Sidney Rowe lives: ready steady go

Sidney Rowe’s "Distractions in Abstraction" at Portland State’s Littman Gallery is a victory dance and the product of a survivor. In this case, the artist is battling cancer. When her doctor gave her the sign of approval to once again recommence painting, it was like ready steady go. You walk into this show and think, "Where do I start?" Maybe the same question came to Rowe, as there’s a great amount of exuberance in the room.

This is not to say that she couldn’t have used an editor. It’s possible to see at least two complete exhibitions here, such is the gamut of painting styles. But how do you edit an artist on such a rebound? Maybe you don’t. It’s also possible that one can read a transitional phase into this show, as the work no doubt mirrors the life of the artist. This, plus the usual challenges that accompany mounting anything along a line of continuity in the Littman – it’s a difficult room – make for a battle with the space and a beef with the curator.

But not with the artist. Sidney Rowe has such a great facility with the line and paint that it’s easy to forgive whatever quibbles one might have with an overhung show. If you are looking for a way out of the mundane while here on campus, get yourself to the Littman. I can almost guarantee that you will find something to fill the void.

There is a small series called "Flying Debris" where the artist seems to do just that: greenish-white square spaces are filled with variant shapes, seemingly taken from the margins of a doodled notebook. These shapes are reminiscent of Francis Bacon in their slippery perfection and similarity to figurative forms. Yet they are not body parts, they just look like them. While Rowe is an abstract artist, there is a certain affinity to figurative work in her approach to line, gesture and in bestowing a personality. This is someone who clearly has doodled all of her life and taken it to a high form.

The bits and pieces, suspended like some kind of air traffic, are also similar to the "automatic writing" of Roberto Matta or Arshile Gorky. Clearly the artist has developed her own language, which she calls "visual Tourette’s." All of the paintings maintain a measured conflict between containment and free form. The overall view isn’t tied down. One of the outcomes in such a situation is that the viewer gets to complete the piece.

Rowe is so comfortable in her skills that she also performs her process in public and did so at the opening for this exhibition. She sets her canvas on a rotating panel, enabling her to work in a mobile and spontaneous manner. This part of her oeuvre is called "360 Degree Productions." While the actual results are obviously not as worked (or nearly as mesmerizing) as her studio works, as an opening night performance they are unusual and generous.

The process involves musicians, videographers and the painter. By the time it’s all completed, a painting has been made to music, documented in video and a collector can own the work in both sound and vision, possessing the final result but having the genesis on tape. In this respect the artist moves to what the Germans called a "Gesamtkunstwerk " or a Total Work of Art.

Sidney Rowe had previously proclaimed that her performance work was important to her because she was "a living artist," and wanted to mix her process with the audience. Lucky for us that indeed Sidney Rowe lives! It will be very interesting to see where she takes her work in light of her recovery.