transform plant stems into miniature minimalist art. Laura Foster’s Straw Cloud creates an ephemeral sculpture from an allergy-invoking yet incredibly evocative medium. The most intriguing exhibit at the Portland Art Center this month must be the sound installation Many Pairs Sounding by Dan Senn. Originally created for The Odarek Complex installation in Prague, Senn combines sub-audio tones with tuned cardboard tubes and paper mallets to create a continuously changing audio and visual feast. (And he’s willing to talk about it on Wednesday, Jan. 17 at 7 p.m.) It sounds strange on paper, and even stranger in person, but the effect is somehow calming and evocative of the natural world-a good complement to the environmentally minded show.

Finally, Willy Heeks and Robert Hanson at Elizabeth Leach Gallery celebrate the elements of painting and drawing. Heeks’ manipulation of bright colors and textures on oversize canvases seems to celebrate the art of creation and the viscosity of paint. His work hangs in the Museum of Modern Art and the Corcoran Gallery, so this is a great opportunity to see a collection of his newest work. In the smaller gallery, Robert Hanson’s sparse drawings contrast with Heeks’ material indulgence in their economy. With portraits that focus on faces and accessories, Hanson depicts real figures in a slightly surreal manner, exaggerating features not to conform to standards of beauty, but rather to create a sense of personality. The figures appear very conscious of each other-most of the glances are to the next work-and they are also not afraid to challenge the audience, as does Glasses, a female figure that demands attention simply by her colored-pencil stare.

Portraiture seems to be the newest trend of the year so far, with many artists creating psychological depictions via both medium and method. As usual, Portland artists are also expanding acceptable art mediums at a rapid rate. Sometimes the first impression of a show may be the smell! As usual, you have to see it to appreciate, so don your warm raingear and enjoy.

Editor’s note: James Jack is a Vanguard staff writer

Portland galleries:

Augen Gallery

817 S.W. Second Ave.

Monday-Saturday, 10:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m.

Froelick Gallery

817 S.W. Second Ave.

Tuesday-Friday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

PDX Contemporary

925 N.W. Flanders St.

Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m.

Blackfish Gallery

420 N.W. Ninth Ave.

Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.

Portland Art Center

32 N.W. Fifth Ave.

Wednesday-Saturday, 12 p.m.-6 p.m.

Elizabeth Leach

417 N.W. Ninth Ave.

Tuesday-Saturday, 10:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m.